Hawkeye, the latest Marvel TV show to arrive on Disney+, opens with a moment that played out 20 Marvel movies ago. In this iteration, a flashback to The Avengers’ Battle of New York is seen through the eyes of a young Kate Bishop, a character introduced to television audiences for the first time in this limited series that starts streaming Wednesday. As chaos dominates the streets and skies of the city, Kate, watching in horror from her parents’ destroyed penthouse, spots Hawkeye, a.k.a. Clint Barton, engaging in battle against Loki’s Chitauri forces and firing an arrow while in free fall. It’s a defining moment for the young woman, who, years later, as a 20-something played by Hailee Steinfeld, will become a skilled archer, fighter, and potential successor to Hawkeye, in part because of what she witnessed on that violent day.
That opening sequence confirms that Hawkeye will do exactly what you’d expect a Marvel series to do: refer back to events previously covered in the multiverse; splash effects-laden, multiplex-worthy action sequences across your screen; emphasize the inspiration that can be derived from superhero worship; and introduce potential new objects of worship who will inevitably appear in future Marvel films and TV shows. (It is unclear what Kate’s role will be in forthcoming Marvel projects, but Steinfeld has hinted that she will, not surprisingly, have one.) Which is all fine, I guess. Based on the first two episodes shared with critics, Hawkeye is a reasonably entertaining series with a holiday vibe that makes it fun to watch at this time of year. Plus, Steinfeld — no surprise — makes a fine, plucky heroine. But when I think back to how strongly this year in Marvel TV began, it’s hard not to feel a little disappointed by where it is ending.
When WandaVision dropped on Disney+ two weeks into 2021, it marked the beginning of Marvel’s phase four, the first chapter of storytelling in which Marvel’s Disney movies and TV projects would both serve as integral, intertwined pieces of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. WandaVision was not originally slated to carry the ball first, but pandemic production delays upended the carefully conceived Marvel film and TV slate. Instead of Falcon and the Winter Soldier debuting as the first series in this new Marvel era, the honor fell to WandaVision, for better and for worse.
I say for better because WandaVision was fantastic and ambitious in a way that boded well for where this new era of Marvel TV shows might be headed. Under the supervision of showrunner Jac Schaeffer, this journey through classic sitcoms and personal grief was a departure from the usual Marvel in terms of tone and ambition, yet still remained connected to the larger MCU narrative. Some Marvel diehards initially expressed frustration that WandaVision spent too much time in comedy land and not enough time laying out the connections between Wanda’s conjured New Jersey suburb and the wider world, where S.W.O.R.D. was busy investigating. But plenty of people (hand raised) appreciated the comedy homages, the way Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany embraced them, and the fact that WandaVision let the mystery be for a few episodes before explaining what was really happening in this literal bubble Wanda had created.
For casual Marvel fans, WandaVision did something that, at this stage, Marvel creations can’t often pull off: It provided a way in for those who don’t live, breathe, eat, and drink Marvel. By illuminating its high-concept premise at a measured pace, the show stoked curiosity and enabled us to invest in the characters. At the same time, it also did several of those things I mentioned earlier that we expect from a Marvel show: refer back to events previously covered in the multiverse, serve up multiplex-worthy action sequences, and plant seeds for future Marvel projects. WandaVision tees up what will eventually transpire in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, opening in theaters in May, and has also inspired the spinoff Agatha: House of Harkness, centered on Kathryn Hahn’s witchy, nosy neighbor. Because what kind of riff on sitcoms doesn’t wind up with a spinoff? The fact that WandaVision did all of this with natural ease set a gold standard to which every Marvel project should aspire.
From a TV critic’s perspective, WandaVision did something even more vital: it embraced its identity as a television show. Framing so many of its installments around specific time periods and homages gave the series a genuinely episodic feel; when you try to remember what happened in the series, your brain can easily recall The One That Was Like The Brady Bunch or The Halloween One That Reminded Me of Malcolm in the Middle. Each chapter was distinct.
The other live-action limited Marvel series released post-WandaVision have not resonated in the same way. (I’m leaving out What If … since it is animated and functions like more of a post-Loki thought experiment, though it deserves credit for also taking an episodic approach and being the only one of these new Marvel shows to attempt to exist as a continuing series rather than a one-and-done.) The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Loki gave off strong “This is really a six-hour movie” vibes because their stories seemed less episodically shaped and more like long narratives that happened to hit the pause button at key points. They were wholes divided into sections rather than, like WandaVision, distinct pieces that also made a complete picture once interlocked. Having only seen two of the six episodes of Hawkeye, it’s hard to say for certain whether it will register in the same way. But so far, that is how it’s coming across.
None of these Marvel shows are bad, per se. All of them feature strong acting. Loki, in particular, had clever and imaginative fun with time travel. It’s obvious that there is skill and craftsmanship involved in making all of them. Yet none are as memorable or engaging as WandaVision, and it’s becoming ever easier to see the Marvel formulas showing in Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki, and, again, from what I can gather, Hawkeye. When someone’s talking in any of these series, you can feel the moment when what they’re saying turns into an exposition dump. The fight scenes and action sequences can be compelling, but they don’t necessarily feel unpredictable, in part because we’ve all seen so many damn fight scenes in Marvel productions at this point. When someone says something funny, or at least something intended to be funny, you can feel the writer’s impulse to insert something quippy to keep things light. A lot of the dynamic between Kate and Clint, not unlike the dynamic between Loki and Mobius or Sam and Bucky, is rooted in banter, but this current strain of banter needs fresh oxygen — there’s an exchange between Clint and Kate in Hawkeye that ends with her saying something to the effect of, “That is wrong on so many levels,” a joke construction that Thanos should have destroyed years ago.
One element of Hawkeye that does make it stand out from the other Marvel television of 2021 is that it is much more rooted in recognizable reality. Its New York City looks like our New York City. The lifestyle of its rich people — Kate’s mom, played by Vera Farmiga, is loaded — seems just as unattainable there as here. So far, no one is time-traveling. Yet it is still challenging to watch without feeling distanced from what’s transpiring. Like Falcon and Loki, Hawkeye is emotionally impenetrable, even though the gifted actors try their best to make you feel something.
Maybe it’s hard to feel strongly about Hawkeye for the most obvious and basic reason: There’s just too much damn Marvel “content” for any of it to fully register unless it goes out of its way to do something really different. Consider this: Phase one of the MCU rolled out six movies over four years. Phase two gave us six films in a little more than two years. Phase three: 11 movies in slightly more than three years. By the time 2021 ends, phase four, which is just getting started, will have given the world nine projects: four movies and five TV shows, almost as much “content” as the last phase delivered in triple the amount of time. I understand that some people love Marvel and can’t get enough. Box-office figures certainly support that. But by any reasonable creative standard, this is too much.
From the get-go, my concern about making Marvel TV more central to the MCU was that the series would be treated less like opportunities to tell new stories and more like placeholders designed to keep interest in Marvel stoked until the next movie comes along. When WandaVision arrived, I was pleased to think that assumption was false. I am less pleased now that it seems like I was closer to right. I wouldn’t go so far as to deem Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki, and Hawkeye as mere placeholders, but more and more Marvel shows are starting to feel like television homework that must be dutifully completed so I don’t fall behind in Marvel class, rather than shows that I am looking forward to experiencing.
2021 started with a Marvel series that highlighted the tropes and formulas in so much of the older television that came before it. Now it is ending with the sinking feeling that Marvel shows are succumbing to their own tropes and formulas — and, unlike Wanda, may never snap out of it.