What comes to mind when someone mentions the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Maybe the Avengers, or the array of villains? Perhaps recent musings on the multiverse? How about Christmas?
Wait, not Chrimbo?
Well, Iron Man 3 did dabble in the festive season, but in the name of mixing things up, Marvel Studios is amping up the MCU merriment by tying the upcoming Disney Plus series, Hawkeye, to the most wonderful time of the year.
The six-episode series gives Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) his first solo adventure on the small screen, placing him in New York City close to Christmas. Celebrating with his beloved wife (Linda Cardellini) and three kids, he sends them home so he can stay behind to briefly investigate a masked vigilante also using a bow and arrow. The culprit: Hawkeye superfan Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld), who ends up complicating his homeward bound plans.
Coming at audiences with arguably the lightest tone of all the Disney Plus streaming shows, Hawkeye’s story leans heavily on the much-loved 2012 Hawkeye comics run of the same name by Matt Fraction and artist David Aja. Behind the scenes, executive producer Trinh Tran (Avengers: Endgame) and series head writer Jonathan Igla (Mad Men) brought aboard three Brit directors known for their comedy chops, Rhys Thomas and duo Bert & Bertie (Amber Finlayson and Katie Ellwood) to keep the comedy, action, and mentor/mentee dynamic snappy.
"It's genuinely not what you expect from Marvel [Studios]," Bert smiles via Zoom as she discusses the series with GamesRadar+. "It's an absurd Christmas story. Just starting from that point, tonally, I was tickled. What does that mean? And it's throughout the whole series. It's not what you're expecting it to be."
"I'm a big fan of a Christmas movie," Thomas adds. "Injecting that was super fun. And that’s amazing because you're stepping into this massive universe, where so much has been established and in different directions. But they are excited to find an identity for each of these series. They're always willing to tailor to this new character."
That also goes for keeping to the snarky fun of the comics run that readers and Marvel Studios responded to so well. "The Fraction run is such a different approach to character and it’s grounded," Thomas continues. "I like the really human aspect of who [Barton] is and also the humor in it. And this is Marvel, so you're always playing with higher stakes in the story, so it's not like you ever teeter into full comedy for the sake of comedy. To me, the comedy was trying to bring out the humanity in Clint and the situation that he finds himself in. Also, this relationship with Kate. To try to find those character moments that are more universal, even down to their day-to-day concerns and annoyances.”
Hawkeye is Marvel's first Disney Plus series to feature more than one director within the standard six-episode season. With the studio’s ongoing ambition for their series, as well as the stringent pandemic shooting protocols, Thomas said the sharing of the directorial duties made sense.
"The way TV is run is obviously different to features," he explains. "In features, it's more director forward and sometimes you might have multiple writers. We were in this middle ground where you've got Jonathan Igla and the writing team that have so much [to do] because you've got so many episodes and so much story to carry."
By having a directing team, Thomas says they functioned as an "all-encompassing brain" who knew what was going on in all areas. "We would just try and keep in sync throughout. The way we shot it, Bertie and Bertie and I, there were some days where we overlapped. I might come in the morning and then hand it off to them, sharing the crew. It was all unique and a fine balance," he details.
In working alongside executive producer Tran, who has been at Marvel Studios since Iron Man's post-production, Bertie says they felt like they had an "in" right into the direct heart and soul of Marvel. "She's got her own strong opinions on things, but instinctively, she knows what feels right for the Marvel universe as well," Bertie says. "As we've all been seeing with TV, it's a bit about breaking the mold at this point, so Trinh was never about sticking to the old plan or sticking religiously to a character's backstory. Hawkeye, for instance, is a little bit unlike we've seen him. But Jeremy was fully invested in this tone, so she's always been about the freshness of it.”
The same can be said about Renner who has been playing Clint Barton since his cameo introduction in 2011’s Thor. Altogether, he’s made six appearances in the MCU, but getting to explore the character without his fellow Avengers taking up narrative space is an enticing first.
Bertie says Renner very much embraced finally being a linchpin character and so he wanted everything to feel "real and authentic" and made sure all decisions came from that place. "I think that Jeremy was on board from the get-go with the tone of the show being not super serious the whole time; the slight absurdity of it and that buddy-cop dynamic," she offers.
Thomas adds: “The amazing thing about Jeremy is that he's just this incredibly natural actor in that there's a reality to the way he performs. He finds the pitch of the scene and is 'in it'. To me, the fun was trying to take that quality and find situations to play against. Where would you like to see this character be? Who do you want to see him interacting with to find that comedy? And it's a fine line because you've still got a story to tell and all of the things that Marvel are famous for to incorporate."
One of those things being Barton’s murderous past as the vigilante Ronin who went on a rampage after his whole family was blipped by Thanos. While the series doesn’t do an excessive deep dive of that time, Bert says it’s a part of who he is now and Renner didn’t want to discount it.
"He wanted the darkness," she says. "He wanted to go there. And there are moments that the Ronin Clint resurfaces. It's very important to have those depths that you can explore, so that he can come out of it."
The thing that vexes Barton most in this series is Kate Bishop, who presses his buttons with an accuracy that rivals her skills with a bow and arrow. Getting to fold her into the ever-expanding roster of MCU characters was the draw for all three directors.
"The whole thing was so exciting having a new character to deal with. It feels like a massive privilege that you're like birthing a child," Thomas enthuses. "In a lot of great stories, it's fun seeing someone get taught the lessons learned by that older character, and that was really the arc of the show. To find a starting point where you can get into this character and see Kate take on everything that this journey has meant to Clint, and understand its consequences and understand the price of what she's stepping up for. Is she ready? Is this what she wants?"
Thomas says in the early series writing, a lot of the focus was on calibrating balance between Kate and Clint. "You want her to have her own individual energy that works with Clint, so how do we create a dynamic that's really exciting to watch?" he explains. "She is a younger character with that younger energy, which is a nice counterpoint to Clint who is so battle worn and been through it. But it’s also showing that she has what it takes. Clint has chosen to do this. Kate is someone who is feeling herself called to it. It’s finding that line of youth and energy but seeing that deep down that her and Clint are one in the same. For her to earn his trust and to find that growth, that's what was really fun to carve out that journey for her."
Hailee Steinfeld as Bishop represents the next round of important younger characters coming into the MCU, following Tom Holland’s Peter Parker. She also bolsters the ranks of the female heroes gaining importance in the overall ongoing narratives, which is something Bert and Bertie admit they wanted a hand in shaping.
"We're drawn to female stories," Bertie asserts. "If this had just been Hawkeye, I don't think we would have been as interested. But we get to tell the complexity of Kate’s character, the kick-ass-ness of the character. She's fucking amazing at what she does; her bowmanship and her attitude. We wanted to explore all of that, especially female characters who are like, 'I rock and I'm good at what I do!'"
In the series, Clint gets to show Kate the complexities of what being a hero really means, recognizing Kate’s skill and that she needs guidance as she's naive in this world. "As Clint says, 'You sacrifice a lot for what we do. This thing that you want, it comes at a price,'" Bertie teases. “That's a real moment for her.”
All three directors also praise Steinfeld’s ability to walk into this complex MCU machine and make Bishop her own. "On set, she is a consummate professional, always thinking about the character and she wanted to do the stunts even though they were all exhausting," Bertie laughs. "We shot for 98 days and she was always there. She was always present and she was always on. She's just incredible. And you know, she's funny. She gets to be funny in this, so I think she had a lot of fun with that as well."
Thomas adds that Clint and Kate’s normality is the other big appeal to Hawkeye. "I like the fact that they're not super-powered," he shares. "It sets these parameters on what can happen. You know the lines of believability. They're humans. And while Thanos existed, and we get to have all that backstory that they've established, it was nice to at least have that baseline of the world I know.
How audiences will react to Hawkeye remains to be seen, but the trio of directors are content that they were allowed to carve their own new space with this series. "We were in the mode of creating as captivating a story as we could and being allowed to be ourselves which is, let's face it, pretty quirky in the Marvel Universe," Bertie closes with a smile.
The first two episodes of Hawkeye reach Disney Plus on November 24. While we wait, check out our guide to everything coming in Marvel Phase 4.