It stands to reason that in a character-encumbered franchise tentpole film like Avengers: Age of Ultron, the main players are pretty much already set. Iron Man is going to be cocky, sarcastic, and heroic, Captain America is going to push back with good faith and nationalism, and Thor is gonna Thor. Tentpoles are not where our heroes go to develop – that’s what their standalone movies are for. Then how did it come to pass that buried beneath all the spectacle and delicious James Spaderness of Age of Ultron that Hawkeye steals the show?
1) We Couldn’t Have Had Lower Expectations
Until Age of Ultron, Hawkeye was the punchline of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He was Marvel’s Aquaman. Here was this guy who, while skilled as an archer, was otherwise just some guy who spent most of what was supposed to be his breakout movie (The Avengers) under the thrall of Loki. If we cared about him, it was a second-hand because Black Widow seemed to be pretty worried about him. Many of us rolled our eyes to see that Hawkeye was going to be in the sequel. At best, we expected him to be this movie’s Agent Coulson, except without actually caring about his death.
So sure, we may have been approaching Hawkeye with cynicism for his role in Age of Ultron but that pre-dismissal also left the door open for a more fleshed-out, fully-formed character to surprise everyone.
2) He Brings the Story Back Home… Literally
Thor is an alien; Hulk is an immortal, unstoppable juggernaut of violence capable of levelling cities; and Tony Stark has taken it upon himself to be the guardian of the entire planet, making decisions with literal global implications. The scope of Age of Ultron is enormous. With Hawkeye, the scale is balanced out by a familiar, unepic man who treats superheroism as a job rather than a sacred duty thrust upon him by inherent greatness.
The other Avengers, by the nature of their powers and responsibilities, have complicated relationships. Thor’s rarely on Earth, Hulk is perpetually terrified to be within any kind of distance of any other human beings, and even Black Widow’s self-loathing makes her seek out a monstrous mate in order to match the monster she sees within. Free from these complications, Hawkeye (aka Clint Barton… although if I was called Clint I’d go by a nickname too), manages to create an idyllic domestic life. He’s got a farmhouse, kids, and a pregnant wife, Laura, all waiting for him at home. Compared to the enormity and galactic danger the Avengers face, Hawkeye’s unremarkable life is what makes him remarkable. “They’re gods,” says Laura, “and they need someone to keep them down to Earth.”
For the audience, Hawkeye gives the audience a glimpse of what’s at stake. For the most part, innocent people are portrayed in Age of Ultron as blurry, anonymous stand-ins who may or may not be getting squashed by all of the rampant destruction of the Avengers’ superheroic battles. The Barton family makes the people at risk in these globe-spanning battles real. Hawkeye stands as the example of exactly what they are fighting to protect and what the world has to lose.
Clint gives the audience a home but he also provides one for the Avengers. Following a particularly destructive battle in Wakanda, the Avengers are social pariahs. It would seem that collapsing an entire skyscraper isn’t a great PR move, so the team needs somewhere to hide out while the disaster blows over. It’s here that the Avengers and the audience are welcomed into the theretofore unmentioned Barton home. He opens up his doors to those in need, quite possibly at the risk of his family’s safety. But that’s just the kind of guy he is…
3) He Aims to Do the Right Thing (Because He Can)
And the kind of guy he is is, quite simply, a good dude. We’ve covered already how unremarkable Hawkeye’s skillset is. Whenever there’s a battle, there’s an unspoken agreement that very few minions will ever engage him in order to give him a fighting chance. With that being said, Hawkeye never blinks a (hawk)eye when it comes time to suit up and fight. He’s at greater risk than anyone else but Clint feels, in the most essential part of his being, that he needs to help fight the good fight. It’s not a great responsibility that’s been thrust upon him by great power. It’s an above-average athleticism, combined with the knowledge that there is a fight to fight. Hawkeye doesn’t fight because he has to, he fights because he can, which, for him actually does mean that he has to.
His sense of duty is something that everyone in his life acknowledges. When Clive leaves home with the rest of the Avengers, Laura recognizes that he has to go and only asks him to do the best job he can. Even more telling is a moment during the final battle when Hawkeye has limped his way onto a lifeboat in order to escape a soon-to-be-destroyed city. He peers back into the wasteland and sees a young boy stuck in the rubble. There is a perfect moment when we see Hawkeye assess the situation and, with a subtle sigh, climbs right back on out of the lifeboat in order to save the boy’s life. Given the choice between doing what’s right and doing what’s safe, Clint made up his mind a long time ago, even if it means sacrificing his life.
4) He Defies Expectations and Avoids a Whedony Demise
Age of Ultron does a great job of making you think that Hawkeye is going to die. It had been announced long before opening night that someone would die in the film and if anyone from the cast of the original movie reeked of dispensability, it was our not-yet friend Clint. Why else would you give a disposable character a backstory, two cute kids, and a capable actress to play your wife (Linda Cardellini) if not to curb stomp our chests when you finally pull the trigger? The demise of Clint feels inevitable, never more than the aforementioned kid-saving scene. When baddies make the rescue impossible, Hawkeye, as a last resort, shields the kid with his body, waiting for the grim reality of public indifference to finally snuff out his life. Surely Hawkeye merchandise is the last to leave the shelves, so he’s bound to be the one sacrificed to the gods of profitability and franchise. This is the moment we’ve been building toward and, now that we love Hawkeye, it’s the moment we’ve been dreading. Instead of feeling like an obligatory death scene, it’s now a tragic end to the character’s new arc.
But wait, at the buzzer, Quicksilver (only called Pietro in the movie but “Quicksilver” is cooler) runs in to take the bullets for himself, forfeiting his life to save an innocent bystander and a fellow hero.
In this moment, we get a plot twist notable for the sense of relief that this man we’ve come to love has survived after all. Hawkeye going home and retiring from the Avenger life is just as satisfying a narrative as a seemingly inevitable death. It also doesn’t hurt that Quicksilver’s sacrifice makes his character 1,000 better.
5) He’s an Inspiration, Even to Superheroes
Whenever Hawkeye isn’t busy punching above his weight, fighting alongside the Avengers, he’s quietly coaching the team on to victory. We already covered how Hawkeye’s sacrifice inspires Quicksilver to act in the interest of someone outside of his own Lannisterian family. Quicksilver isn’t saving the child so much as he’s saving Hawkeye, earning his redemption for having supported Ultron. Clint himself recognizes the redemptive heroism by naming his newborn son “Nathaniel Pietro.”
Quicksilver’s sister, Wanda (aka Scarlet Witch) also gets the Hawkeye bump during the final battle when he finds her cowering amongst some rubble. In his pep talk, fuelled by his secondary superpower of self-deprecation, he proclaims “The city is flying, we’re fighting an army of robots, and I have a bow and arrow. None of this makes any sense […] But,” he rallies, “If you step outside that door, you’re an Avenger.” Hawkeye understands, from experience, the power of being included and he knows just the right thing to say to get Scarlet Witch to come out, glowy bits a-glowing in order to kick an incredible amount of robot ass. Since the creation of the team, we’ve never seen anyone invited to join it but in this moment, he shares his own enormous sense of duty with Wanda, effectively transforming her from victim to hero.
Whether by direct influence or quiet inspiration, Hawkeye is a great source of strength and heart for his team. He isn’t the most powerful, the smartest, the fastest or the greenest but he is, through it all, the best Avenger.