“Say you have to kill the Avengers. Make a list. Who do you kill first? The regular guy.”
“Clint Barton’s the last man I’d call a ‘regular guy’.”
“Tell yourself that when he bleeds out in his precious little apartment in Brooklyn”
Clint Barton: The ‘Regular Guy’
Clinton Francis Barton, a.k.a Hawkeye, made his Marvel debut in 1964’s Tales of Suspense #57. Clint’s entrance into super-heroism was essentially an effort in trying to prove himself, combined with good intentions gone wrong. Upon witnessing the teched-out Iron Man save the day at the very circus he performs at, Clint becomes adamant that his talents in archery and swordsmanship could allow him to become a superhero too. Overnight, the teenage archer creates his own superhero persona -‘Hawkeye’- complete with a cowled costume and an array of hand-made trick arrows. Clint was ready to show the world that you didn’t have to be poisoned by Gamma or fitted with state-of-the-art technology to be a hero.
Unfortunately, Hawkeye’s first outing as a defender of justice goes awry when the police immediately mistake him for a jewel thief and he falls for the mysterious villain, the Black Widow. He does get to be an Avenger-eventually- but his identity as a hero has continued to be instructed by the fact that, as highly talented as he is, he will always experience the limitations and flaws that come with being a ‘regular’ human.
In many ways, Hawkeye conveys the archetype that fellow Marvel character Spider-Man symbolises better than the wall-crawler himself—the down-on-their-luck character just trying their best. Whilst Peter Parker cannot save everyone, it helps that he can lift a bus with one hand and sense bullets the moment they are fired from a gun. Clint Barton, on the other hand, must think of ways to do this with a bow and arrow and pure skill alone. And he often does. Yet this is hardly considered extraordinary in a world of superpowers, androids, and advanced technology.
Despite his status as a man amongst Gods and super-soldiers, it is not necessarily the day-job where Hawkeye struggles to consolidate his place in the world. Alongside the Avengers, Clint has consistently been able to prove himself—he’s been the leader of several teams, saved the world plenty of times, and has even had the honor of being part of Marvel’s honored list of characters who have been resurrected from death. What Clint consistently grapples with is his personal life. Between a string of failed relationships, a divorce, unresolved trauma from his childhood, and a fragile sense of self-esteem, Clint Barton has never found stability.
Part of Clint’s problem is that historically, he has never quite been able to separate his personal life and his day job as an Avenger. This is the premise that is first explored in Mark Gruenwald’s 1983 Hawkeye
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solo comic, which followed Clint in a security job after he was left out of an Avengers roster reshuffle. Gruenwald was the first writer to fully inspect how relatable experiences such as romance and employment permeated into Clint’s life as a superhero. This was furthered years later in the iconic series under the same name in 2012. Created by writer Matt Fraction, artist David Aja and Annie Wu, with Matt Hollingsworth on colors and Chris Eliopoulos on letters, Hawkeye follows Clint’s attempt to save his building from eviction and fix the surprising consequences of a one-night stand.
Fraction and Aja’s Hawkeye is so appealing because it inspects what it means to be a ‘regular guy’ in a superhero comic. The peril Hawkeye must save people from in this run is not undercover aliens, evil wizards, or time travelling maniacs- it’s the threat of being homeless. Rather than kryptonite or the abstract notion of living up to the ever-shifting ‘American dream,’ Clint’s weakness is a crippling fear of not being good enough for those who love and depend on him. Misinterpretations of this run have read Clint to be some bumbling idiot, barely scraping by as a superhero. Whilst this is how Clint sees himself—the reality is that he is extremely good at his job. What Fraction and Aja creatively explore is how, when you work next to embodiments of perfection, everything you do seems like a failure in comparison.
From Carnie to Cop
The space between the Clint Barton described above, and the Clint Barton portrayed in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is quite frankly, massive. Played by Jeremy Renner, the cinematic version of Hawkeye is a hardened SHIELD assassin with a family, and has few defining features outside these two characteristics. It is very easy to perceive this adaptational void as a case of lazy writing and terrible casting. In many ways, both are true: Marvel Studios have never quite worked out what to do with the character and Renner has about as much charisma as a moldy turnip. However, silver screen adaptations of Marvel’s Avenging archer come down to the ways in which the ‘regular’ hero, and what that means, have been interpreted.
Barton was introduced into the Marvel Cinematic Universe very briefly in 2011’s Thor, and later featured in the main cast of the first Avengers film, released in 2012. The purpose of Hawkeye in this film is functional- he’s bureaucracy. Clint’s ‘everyman’ status is modified here and reassigned to the state. In the comics, Clint enters the Avengers as a working class citizen and known criminal, thus affirming the team’s unconditional obligation to ‘the people.’ In contrast, in 2012’s Avengers, Clint enters as a member of law enforcement- he affirms the team’s obligation to the government.
This distinction is hugely significant. The two versions represent respective locations of power that are dialectically opposed. Where 616 Clint is a hero that disrupts the status-quo, MCU Clint is one that seeks to conserve it. This is why the difference between the Clint we see in the comics and the Clint we see on screen is so jarring—they’re antithetical to each other.
If all this feels a bit familiar, it is because a conservative interpretation of Hawkeye was made several years before the MCU ever came to be. In 2002, Mark Millar’s and Bryan Hitch’s Ultimates began- a series that dared to ask the question, ‘what if we sucked all the fun out of the Avengers and made reading comics a miserable experience for all involved?’ This line-up included Hawkeye, reimagined as a SHIELD agent/assassin, with few moral limits and a general disregard for his fingernails.
Ultimate Hawkeye and Post-9/11 Reimagings of Heroism
The very big, very conspicuous elephant in the room behind the Ultimates is 9/11. The September 11 Attacks radically reframed superhero comics, as the hero archetype was transformed to fit the ultra-patriotic narrative that swept the USA virtually overnight. Images of heroism were reconstructed and assigned to the campaign against the perceived foreign ‘other.’ With the subtlety of a mallet, Mark Millar’s Ultimates was an interpretation of the Avengers in this nationalist, neo-conservative image.
The most flagrant example of this narrative shift can be seen in the portrayal of Captain America. The mainstream, 616 iteration of Steve Rogers is, of course, a nationalistic figurehead. However, when written correctly as a protagonist, he is generally recognised as an idealistic yet moral man who wants his country to match up to the principles it pretends to have. Throughout the character’s history, Cap has often been very critical of the US, and has been declared an ‘enemy of the state’ more than once. Ultimates Steve Rogers, in comparison, is a jingoistic military-man and the personification of the vengeful, flag-waving sentiment that emanated from the 9/11 attacks.
Captain America’s character in the Ultimates is therefore so overstated that it borders on parody. A more subtle, and perhaps more realistic narrativization of post-9/11 ‘super heroism’ comes in the form of Hawkeye. This universe’s Clint Barton is a Special Ops SHIELD agent who balances his work life with a wife and two kids. Clint’s family does not last long, however, as teammate Black Widow betrays the Ultimates and the United States of America, killing Clint’s pregnant wife and kids very violently in the process.
Black Widow’s betrayal on behalf of Russia is part of a general theme within The Ultimates that follows the distrust of a foreign ‘other.’ Other identities that fall into this category in the original run include the entirety of the Middle East, China, Russia, North Korea, and France. The Ultimates also fight an army of alien invaders that are able to shapeshift, confusingly named the Chitarui and not the Skrulls. The series is thus a blatant mirror to the state-sanctioned nationalism at the time, and the prevailing belief that the only country that was up to the task of fending off the foreign ‘enemy’ of democracy and freedom was the good ol’ US-of-A. Once more, Millar’s writing here is not a critical inspection of this cultural imperative. It falls behind the likes of even South Park in its capacity to make any critical commentary beyond “Hey, remember that 9/11 happened.” The Ultimates was not a commentary on the paradigm shift happening in US and international politics at the time- it was part of it.
Within this framework, Ultimate Hawkeye is therefore symbolic of the soldiers that we have perceived to have given up everything in the name of American ‘liberty.’ Sure, murdering people under foggy moral grounds isn’t pretty, but he’s doing it for freedom! His wife and kids died at the hands of people who wanted to take away America’s freedom! Don’t you want freedom, kids? It’s so sad that he had to remove his nails from his fingers for freedom! Freedom!
All jokes aside, Hawkeye’s ‘everyman’ status in this universe is allocated to the armed forces in this series. His dark and generally unlikable personality is meant to be a response to all that he has lost to America’s enemies- both alien and otherwise. The idea that Clint is a ‘normal’ man in a team of supers is muddied by the later revelation that he is, in fact, enhanced. However, in Millar’s original run, Clint is a man that uses his talents and sacrifices a chance at an ‘everyday’ life to ‘protect’ the people of his country. The murder of his family is allegorical to what soldiers were being hailed for sacrificing in the name of the ‘War on Terror’. Ultimate Clint Barton is the embodiment of the post-9/11 romanticism of sacrificial masculinity. His ‘loss’ and ‘cause’ textually legitimise every brutal act of murder he commits against ‘the other’ indefinitely.
‘The more things change, the more things stay the same’: from Millar to Disney
If Ultimates Hawkeye is situated in post-9/11 culture, MCU’s Hawkeye is situated in the Obama era. Much like the policy between these two periods, the main distinction between the two versions is less a case of how the characters act, and more how these actions are presented. MCU Clint Barton is still a SHIELD assassin whose signature color is black and red, not purple. In Avengers: Age of Ultron audiences discover that Clint has a pregnant wife, who, as in the comics, is named Laura. He also has 2 more kids– though they are not given the same names as Ultimates Clint’s ill-fated kiddies.
Despite their similarities, the cinematic portrayal of Clint Barton is not nearly as cynical or dark as The Ultimates. This is, in part, because the character has very few lines across the 3 and ¼ movies he is in to flesh out his character in the first place. By the 2010s, however, popular culture had begun to move on from the post-9/11 ultranationalism that marked the Bush years. And yet, US foreign policy had not changed all that much. The Obama administration was careful to mask its continuous aggression against foreign civilians in countries such as Iraq with pseudo-optimistic liberal rhetoric. In the words of International Relations commenter, Michael C. Desch on the matter, ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’ (Desch, 2010).
In the same vein, this version of Clint remains a SHIELD black-ops murderer, but gets to ‘keep’ his nuclear family—who all live happily on a secret farm in the middle of nowhere. He even gets to retire for a hot minute, but this shortly ends as he allies himself with Captain America in Civil War for reasons that are never explained.
Clint’s character in the MCU almost feels disingenuous in contrast to the Ultimates adaptation, because as unpleasant as he was, at least Ultimates Clint had both an in-text and meta-textual justification for his hardened persona. In 2012, Disney was not ready to introduce a hero that represented the ‘everyman’ – one that was there to remind the Avengers that they were fighting for the people, not the state. By Age of Ultron, Marvel Studios attached the infamous family to Clint in an attempt to try and fill his character out with the ‘everyman’ status. Yet this remained inline with the conservative foundations they had started from.
Disney marched on in its right-leaning interpretation of the character in 2018’s Avengers: Endgame. The film relied heavily on the reactionary elements of Millar’s Ultimates, as Barton goes on a bloodthirsty rage against the criminals who survived Thanos’ ‘Snap’ in the place of his family’s disappearance. In an attempt to make the character more interesting to wider audiences, Endgame also saw the character take on the Ronin mantle. The resulting hybrid sees this Clint Barton going around killing People of Color, dressed in culturally appropriative Japanese-wear.
Disney’s for-the-consumer-liberalism has ultimately meant that MCU Clint is an adaptation of Ultimate Hawkeye, with the distasteful reactionary elements conveniently taken out. This is not to say that the Ultimates has the better adaptation or that Millar’s out-and-out racism is in any way justified. Rather, this case study in character adaptation is symptomatic of the wider issues in the MCU. Namely, that much of the more radical narratives behind superhero comics have been quietly removed because they essentially contradict many of the business practices that big studios such as Disney run on. The Hawkeye that we know and love in the 616 comics- the guy that bought out a building and paid its tenant’s rent- is not suitable for Hollywood. Hawkeye from the Ultimates on the other hand, fits in far better.
616 Hawkeye in the 21st century: A Man in Crisis
Despite these alternative versions of Hawkeye being considered ‘darker’ than the original, Clint Barton in the 616 universe has often been confronted with moral dilemmas involving his work. The character was initially seen as incompatible with the new, gritty post-9/11 world of superheroes, and was offed by writer Brian Michael Bendis via Wanda Maximoff in his Disassembled storyline. When Clint was finally resurrected, he came back to a very different Marvel universe—one that was in the aftermath of a superhero Civil War (written by none other than Mark Millar). Post-resurrection, Clint abandons the Hawkeye moniker, along with his bright purple garb. Adopting the ‘Ronin’ persona, Clint is written as a tragic figure that has little hope for this new type of world.
Whether he intended to or not, Bendis redefined Hawkeye. Clint always had a problem with power and authority- it was an integral part of his character. However, via Norman Osborn’s “Dark Reign“, Bendis inspected how he was uncomfortable with power and authority in wider society. His disdain for the corrupt and fascistic Osborn led him to the conclusion that murdering him was the only way to take him out. This was uncharacteristic of Clint, who had divorced his wife after she allowed her rapist’s death.
Clint’s sudden willingness to kill was a controversial decision by Bendis. However, it punctuated the difference between his character before his ‘death’ and after. Clint’s compromised morals were not shaped by any sort of militarist conservativism. Rather, in a world that had collapsed before him, Clint was less willing to tolerate symbolic platitudes of heroism that came at the expense of normal people. In New Avengers #55 he declares, “Every second that (Osborne’s rule) is allowed to continue, every second this madness goes on…is our fault”. Clint shows an awareness that taking the ‘high ground’ is all well and good if you are in the business of being resurrected every other day; these rules do not apply to normal people, who have little power against authority.
Years later, Bendis looked further into Clint’s preparedness to defy the status-quo of superheroism in Civil War II. Whilst not the writer’s finest work, and certainly divisive, it did revisit Clint’s struggle to reconcile what it means to be a superhero and how far he would go to save people. To reiterate, the execution of this story was not critically well received- however, it at least elaborated on his actions in New Avengers. David F. Walker’s and Carlos Pacheco’s Occupy Avengers, and Al Ewing’s, Mark Waid’s and Pepe Larraz’s Avengers No Surrender both did a good job of going on to flesh out Clint’s stance in this context. They both lingered on the fact that Clint does not find jeopardising his position as a superhero easy, in the same way that teammates such as Black Widow and Moon Knight do. He very adamantly wants to be one of the ‘good guys’- but he is unsure what this means.
The best and most committed inspection of Hawkeye’s unstable identity as the ‘everyman’ is Mathew Rosenberg and Otto Schmidt’s Hawkeye: Freefall. What makes this series so effective, and arguably the most thorough character inspection of Clint since Gruenwald’s run, is that it gives Clint’s modern dilemma of morality context within the framework of the law and structural inequality. Bendis had never taken the time to never critically look at why the character had diverted from his nostalgic idealism, and even Fraction’s masterful narrative was more occupied with how Clint’s wish to be a ‘good person’ relates to the personal relationships around him. Hawkeye Freefall, however, follows Clint as he becomes increasingly frustrated with the social structures around him. Ones that are built to protect the powerful and oppress the marginalised. Clint eventually takes on his former ‘Ronin’ identity, marking an acceptance that as ‘Hawkeye’ he is restricted in how much he can do to help people.
Rosenberg writes Clint at his most violent in the 616-universe. He does not kill, but he is brutal against SHIELD Agents and villainous goons alike. But this violence is not marked by a vengeful conservatism, nor an occupational indifference. It is marked by a desperate search to do the right thing for vulnerable people who are largely ignored by his profession. Hawkeye Freefall cleverly uses Clint– Marvel’s ‘everyman’– to ask whether superheroes are complicit in social inequality when they rigidly abide by the law.
Enter Kate Bishop…
On November 24th, Marvel’s Hawkeye, will be released on Disney+. From what can be gathered from trailers, Hawkeye is Disney’s scramble to adapt Matt Fraction’s and David Aja’s iconic run. This will be incredibly difficult because, as this entire essay has explained, the adaptation of Hawkeye in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is fundamentally different to the character written in the central Marvel comics universe. It will be interesting to see how Disney write a conservative version of Clint Barton into a storyline that specifically inspects the subversive qualities of his comic book counterpart.
Amongst the hubbub of online conversation surrounding the new Hawkeye series has been the speculation that Marvel and Disney would be unlikely to make the same casting decisions and go with Ultimates adaptation of the character with the benefit of hindsight. One only has to look at recent portrayals of the character outside the comics and MCU to see some truth to this. Where multimedia adaptations of characters such as Black Widow, Iron Man and Captain America have been radically shaped by the MCU, depictions of Clint in releases including the animated show Avengers Assemble, and Square Enix’s Marvel’s Avengers game are generally closer to the comics. As it turns out, audiences much prefer their characters to be likeable over being gritty and morose.
However, early indications of how our other Hawkeye- Kate Bishop- will be adapted, suggest otherwise. In the comics, Kate’s origins contradict Clint’s. Where Barton grew up in poverty, Kate came from a rich socialite family. Yet, like Clint, Kate became a superhero because she did not want normal people to suffer among grand injustices. Her transformation into one of the world’s greatest archers and expert fighters was not brought on by an idolization of Clint Barton- it was a response to an assault that she experienced walking home from school.
In Kate’s debut run– Alan Heinberg and Jim Cheung’s Young Avengers— her claiming of the Hawkeye mantle has little to do with Barton himself (who was dead at the time). Rather, it was a call for superheroes to step up in a Marvel universe that had been shaken by events such as Disassembled and House of M. Young Avengers was a metatextual story that chose to defy the conservative, skeptical stance on heroes that had formed post-9/11. It was the antithesis to the Ultimates. Kate was the ideal Hawkeye not because she idolised him. Rather, that much like Clint, she had the courage to confront the status quo amongst the likes of Captain America and Iron Man.
It is disparaging, then, to hear descriptions of Kate’s adaptation in the MCU as an “annoying…Hawkeye fangirl” (Holub, 2021). It seems that Disney are insistent on erasing any and all parts of the Hawkeye identity that ground the characters with a sense of shared struggle. Why write Kate Bishop as a privileged individual who defies and rejects her wealth to help others, when Disney can sell her as a silly, in-universe Avengers fanatic?
This is all perhaps a little pre-emptive, and recent trailers from the series have done something to prove that the character has kept more of the confrontational attributes that she has in the comics. Yet the direction that is being taken with Kate Bishop in the Hawkeye series makes it very clear that Disney actively does not want to adapt the ‘everyman.’ Kate and Clint are not the only characters affected by this narrative avoidance—Spider-Man’s partnership with Tony Stark within the Marvel Cinematic meant that the character was flung from his working-class roots as soon as he appeared on screen. Throughout the MCU, characters are adapted out of their anti-authority, anti-commercial elements to blend in with the blockbuster brand.
The case of Hawkeye is testament to the fact that adaptations are intentional. Clint Barton’s transformation across his 3 most iconic depictions sees the character go from a working-class hero just trying to do the right thing, to a murderous reactionary, to a conservative family man. All are interpretations of the ‘everyman’ at any given time and place, but they are not apolitical interpretations.
While the MCU’s take on the purple archer is not as gratuitous or contentious as Mark Millar’s, it demonstrates a strategic sanitization of Barton that draws attention to different configurations of the superhero. The guy with the nuclear family who goes on murder rampages against criminals sounds like the opposite of the post-modern man in a crisis against legal realism. Yet these are the constructions of the same character as told by two different narratives.
The importance of this adaptational gap should not be ignored. Superheroes have always been part of the modern cultural zeitgeist. However, in the past 15 years, their popularity in Hollywood has generated an enormous amount of money for executives and stake holders. As this corporate phenomenon continues, there is a necessity to critically look at how characters are changed and tweaked for wider audiences. In the case of Clint Barton, it has ultimately been more in Disney’s interest to imagine the ‘everyman’ as conservative than subversive.
Desch, M.C. (2010). The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same: The Liberal Tradition and Obama’s Counterterrorism Policy. PS: Political Science & Politics, 43(03), pp.425–429.
Holub, C., (2021). Exclusive: Clint Barton finally meets Kate Bishop in ‘Hawkeye’ first look. [online] EW.com. Available at: https://ew.com/tv/hawkeye-first-look-jeremy-renner-hailee-steinfeld/?utm_campaign=entertainmentweekly_entertainmentweekly&utm_content=manual&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_term=6102c2a4b9ca1f00010c80ad>
Fantastic analysis of one of my personal favorite characters. I always had a problem with MCU Hawkeye, but I don’t think I could have put it into words as eloquently as you did so thank you!!
Flynt Martin says
While I can agree with pretty much all of this as objective analysis for what we’ve seen, I personally find that MCU Barton is far far more ambiguously portraited than both his comic counterparts, as to be more flexible for adaptation than you posit. This is something you touch on of course – how relatively underdeveloped the character is and how culturally and economically reactionary Disney/Marvel Studios is – but I’ve seen no real commitment from the MCU to the “conservative” everyman as to make the Fraction/Rosenberg themes difficult to adapt.
To highlight how undefined and fluid the character adaptation has been: even under the premise that SHIELD Agent = government authority/status quo, MCU Bartion has always had his closest ties to characters and subplots in [if even slight] rebellion to those ideas (“Barton was sent to kill me. He made a different call,”) and then functionally near-dissipates from the SHIELD angle – save for a few references to it – as soon as the first Avengers ends. Hell, the Avengers themselves are technically formed without permission from the authorities in said film. The Winter Soldier, whilst not a deep or even foundationally sound example, is the closest the MCU then gets to criticizing government power and conservative authority up to its release, and it’s there Natasha and Fury (two characters established closest to him of the leading cast[s]) are made to finally leave it behind or challenge it in some way. Barton would be assumed to side with them had he been there, but it’s at this point in the timeline that it’s even unclear if he’s even still a SHIELD Agent. Regardless, Natasha often alludes to the man better than she, at least enough to make the Ronin subplot in Endgame particularly heartbreaking for her. The next time we see Barton after he plays house in AoU, he sides with Captain America’s anti-oversight position on the Sokovia Accords. Not for any elucidated reason mind you, but if he is being adapted to a specific political mold, it’s not one without its contradictions. The nuclear family angle and government agent status then, if anything, actually feels like shallow lip service to the “conservative” everyman. Mere imagery spawned from its dominating presence in the sociopolitical context you discuss, but with none of the conviction associated with it. (Not that I believe they would be genuine in the opposite direction either fwiw.) He’s still an incredibly vague character otherwise.
In this way, the character is just as incompatible for adapting the 616 “everyman” as he is completely compatible. The character and plot beats could never be direct mirrors, but the creative team behind Hawkeye (2021) on D+ were left with as much of a blank slate to pick and choose elements as they could have been. And it sounds like that’s what they did. In an interview with exec producer Trinh Tran, she describes the premise as: “The city has, in many ways, recuperated and continued thriving [in the aftermath of Endgame], but the same can’t be said for all its citizens.” Perhaps it’s the blatant Fraction-influence forcing a charitable read of this, but it’s not too far off thematically than Freefall, or the landlord elements of the 2012 run. It will probably just suffer, perhaps in the same way as TFATWS’ Karli plot, by being too high concept and vague as to not be applicable or meaningful in any real way. But Kate Bishop being a fangirl of Hawkeye hardly cancels out that this is the dilemma her and Clint will be facing. It’s at least an ATTEMPT at making their partnership represent the everyman, and this is without acknowledging the tongue-in-cheek nature of promotional clips poking fun at the “Useless Avenger.” Ronin in particular is seemingly being tackled with the character continuing to feel personal regret and shame from Endgame. The trajectory for Kate Bishop idolizing that and then getting to know a tired Clint under these new circumstances, almost writes itself.
I say all this in perhaps un-earned good faith in the creative team of course, but I do see your perspective and find that it’s largely true. I just don’t see your forward-looking synthesis as strongly. I think Disney and Marvel Studios never committed to a character for Clint Barton with any real conviction, for as much as they pulled from the Ultimates and reacted to the landscape.
Ju Collins says
I don’t normally get to the end of things like this but you had me hooked. Brilliantly written.
Sarah Cooper says
Love these articles. Keep them coming.