Hailee Steinfeld and Florence Pugh have been a revelation since joining the MCU. Taking over from Hawkeye and Black Widow seemed like a poisoned chalice – the recent Disney+ show is the first time Clint Barton has been done any justice, and Black Widow, only given a solo film posthumously, feels like she’s been eclipsed by more diverse and interesting female heroines in the MCU, be they Captain Marvel, Valkyrie, Scarlet Witch, Wasp, a hopefully-fully-vaccinated Shuri, Gamora, or the newly emerged Spectrum. Instead, in a short time the two actors have modernised the old roles and look set to lead the MCU as it moves forward.
Both actors are Academy Award nominees, Steinfeld for True Grit and Pugh for Little Women, so their success should not be surprising, but what’s most impressive is how well they’ve leaned into what it means to be Hawkeye and Widow without needing to make fun of it. Bishop is still just an archer, and the show resists the temptation to make Clint the butt of the joke, playing him, and his sacrifices as a regular human, straight. Meanwhile, though Yelena’s less serious personality means she pokes fun at Natasha’s posing, the idea of what it means to be a Black Widow has already been explored in more depth, rising above the ‘cool killer, dark past’ trope of the original version.
Related: Guardians Of The Galaxy's Fridge Is The Best Environmental StorytellingThe pair met for the first time in episode four, which ends with a short cameo by Pugh during a rooftop fight. Pugh shared this scene on her instagram after the episode was live, fangirling over Hailee Steinfeld (as we are all wont to do), resulting in her fans mass complaining and instagram deleting the post. We live in quite a silly universe.
Anyway, it’s in episode five when they meet properly, with Yelena breaking into Bishop’s house and making mac and cheese while the pair start to get along as friends, albeit very tentatively on Kate’s behalf as Yelena’s boisterous presence and deadly killing ability make her incredibly nervous. Still, the pair share an impressive chemistry – the type we’ve been told Clint and Natasha shared, but have never really seen on screen. This is all shattered when Yelena reveals she plans to kill Clint, but it’s likely the finale next week will straighten things out and see Kate and Yelena back on the same team, ready to lead the MCU’s new generation. As a superhero loving lesbian, I can’t decide if I want to be their best friend or let them kick me in the face.
This isn’t just Pretty Girls Are Pretty. I’m not above writing that kind of thing, but we’re close to 30 entries into the MCU now and this is the first duo I’ve actively wanted to hang out with. Sure, Ant-Man seems like a laugh. Iron Man is cool. The Thor/Rocket/Groot partnership was inspired. Scarlet Witch? Pretty girls are pretty. But they all seem like interesting people to watch on screens, not to actively be friends with. Kate and Yelena change that, and that’s important for where the MCU heads next.
After the release of Shang-Chi, I wrote about the need for friendships in the MCU, highlighting Awkwafina and Simu Liu’s chemistry on screen. Steinfeld and Pugh, aided by the fact they are friends in real life, help the MCU grow further in this direction. Despite both being two of the most naturally comedic characters in the MCU – both dry and sarcastic, Kate understated, Yelena over the top – their conversation is free from quips. There are no forced Marvel lines, no Whedonisation, no Jimming the camera. There are laughs, like Yelena’s excitement at being in New York, or her repeated botched attempts to prove she has no weapons, but they feel like a natural conversation, not Spider-Man landing a zinger about Doctor Strange’s strange name.
Hawkeye is a very grounded show, with the threat very small, human, and personal. When Steinfeld and Pugh are next on the big screen, there will likely be some form of world ending threat to deal with, but the MCU needs more humanity. It’s fitting that the two replacements for the Avengers’ non-superpowered humans are the ones to provide that.
We may never fully get away from VFX shlock fest with huge special effects and villains with the power to wipe out worlds, but if the MCU wants to keep people interested as it burns through its A-list characters, it needs to make us care less about the world, and more about individuals. Shang-Chi and now Hawkeye seem like they understand that. Failing that though, Kate and Yelena can always just step on my face. I’d take that too.
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