‘Hawkeye’ Director on How Marvel’s ‘Best Idea Wins’ Strategy Shapes the MCU’s Future – Emily Zemler

Throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Hawkeye has been something of an underrated character. The perception was practically an inevitability when pitting a bow and arrow against a mythological hammer or magic space aliens. Although some of the films have attempted to give him a backstory by introducing his family, the character, played by Jeremy Renner, never quite got his due. Disney+’s new limited series, Hawkeye, has set out to change that, bringing the superhero to the forefront as he meets and trains a younger archer named Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld). The first two episodes premiered today, setting up the central conflict of the series and establishing a more light-hearted approach to the Hawkeye storyline. That sense of levity is largely thanks to director Rhys Thomas, who helmed three episodes of the six-episode limited series.

“I was called in generally to meet with Marvel and didn’t really know the context or anything,” Thomas recalls of coming onboard the series. “In that meeting, [we discussed] the idea of the streaming shows and Disney+ and expanding the universe and the fact that it was basically a continuation of the movies. That was all introduced to me. They asked me in the meeting if there was a character I was particularly interested in and I think I pinned the tail on the donkey because Hawkeye was my character of interest.”

He adds, “He’s kind of always been the underwritten, underdog character in the Avengers. The outsider. I liked that. It felt like a good way in. Also, his story is so compelling.”

Thomas, who is also an executive producer on Hawkeye, is best known for his work in comedy, including directing on Saturday Night Live and co-creating and directing IFC series Documentary Now!. Hawkeye is a tonal shift for the director, but Thomas feels that the series emphasizes two things that have been important in all his work: story and character.

“It was funny because Kevin [Feige] is a fan of Documentary Now!, which is always surprising because I assume no one actually watches a lot of the shows that I’ve made,” Thomas says. “Hopefully, the surprising thing they got with me is that I get really hung up on story. Yes it’s comedy, but story and character—I do like to take that quite seriously.”

Here Thomas breaks down how he helped bring Hawkeye to the small screen, what fans can expect from the series (and the potential futures it sets up) and how the end credits of Black Widow play a key role in the new series.

Warning: mild spoilers for the first two episodes of Hawkeye, which are currently streaming on Disney+.

Observer: Did you draw inspiration from anything in particular for Hawkeye?

Thomas: It was a combination of looking at Hawkeye material in different iterations of his characters. I would see elements of him and say, “Okay, that seems like an interesting thing to dial-up a bit or to lean in on.” And then at the same time I was watching other movies. It being an action thing and him being this flawed character, I was starting with things like Die Hard and Lethal Weapon. And then you start looking at what came before that, like Lee Marvin and Point Blank. These outsider characters. [I was] enjoying these more character-based ‘70s thrillers. Stray Dog. I was all over the place, but you get these glimpses, like “That’s a cool little touch.” I think I was getting excited about pushing this to a grittier, darker place than it ultimately went.

The thing with comedy is that jokes can sit out there quite naked unless you believe the character and you believe the situation. So it was about looking at ways of enhancing the two things. Providing stakes that people would invest in, enjoy and understand, and also keep it relatable. Finding those small, human touches that could be funny because they feel real and true.

Did you have to stay consistent with past Marvel action or were you able to create your own style for the action sequences?

You can take it in your own direction. The good thing about Marvel is that, yes, it is a machine and a lot of the people you’re working with have a deep history with them. We had [stunt performers] Heidi Moneymaker and Renae Moneymaker, who had doubled Scarlett Johansson and been in those movies playing against moments with Jeremy’s character. You have that baseline of knowledge and understanding with those teams. But to me the appeal was that these characters are kind of vulnerable. They’re real. They’re not superpowered. They don’t fly. They don’t heal. Getting to dial that up a bit and approach the action that way was interesting.

What’s nice is that the show starts from a low-stakes place. And it takes place primarily from Kate’s point of view, and she’s new to this. She’s not naturally made for this. We’re going to watch her become this, so having a philosophy with the action of trying to keep it grounded and relatable. It’s chaotic and she doesn’t know what the hell she’s doing. [The bad guys] overwhelm and they don’t play by the rules. Yes, she’s trained and all that, but she doesn’t know how to disarm a guy. She finds herself in this mess all of a sudden.

And look at Clint—he’s older, he’s been through things. He’s not going to get up as quickly, which also means he’s not going to rush into fights unnecessarily. There’s that wisdom and that hesitation. He’s got a family—we know his stakes—so I was trying to keep that baseline of “They’re not just badasses.” Nothing drives me nuts more than this assumption that “Of course, they can do that.” That’s what I always liked about Peter Parker, he always had a little bit of that journey and it’s thrilling to see someone evolve that way.

It’s a really interesting moment when Clint goes to buy first aid supplies after the fight. We haven’t seen that in other superhero stories.

Yeah. Exactly. Kate’s assumption is “Yeah, we’re going to go to Avengers Tower and get some weapons” and Clint’s reaction is “No, you’re hurt we have to deal with this.”

How much did you want to showcase Clint in a new way?

It’s privilege that you’re starting in a place where the audience are familiar with a character. Even though he hasn’t had a lot of screen time, for me he really framed the Endgame movie. You open with seeing him lose his family. In very efficient, short scenes you see the emotional toll that he took and he went to this dark place and you see him get it back—but Natasha sacrifices herself for him to do that. It was such a great arc, from such a relatable, human place. You have that coming in to this, so I wanted to acknowledge that and use that. But he’s a family guy and does move in the real world and walks the streets with the rest of us and has to deal with the perceptions of everyone.

Kate is his number one fan, so seeing him through the eyes of an outsider is interesting. It’s about the image he has versus the reality of who he is. To me, that was the thing: It’s a guy grappling with his self-worth. He’s made some mistakes. In Clint’s mind, maybe there’s that fear of “I am Ronin? Is that really who I am at my core? Or am I Hawkeye?” And Kate sees him as Hawkeye and has this simple understanding that he’s a hero. Both of them come to understand that being this character is a three-dimensional thing; it’s not just a moniker.

Is the show setting Kate up to take over the Hawkeye mantle?

I can’t specifically speak to that, but we’re setting up a character who bears a lot of similarities to Hawkeye. You’re seeing Clint come to understand himself through this person. We’re trying to watch him come to peace with himself, in one respect, while yes someone else is shaping her own future and setting herself up with a good platform to continue on to something.

How rooted is this iteration of Kate and her family in the comic books?

It’s a version of it. There are a few different versions of her origin story, but they all have a spirit of loss to them. Some of it’s a loss of innocence, some of it’s a familial loss. This is a different spin, but from the loss she finds hope. This is a new iteration. It’s an amalgamation of it all.

What was the inspiration behind the Captain America musical we see in episode one?

It was a lot of fun. That’s my Documentary Now! contribution to this show. If Documentary Now! was going to do Hamilton that’s what we would do. I got to work with [Broadway composers] Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman on it, which was fun because Marc literally knew nothing about the MCU. But his husband is the MCU’s biggest fan. I remember on one of the first calls he was like, “I’m only here because my husband tells me I should be here.” Part of our job was to find that tone—it couldn’t take itself too seriously. It was still a Broadway show and it’s Marvel in the MCU so it had to be good enough.

To me, it felt like a great way to get to some of the emotional stuff. To know where Clint’s head is at, but it’s not a flashback or a confession. We just get to visually acknowledge it and see it as a personal moment and relate it to his family. It was a silly idea at the beginning, where I just thought “Where is the last place Clint Barton would want to be?” This image of looking at Jeremy’s world-weary face in a darkened theater watching this sweaty, enthusiastic dancer dressed as him felt really funny to me. But then I realized it’s also an efficient way to express these other things too.

It feels so inevitable. Like, why doesn’t an Avengers musical actually exist?

Exactly! Obviously, we had Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. There’s a great book about that production and I was reading that as I was prepping this. So I will admit that maybe a little bit of the thinking came from that.

Episode two introduces us to Echo, who is getting her own Disney+ series. Did you know she was getting a spin-off while making Hawkeye?

No. We obviously had the character, but didn’t know [about the show]. That was one of the most thrilling aspects of this job, that I got to be a part of finding this Maya Lopez. She’s a Native American character and she’s deaf, so it’s a very specific box to tick. Sarah Finn, who’s cast all of the Marvel movies, she led the way on it. It was really hard, but we found Alaqua [Cox] and she’d never acted before. She put herself forward for it and there was something about her confidence. We did quite a few rounds of readings with girls for the role and she was the most inexperienced of everyone, but she never seemed to blink. She was coming from this place of purity. I got to bring her in and put her before Kevin and the gang. It was a big risk. It’s amazing to come through this and now she’s got her own show. She leaned in and met every challenge that was thrown her way.

How much did the end credit sequence in Black Widow, where Valentina Allegra de la Fontaine asks Yelena Bolova to find Clint Barton, impact Hawkeye?

They knew about it—like the top bass—but I didn’t immediately. I knew about the character [of Yelena] and that she was going to find her way into the show, but I didn’t know that it had been set up in that specific way. That was part of the challenge. You do have kind of an open road map in some ways, but at certain points it’s like “Yeah, we want this character to be here or to come in like this.” And there is freedom. It’s a big interconnected universe, but if you were like “This character should come in, that would be really cool,” they’re open to it. I was surprised about how reactive it was and how much they could pivot. It was a big ramification for the universe if we were going [to bring her in]. They do have this “Best idea wins” philosophy.

With [Yelena], knowing the Natasha connection, it felt like something to touch on, but the commitment of that tag meant that it was very much happening in this show.

How do you keep track of all these characters and how they’re connected?

It can be overwhelming. I don’t know how Kevin Feige and his team stay sane and go to sleep at night. They don’t really fill you in and I think that’s the only way to do it. They let you keep your head down and focus on the story you’re trying to telling and the characters. They give you the freedom to come to them with the best way you can do it. So there were those moments of waking up in 2 a.m. like “Oh my God, that’s the thing that’s going to fix it!” and excitedly firing off an email and waking up in the morning to find out “Oh, no, that’s really great, but we’re already doing that in this other show.” That was sometimes the only way you’d find out what this other plan might consist of. It’s a need-to-know basis, which is smart.

Why does it make sense that this story is set during the Christmas holiday season?

The Christmas setting is like a cheat code, almost. Our collective consciousness just understand so much about what it means. It’s a moment of joy, but also enforced joy. Everybody is supposed to be happy. I’ve always enjoyed that about Planes, Trains & Automobiles or Home Alone or Die Hard, where you can undermine that spirit in a way. Like, “We’re all supposed to be smiling, but why aren’t we smiling?” I love that kind of energy. It adds a lightness. We are able to explore some deeper themes, but there’s this jolly thing that’s going on around you the whole time. It’s a good contrast.

Hawkeye is now airing on Disney+.

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