Sometimes a haircut doubles as a cry for help.
When we first see Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), the superhero usually known as Hawkeye, in Avengers: Endgame he looks like the Avenger we’ve gotten to know over the course of several MCU movies: a tough operator with a softer side. In 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron we also learn that he’s a man who’s learned to compartmentalize, leading a life as a farm-owning family man he’d previously kept walled off from the other Avengers, a life that appears to have given him the sort of happiness that’s eluded his teammates.
The opening moments of Endgame take that away from, Barton’s family vanishing with a snap of Thanos’ fingers and leaving the hero to work through his shock and grief in a world trying to do the same. When we next see him, he has the world’s worst haircut, a sort of half-hearted fauxhawk inspired in equal parts by Mr. T and Natalie Dormer’s Hunger Games ‘do. But that’s the least of his problems.
Clint’s been through the sort of traumatic experience that can turn the world’s greatest archer into a merciless killing machine, which is precisely how he reacts. Sometime between the snap and a five-year jump in the action, Hawkeye assumes the persona of “Ronin” and wanders the world slaughtering bad guys by the score. Endgame isn’t particularly coy about what Barton has become, either. His teammates worry about him as they received word of a masked vigilante and a long, graphic (by the MCU’s PG-13 standards) sequence in Japan shows Clint in pitiless action, slicing up Yakuza with extreme prejudice and, when given the chance to take pity, refusing.
The film spends a lot of time depicting how deeply Clint has plunged into darkness, so far it looks like he might have no way back. Then, with another snap, the one that undoes Thanos’ radical plans to reduce the population, Clint returns to his old status quo. He ends the film reunited with his family, his side trip to the dark side seemingly forgotten
It all seems a little too easy, and the film too quick to forgive what Clint has done. Hawkeye’s rumored Disney+ series may deal with the repercussions of his time as a masked killer, and Endgame has a lot of loose ends to tie up in its final stretch. Maybe it’s better to leave this unresolved than to rush to a pat “everything is OK now” conclusion. But an implied “everything is OK now conclusion” raises issues of its own. Specifically, how much killing do we really want our superheroes, particularly the big-screen superheroes currently appearing in the world’s most popular movies, to be doing?
Nineteen years after X-Men started the current wave of superhero movies, a wave that shows no signs of abating, we still haven’t arrived at a consensus. What’s more, there’s been a remarkable range on display, from Scott Lang fighting as little as possible in the Ant-Man films to Wolverine slicing and dicing his way through Logan. Context plays a role here; Ant-Man comes from the most family-friendly corner of the MCU while Logan’s hard-R violence served as one of its selling points. But most superhero movies fall between those poles, which means navigating some difficult terrain since a too-tame film will likely turn off those who turn up to watch caped heroes kick ass while lethal ass-kicking risks alienating those who want superheroes to see superheroes as more exemplars (or at least role models safe enough to slap on a kid-sized t-shirt).
Most often, the situation has determined the approach. No one mourns for the Frost Giants and Dark Elves that Thor takes out without a second thought, and the Avengers don’t have to restrain themselves while taking on Thanos’ legions because they’re not human. (Which in turn raises all sorts of ethical questions, because if we’re supposed to care for non-human characters like Gamora, Mantis, and Thor’s Ragnarok sidekicks, shouldn’t the lives of non-human enemies count in the same way? But that might be a subject for another time.)
Elsewhere, the battlefield creates its own rules. Captain America, Black Panther and Wonder Woman, operating as soldiers in the time of war, don’t hold back in their battlefield scenes, though those are the rules of engagement. (Black Panther in particular goes out of his way to avoid taking the life of his enemy in his final confrontation with Killmonger, to no avail.) With others, the ethics of lethal force get a little fuzzier. Hawkeye and Black Widow both have shadowy black-ops deeds in their past, but their service in the Avengers is at least partly about finding redemption. Similarly, Iron Man deploys lethal force battling terrorists in his first movie, but the arc of the Iron Man series has been one in which Tony Stark grappled with the implications of being one of the world’s most powerful weapons manufacturers.
The issue rests in a big gray area with no clear rules, moments that seem this close to going too far, like Groot brutally taking out a bunch of bad guys in Guardians of the Galaxy then making it all seem OK with a joyful grin. (If the timing of that moment wasn’t perfect it wouldn’t look out of place in a horror movie.) Some would argue that hand wringing over lethal superheroes isn’t really necessary. Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel divided fans by depicting Superman killing an enemy at the tail end of a fight in which he didn’t seem to show much regard for the civilians around him. Rather than retreating, Snyder gave viewers a sadistic Batman who branded criminals before sending them to certain death in prison in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Standing by his choices, Snyder recently suggested those behind the complaints should “wake the fuck up,” since that view belonged in a “dream world.”
It’s telling, however, that DC has started to retreat from the grimmer vision of its movie universe created by Snyder. Maybe most viewers are OK living in a dream world in which heroes don’t always have to resort to extreme measures to save the day. It’s an issue the comics behind the movies have dealt with for years, particularly in the decades since comics starting latching on to the graphic violence of groundbreaking ’80s efforts like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, but often confusing their darkness for nihilism, and losing the satire, insight, and complexity. It took a long time for the pendulum to swing back from the x-treme ’90s, when books filled with bullets and dead bodies treated traditional superheroes as quaint relics.
Of course, heroes being driven to darker extremes in the name of revenge can work. No one wants a kinder, gentler Punisher or a Deadpool with a sense of restraint or a Wolverine not haunted by his deadly gifts. But those characters work in part because they’re outliers, reacting against the norms practiced by other superheroes — norms that the majority of superhero movies affirm by featuring heroes who remain reluctant to kill (or at least reluctant to kill human characters and entities not treated purely as cannon fodder) and who value the lives of the ordinary people they’re bound to protect. Avengers: Endgame raises the question of whether Hawkeye can find a way to return to those norms. It never provides an answer, but that doesn’t make the question go away.
The death of Hawkeye’s family’s echoes their fate in The Ultimates, the alternate universe version of Marvel that’s greatly influenced the MCU, especially its earliest films. But it’s also reminiscent of Grant Morrison’s run writing DC Comics’ Animal Man in the late-’80s and early-’90s. That storyline culminated in hero Buddy Baker, a man with animal powers, losing his family, chopping off his hair, adopting an edgy black costume, and turning into a no-holds-barred vigilante. Then, after a fourth wall-breaking adventure that brings him face-to-face with his own writer, he gets his family back, a final gift from Morrison before he left the book.
It’s a back-from-the-grave family reunion as instantaneous as Clint’s in Endgame, but one that comes with an important acknowledgement: the stories we tell have meaning and value and the heroes we fill them with stand for something. But take them too far into darkness and that meaning and value disappears with the speed of a snap.
Keith Phipps is a writer and editor specializing in film, television, and other aspects of popular culture. He lives in Chicago with his wife and daughter and does not currently moonlight as a masked vigilante. Find him on Twitter @kphipps3000.