Jonathan Igla first learned that Marvel Studios was making a “Hawkeye” series for Disney Plus the same way the world did, when Variety broke the news in April 2019 that it was in the works.
“I said to my reps, you’ve got to get me in that room,” Igla says now. “Please tell me this isn’t one of those cases where it’s being announced in the trades but they’re already five months down the line and none of us knew about it.”
Fortunately for Igla, the show was still in early development. But even though he was a massive fan of both Marvel comics and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he’d never made a genre-heavy project before, working instead as a writer and producer on TV dramas like “Mad Men,” “Sorry For Your Loss” and “Bridgerton.” He did, however, have one advantage for landing the job of writing “Hawkeye” that he was fairly certain no one else would have.
“I was like, ‘Tell them I’m an archer,'” he says with a laugh. “‘Don’t tell them I’m a good archer. Make it clear that they should have no expectations of skill, but definitely mention it.'” When Igla first met with executive producer Trinh Tran, and later with Kevin Feige, they did indeed have the same first question: “So you’re an archer?”
Much like archery is an uncommon hobby for a TV writer, Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) has always stood out in the MCU as a regular guy who at some point in life decided it would be a good idea to specialize in saving the day with a bow and arrow. It’s exactly that quixotic fighting style that made Igla so passionate about landing “Hawkeye.”
“I was just interested in in exploring what kind of a person would do that, and what the effects of that life would have on somebody,” he says.
Needless to say, Igla got the job as head writer and creator. He says his only major directive from Marvel was to introduce Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld), a young Manhattanite who becomes mentored by Clint and also takes on the moniker of Hawkeye. The character first appeared in 2005, but she really came to life in a comics run launched in 2012 by writer Matt Fraction and artist David Aja — which Igla says was “a major influence” on the show.
Ultimately, however, “Hawkeye” — like every other MCU title — charts its own path while dipping into the comics canon. When we meet Kate’s mother Eleanor (Vera Farmiga) in the first episode, for example, she’s dating a man named Jack Duquesne (Tony Dalton), whose obsession with swords and rakish mustache evokes the character of Jacques Duquesne from the Marvel comics. And “Hawkeye” has already made an impact on the MCU with the introduction of Maya Lopez, a.k.a. Echo (Alaqua Cox), a deaf superhero with the ability to perfectly copy another person’s movements. In November, Marvel Studios officially confirmed Variety‘s earlier report that the character is getting her own spinoff series for Disney Plus.
In a wide-ranging conversation, Igla explains why he wanted to bring Duquesne and Echo into the world of “Hawkeye,” the struggle of sorting out how much of the MCU to integrate into the show, and why he chose to open with two major callbacks to 2012’s “The Avengers” — including “Rogers,” a fictional Broadway musical set during the Battle of New York.
What is it about being an archer that gave you an insight into this character and made you want to do this show?
I think it was more that “Hawkeye” influenced me to want to take up archery than archery made me feel like I could take on “Hawkeye,” if I’m being completely honest. It’s something that I always had a childhood interest in, but I took it up as an adult. It requires a lot more physical force to to draw an arrow than it does to pull a trigger. I liked the idea that, to me, Clint was somebody who felt the weight of what he was doing. It’s much more like throwing a punch, and that imbued his actions with consequences that he wanted to be aware of. Also it requires an extra millisecond of consideration and hesitation to draw an arrow and aim than it does to aim a gun and pull a trigger. I think that extra millisecond to consider whether this is a shot worth taking was a part of who I thought he was.
The first two episodes depict Clint as a reluctant superhero, like a blue-collar Avenger who has, at best, a very ambivalent relationship with his fame. How did you decide you wanted to explore that?
Clint’s reluctance to be a hero is part of what makes him feel heroic to me. He’s not interested in fame. He doesn’t think of himself as a hero. I think that’s core to who he is. And another really big part of is I’m always interested in contrasts, and Kate and Clint are a real study in contrasts. Of course, they also, I think, recognize something in each other that they connect with deeply. But in most of the obvious ways, they’re opposites. Kate aspires to be a superhero, as opposed to Clint who is a superhero and doesn’t want to be one. And I felt like if somebody was going to come along and teach an aspiring superhero about what it means to be a superhero, about the reality of it, it should be somebody who has a much more ambivalent relationship to it.
The best way you manifest Clint’s ambivalence about being a superhero is the Broadway musical “Rogers” that opens the show and has been teased significantly in the marketing. What made you decide to do that?
Initially, it just came to me in the car. On my morning commute, with my partner, Elisa Climent, who was my second-in-command on the show, everyday we would drive by a “Hamilton” billboard. And one morning, I just had the thought, “Rogers” the musical — the O is Captain America’s shield. I just thought it was sort of a funny idea. But then digging into it beyond just the joke, I felt like it was a great way to press on Clint’s ambivalence, and also, in some ways, his lack of flash as a superhero, compared to Tony and to Steve Rogers — and to Ant Man, who was not in the Battle of New York, but is in the musical.
Also, as a writer, I’m always thinking about the reality of the world that we’re in and the reality of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. You’ve got a character like Kate Bishop, who grew up in a world with superheroes and is influenced by their presence in the world. You’ve also got billions of other people whose lives and perceptions are being impacted by the presence of these superheroes. And I thought, if I lived in that world, and I were a writer, especially if I could write songs, I would think that the Avengers’ story is something that lends itself to a Broadway musical. As funny as it is, I think also, beneath the the joke of it, I hope it does make you feel like this is this is a full world that the Avengers inhabit.
So you get this idea on your morning commute — how do you go from that to walking into Marvel and saying, “I want to do a musical”?
When we have an idea like that, and you start talking about it in the room, everybody gets excited about it, and it’s obviously got traction, it could just be a background joke. It could just be a marquee in the background of a shot in New York. But I always had an idea that it could be a way to get into a conversation about Clint’s ambivalence about being a hero. The actual execution of it has transformed because I didn’t think that we were going to get to see part of the show. But one of the fantastic things about Marvel is if you pitch them an idea, especially one that I thought maybe they would not love, but then they do love it, they run with it. And if they decide to do it, they’re going to really do it, and it’s going to involve the very best people at every level to execute it.
As Marvel Studios has branched out into episodic television, each show has had to figure out how much of the MCU to integrate into its own story. “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” brought back several old characters and storylines, whereas “Loki” was far more self-contained. How did you want to approach integrating the MCU for “Hawkeye”?
It’s a constant balancing act. One of the earliest conversations that I had with Kevin [Feige], he said to look forward, to invent new characters rather than trying to bring in old ones. As a comic book fan, I remember when Marvel launched the Ultimate line more than 20 years ago. The whole idea was, let’s have comics that don’t have hundreds of issues of backstory for new fans. But soon enough, “Ultimate Spider Man” was hitting issue 100 and there were was a long and complex interweaving backstories.
The Marvel movies started off as a wonderful introduction to these characters for people who knew nothing about them. One of the challenges at this point is that you have a ton of story that fans like me are really invested in and remember and have seen the movies multiple times. But I remember reading that one of Stan Lee’s mantras was that every issue is somebody’s first issue. I want my mom to be able to enjoy “Hawkeye.” There are still some people out there like that, who can use “Hawkeye” as their entry point. But at the same time, of course, [we’re] honoring the dedication and the love for the characters and for the existing movies that fans have. So that is to say, I was aware of the daunting task of trying to satisfy both of those things. It was truly a consideration in every macro and micro decision.
What examples were there of times where you felt like you dipped too far in the MCU and then you ended up dialing back?
I think at various points we talked about having Clint talk about more of his time at S.H.I.E.L.D. in a way that predates the “Avengers” movie that I thought would be really interesting. But that ended up feeling not really relevant to the current story. Also, I think every time you use a character name, a code name, reference something specific, you risk the possibility of losing somebody, just for a moment. One of the things that I tried to do as a writer is to create as few moments as possible like that, where somebody might get a little bit confused.
You did decide to touch on Marvel comics history by bringing in Jack Duquesne as Eleanor’s love interest. In the comics, Jack is Clint’s mentor, but your show seems to be setting him up to be an antagonist. Maybe those expectations will be fulfilled or not, but how did you decide to bring that character in knowing that there was going to be some subset of the fan base watching who would know his comics history?
That was part of the motivation of it. Not that I’m crazy enough to think that I can control an imaginary conversation with the fans through the show, but I knew that the fans would would respond to it. I would certainly recognize that name and it would get my brain going trying to figure out who he was. I wanted to intrigue the fans who recognized it. But the name Duquesne is not something that will confuse people who are not fans of the comics. They’ll just think that’s the character’s name and not question whether it has any greater significance.
You also are introducing the character of Echo, Maya Lopez. How did that happen?
Maya is a terrific character in the comics. There were a couple of natural reasons why I thought there was a case to be made to include her in the show.
So you were the one who had the idea to bring her in?
I guess I can say without humility — maybe I shouldn’t — but yeah, I wanted to bring her in. It wasn’t part of my original pitch, but it came up fairly early on in the in the development process and in the writers room. I felt like they were a couple of natural tie-ins to the story. In the comic books, Maya was the original Ronin, and then Clint wore the Ronin suit. The Ronin suit is in the show. Clint wore that suit in “Endgame,” and so she’s certainly on my mind for that reason. And you know from the first episode that Clint also is suffering with hearing loss as a result of all of his blows to the head and explosions. That also felt like a natural reason to bring in one of, if not the most, prominent deaf character in Marvel comics. There was a connection there between those characters that was worth exploring.
When did you realize that Marvel was going to be spinning her off into her own show?
When they announced it. I didn’t know anything specific about it. But I was well aware that for any character, if they hit, if you get an actress like Alaqua, who is terrific in the part, that there is a real chance that Marvel will continue telling that story. So we certainly took the responsibility of launching that character very seriously and wanted to make sure that we were creating a fully fleshed out, three-dimensional, really exciting, interesting portrayal of her so that she could have legs if Marvel wanted to keep going with her — which, certainly as a fan, I hoped they would.
That’s definitely happening with Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh). In the post-credits scene for “Black Widow,” we learn that she’s been given Clint as her next target as the person responsible for Natasha Romanoff’s death in “Endgame,” setting Yelena up to appear on “Hawkeye.” Did that come from Marvel or from you?
That scene came from Marvel, but it came in response to [us] begging for and making a good case for why Yelena had a place in our story.
So you really wanted to bring Yelena in?
Yeah, I really did. I think what I can safely say about it right now is that there is an obvious connection between Clint’s guilt over the loss of his best friend and the other person in the world who cared the most about her.
One of the biggest MCU callbacks in “Hawkeye” is how you open the show, with a flashback for what it was like for young Kate (Clara Stack) to live through the Battle of New York from “The Avengers” and witness Clint in action as Hawkeye. Why did you want to start there?
It was one of the very first things that I came up with, and it was part of my initial pitch. Part of it was I wanted to open the show with Kate, because I wanted to establish immediately that Kate was not a sidekick. She’s not a secondary character. Also, in a similar way to imagining that “Rogers” the musical would exist in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I think Kate Bishop is a quintessential New Yorker, so knowing how old she is, she would have been there when [the Battle of New York] was happening. So there’s a natural fit to it. More specifically, I’m always interested in exploring where Kate got this desire to be a superhero. Where does that come from? What would make somebody as a child want to grow up and be a superhero? It felt like if somebody suffered a devastating trauma and felt completely out of control of their life as a child, and then saw somebody who looked completely in control, despite the chaos that was swirling around them, that would leave a lasting imprint.
That sounds like a potent example of how a lot of people have seen the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a response to 9/11. Was that in your mind at all?
Yeah, it was. I talked about it as the sort of real-life analog to that moment for Kate. That is a moment that a lot of children in New York experienced. I thought a lot about what is the non-superhero version of an experience for this kind of event for emotional clarity.
Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but Clint’s ambivalence about being a superhero and how it’s taken over his life also seemed to tap in to a sense of real-world fatigue with how ubiquitous the genre itself has become, contrasted with how much Kate is such a Hawkeye super-fan because a world with superheroes is all she knows. Does that make sense?
Yeah, I think all of those things were on my mind. Kate is coming to this world in a very different way from most superheroes. You know, Peter Parker got bitten by a radioactive spider. Kate decided to pursue this. She trained for it. It was her seeing Clint in this in this moment of fear and trauma, and that imprinting on her and inspiring her. She is obviously very smart and very skilled, but she is just a regular person who is honing those skills. I wanted to explore also what it’s actually going to cost you if you pursue this life. It’s going to hurt, and not just when you get punched in the face. But, by the way, when you get punched in the face, and not in a martial arts competition, it hurts for real a lot more than it hurts Captain America. It’s a fascinating and fun part of her arc to see her start to understand the responsibility that she’s trying to take on in a deeper way. And if she decides to pursue it, despite that, it makes her more heroic and noble.
You’re obviously an observant student of Marvel comics, so it couldn’t have escaped your notice that a cohort of younger superheroes are being assembled in the MCU. I know you’re not privy to any larger plans for a possible “Young Avengers” project, but how much of that is in your head as you’re establishing Kate as a character?
It’s in my head really only in as much as… I don’t know what Marvel’s future plans are for Kate Bishop, but I don’t think this is the end of her story. So I wanted to create and grow a character as good as Tony and Steve and Clint and Natasha, whom audiences would absolutely fall in love with and want to see for many years to come. That’s really it. It’s recognizing the opportunity and the responsibility there and then just doing the very best that we could with that in the roughly six hours allotted to us.
Finally, what was the Marvel Studios experience like for you? Would you want to do it again?
I can’t really speak to the future; I don’t have anything on the books with them. It was different from everywhere else I’ve worked for so many reasons. There were certainly some real challenges coming into an ongoing story with many, many different chapters and many, many different writers and directors, and trying to contribute a chapter that both fits into it and stands alone and continues the story.
The advantages of working at Marvel, you know… (Laughs). Do you have any memory of being a little kid and thinking, “This friend of mine has all the coolest toys, the newest video games, even the gun attachment or” — to date myself — “a Power Glove”? That is Marvel. Marvel’s got all the coolest toys. So to get to go in and tell a story about Clint and Kate and Maya and the Tracksuits and Eleanor and Jack and to get to do it with the absolute best possible production designers, costume designers, visual effects artists, composers, actors, directors and producers and anybody you could possibly want. I’ve never worked on anything where anybody felt like there was enough money, but the success of Marvel affords me to try to come up with the biggest, craziest stunts and special effects that fit into the world of “Hawkeye” — and then there they are on screen and they’re amazing.