Saw Avengers the other night. I think it's pretty clearly the genre high point of the mainstream superhero movie to date. Its execution ranged from solid to masterful, it was exhilarating, funny and gorgeous. But.
Avengers has approximately five main characters, four secondaries, and a handful of tertiaries. Of the five protagonists, four are male and all are white. The four secondaries are three white and one black male. There is exactly one tertiary character of any significance who is not a white male -- two if you count Gwennyth Paltrow's twoish scenes as Iron Man's girlfriend.
Needless to say, it abjectly fails the Bechdel test.
I swear it's an idea I got from Richard Morgan, though now that I go looking I can't find the original quote -- but for the sake of expedience let's call it the Morgan Rule, even if it's a misappropriation: in the process of constructing a narrative, particularly in boys-club genres like superhero, sci-fi, or action films, if there's no specific reason for your protagonist not to be female, of colour and/or a sexual minority, they probably should be.
In the case of Avengers, for better or for worse, we're pretty firmly locked in to four probably white probably straight men for our main characters (Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk and Thor), and of course ScarJo as the fifth. None of that can really change without it being a pretty big shake-up, and this isn't a genre that's inclined towards subversion. That's fine.
But really, thus constrained, why the ever-loving fuck do you choose another straight white dude as your sixth character? Especially an egregiously dull B-lister like Hawkeye?
I've been complaining about this for months, since the first trailers came out, but having actually seen the movie it's even worse than I'd thought.
Black Widow, ScarJo's character, and Hawkeye are portrayed as a bit of a pair. And don't get me wrong, it's a good, they play off each other well, and Jeremy Renner's portrayal is perfectly strong. There are narrative parallels too: they're the only two heroes without overt superpowers, relying on skill, grit and intelligence instead of invulnerability and lasers. There's some emotional heft to that, a kind of battlescarred camaraderie.
But recasting Hawkeye as some equivalent female hero, or even Hawkeye as a female hero, would have been strictly better -- then, we'd also have sympatico via female veterans of a male-dominated world, to go with that of (comparatively) ordinary humans thrown in with the demigods. And though I really appreciated the depiction of a non-romantic mixed-gender friendship, it's not like female friendship is over-represented in action flicks. I think it could have been extremely fruitful, in an otherwise entirely unchanged movie.
There's also the plain question of avoiding tokenism. When your hero squad has one woman, she feels like a token (particularly with a name like Black Widow), no matter how strong and well-developed. Add a second minimally developed female character and this is just less of a problem, optically.
But the larger issue is that throwing in Hawkeye adds nothing to the film. He is, I'm told, one of the original Avengers in the comic, but he hardly brings an established fan-base. The archery schtick is kinda dopey and stretches credulity. Making him the sixth was an affirmative choice, made somewhere presumably quite early in the film's conception, and there's no reason, save uncritical laziness, to have chosen this particular male hero for the role.
Diversity is worthwhile for its own sake, of course, but it's also interesting -- the movie was constantly concerned about how its main cast would interact, and adding more women into the mix simply opens up a wider range of possibilities, even if we're staying strictly hetero. Sexual tension and power dynamics and condescension: you've got a character from the 1940s, ferchristssake! This stuff doesn't need to be especially deep or thoughtful, but a broader cast just gives you more to work with, period. So why Hawkeye?
All this doesn't even touch on the race question, nor broader problems endemic to the superhero genre of highly sexualized female characters (in the film's defense, I suppose, the camera isn't shy about lingering lovingly over skintight leather-clad mancandy either), nor the total lack of queer anything, and so on. But the choice of Hawkeye as the sixth Avenger is just baffling in its dull thoughtlessness. Can't get over it at all.
(I should add that I am in no way a comic book reader -- everythng I know about these characters was picked up through the Hollywood films or second-hand through friends. But I have it on good authority that there are a great many perfectly acceptable female candidates in the Avengers canon who could have been brought in for the role.)