(8 min read)
(Hawkeye visits Japan)
*Note: this article contains major spoilers for Avengers: Endgame
In a world where Green Book is lauded for its “white savior” approach to race¹, and its director Peter Farrelly decides to team up with Brian Currie and Pete Jones (an unholy trinity of white men) to write a dramedy set during the Vietnam War era about a beer run², we’d hope that POC who are conscious of their racial identities would have something to look forward to watching in theaters these days without shaking their heads.
Enter blockbuster-maker Marvel, which recently vowed to commit to making their cast of heroes more inclusive after the unprecedented success of Black Panther and Captain Marvel³. While young Asian Americans nervously await the release of Shang-Chi, which is slated to feature MCU’s first Asian lead, Avengers: Endgame premiered last week.
Despite earning a 95% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Endgame has also received criticism for its cinematic flaws. From the fatphobic treatment of Thor’s PTSD⁴ to the use of women as props during what little screentime they were given⁵, fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe were quick to point out the film’s missteps. But for some reason, Endgame’s low-key racist scenes are noticeably missing from these critiques. A recent AV Club article that rightfully called out the film’s lackluster women’s character arcs (glossing over ScarJo’s legacy as an honorary Asian) even praised Tilda Swinton’s appearance as the whitewashed Ancient One⁶. So a number of viewers took to Twitter to speak out about Hawkeye’s disturbing scenes, which are much worse than hinted at in the official trailer:
Unsurprisingly, none of Earth’s heroes are Asian. The only Asian men on screen are either brutally murdered or played martial arts sidekicks for the white Dr. Strange. Even Mantis, who is played by an Asian woman, is dismissed as “that girl with the antennas”, taking the same abuse on screen as she did throughout Guardians of the Galaxy 2⁷.
Since Endgame is about the trauma of war, we at PAV can’t help but draw a connection between Hawkeye’s actions in the film and American imperialism. There is a multitude of U.S. military bases in Japan, with 34 occupying ¼ of all the space on the island of Okinawa alone. The presence of over 50,000 U.S. military personnel and 40,000 of their dependents have taken a toll on the long-exploited locals, who have suffered countless thefts, burglaries, arsons, assaults, rapes, and murders over the last four decades⁸. Along with the lack of proper convictions for these crimes⁹, bases are killing the surrounding coral reefs and destroying marine habitats¹⁰.
In Marvel’s Endgame, Japanese lives are portrayed as disposable, as they have been since WWII.
(Anti-Japanese WWII propaganda)
Guest writer Jason Thinh expounds on this orientalist trope as he shares his thoughts on the film.
Hawkeye is the MCU’s version of Jeremy Renner: someone who nobody can really find any use for, yet he still gets chance after chance.
From his seat-filler role in the original Avengers movie to Captain America: Civil War — where even the other characters verbally expressed that they didn’t care about his existence — Marvel has tried and failed to make this character even remotely compelling.
(Yet we can still root for a talking raccoon.)
Now, with Endgame out in theatres and everyone online taking turns dissecting their piece of this puzzle that’s been ten years in the making, let’s talk about what the hell they did with Hawkeye.
When the initial teasers for the film came out, we saw the original Avengers in various stages of grief due to Thanos’ snap. Our first glimpse of Clint Barton is him adopting his new Ronin persona, standing somewhere in Japan after he’s laid waste to countless faceless Japanese extras. Upon my first viewing, my racial spidey-senses were already tingling.
“Ugh, here we go again. Generic Japan. Dead Japanese men everywhere, likely yakuza. Great. But who knows, maybe I’m in for a surprise,” I foolishly thought.
The first scene of Endgame starts off with Hawkeye losing his entire family. So how does Legolas deal with this traumatic experience? Well, he certainly doesn’t go to his second family, The Avengers, who have been experiencing their own share of losses. Instead, he randomly decides to invent the identity of Ronin — which is vaguely based on Japanese culture — and proceeds to go on a mass murdering spree, going after some not-so-obvious targets.
Does he track down any remaining supervillains? Does he prowl the streets of New York for random, lowlife scum? Surely with such a sudden drop in the world’s population, crime would increase, right? And aren’t there more than enough white supremacists in the U.S. alone?
If you’re thinking that Barton went Nazi hunting during these first few years post-snap, then you are severely overestimating Hawkeye’s abilities when even generations of activists have been trying to rid the U.S. of one of its main exports.
Instead, he travels all the way to Mexico and Japan to kill people he deems unworthy of living for…reasons? The justification for these executions is that these people are members of drug cartels and the yakuza, therefore their lives must mean less. But like, how random is that? That’s like being upset that the waiter screwed up your order so you go home, see someone deliver a pizza to your neighbor down the street, and walk over to harass the delivery driver. Or something like that.
(Sounds eerily familiar, actually.)
What made watching this movie, and specifically the yakuza scene, even more uncomfortable was that I was watching it in a theatre in Japan. Granted, the audience wasn’t too loud to begin with, but the scene really didn’t go over well. Imagine watching a foreign film, being excited about seeing not only your country but also one of your country’s most well-respected actors (Hiroyuki Sanada) in it, only to see everything reduced to stereotypes by some 3rd-tier character. Hawkeye is a guy who just randomly took pieces from Japanese culture to empower himself, motivated by his white man trauma to somehow both learn Japanese and beat the Japanese at their own game.
Look, I know that coping with grief can take on different shapes and people go down different paths, but this soured me for most of the movie. It doesn’t help that we’ve seen things like this play out in real life: someone who once served in the military, with little to contribute, spends the next phase of his life taking out his aggression on the “enemy” (aka random POC) under the false pretense of trying to “stop crime”. Maybe I’m being generous. Often times the incidents that make the news are committed by pitiful, directionless white men who have bought the idea of this power fantasy and have taken upon themselves to clean up the streets and go after POC who just so happen to commit all of the crime, all in the name of “freedom”, nationalism, or some other disingenuous garbage.
(Slicing up those evil, faceless, Asians. Top: Kill Bill, Bottom: Wolverine)
It’s the same tired trope. We’ve seen it in Kill Bill, Netflix’s Daredevil, The Wolverine, and countless other Western movies and shows. When we do see any AAPI representation, our bodies are treated as disposable and our deaths are used for comedic effect (e.g. the gratuitous deaths of Nobu in Daredevil and a character’s ex-boyfriend in Agents of SHIELD). Now here we are, in a time where media, and Marvel specifically, is supposed to be doing better in terms of providing better POC representation. But instead, we get…this.
While we’re already talking about Hawkeye and his inability to cope, let’s briefly look at Black Widow, someone who has had “red in her ledger” and has done everything to atone for her sins. Throughout many of the MCU films, we’ve witnessed Ms. Romanoff’s transformation from a lone spy with questionable ethics to someone who has found a family and would do anything for them. She deserved to be in that final fight. But instead, her pain and eventual death are used for an arguably less-deserving character’s motivation.
Throughout Endgame, all of Hawkeye’s “redeeming” moments felt unearned. And even Black Widow’s response to his murder-spree, “I don’t judge you by your worst mistakes”, sounded more like complicity than consolation. He learned nothing from his toxic coping methods but he still managed to get the soul stone and some scenes of man-pain. He also got to run around the battlefield with the gauntlet and…that’s pretty much it.
As the story wraps up, the past is restored and he gets his family back. Clint’s arc throughout the movie and the past 10 years of the MCU is a peak example of white mediocrity: just add a little bit of racism and that character will still be deserving of a 2nd, 3rd, or even 4th chance at redemption. Just slap on some tattoos and a vaguely ethnic-inspired aesthetic and you’re good to go.
While this is not necessarily an indictment of the movie as a whole, it’s unfortunate that with all the development we’ve seen over the course of the past 10 years, the writers continued to put white men first regardless of the quality of the character and their story, but that’s a whole different article.
As Marvel’s Endgame ties up loose ends from the beginning and plots come full circle, I hope that old, stale practices like these — elevating white men and using the slaughter of POC as a plot device — will finally be put to rest while we get ready for a more diverse main cast. At least that’s what I’m trying to tell myself.
Jason Thinh is a Bay Arean currently living in Tokyo. You can find him on Twitter at @JasonThinh.
[Edits and additions by J]