Okay, it’s been nearly a month, so I’m not gonna dispense with a spoiler warning at this point. By now, you all should be on the same page with why some many are annoyed by how Avengers: Endgame killed one of the MCU’s staple characters: Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow. Yes, it was quick, it ended a character that’s been around for nearly ten years on a spectacularly low note, and in true fridge-ing fashion it was done to give the movie’s male characters more emotional gravitas, at the expense of a female character.
There are many good reasons to hate this character death, most of them valid and (already) well argued... but one aspect I haven’t seen anywhere else has been how Endgame missed out on ending Hawkeye’s character on what could been an intelligently executed high-note. When Black Widow died, it felt first like “wait, that can’t be it... she’ll be resurrected, or brought back through time travel, right?” But when the credits roll and that turns out to not be the case, it feels unbelievably hollow. Now though, imagine Hawkeye instead made the sacrifice to get the soul stone. I did, and playing out the ending of this flipped scenario in my head actually made things feel so much better. Because Hawkeye sacrificing himself would both feel right by the character, and would tie up threads that’ve been around since Age of Ultron.
Hawkeye has been a punching bag during his entire MCU run, both in and outside the canon. While four other original avengers get their own origin movies and Black Widow practically gets a costarring role in Iron Man 2, Hawkeye’s first seen in 2011's Thor, doing basically nothing. No, really; his first scene in the MCU doesn’t even him fire a single arrow. Hawkeye does make his bones in the later movies, but all in all compared to his costars, he doesn’t accomplish as much. Iron Man takes down terrorists and Guy Pierce, Captain America and Black Widow take down SHIELD-Hydra, Thor and Hulk rescue Asgard; Hawkeye stays home, and only comes out during Civil War to break Scarlet Witch out, then get thrown in super-prison, and then goes back home on probation. Weirdly though, Hawkeye’s shining moment is in the widely panned Age of Ultron, where his best aspect comes to light: moral support.
Hawkeye is at his best when he’s a mentor figure, which is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it feature of his character. He was the one who got Black Widow into SHIELD, and he’s the one who got Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver onto the Avengers. Hawkeye plays a key role because he’s solely responsible for recruiting some of the team’s key members, and making the Avengers what it is. His best actions are indirect ones; his lasting, most impactful work isn’t achieved by him shooting arrows, but by him getting people where they need to go. And Endgame should’ve been the last, best example of this, by him making the ultimate “for the team” move.
In the five year gap, Hawkeye (understandably, I’ll admit) dealt with the death of his entire family by going on a worldwide tour of executing the crime that persisted in the wake of the worst crisis in the universe’s entire history. His turn at the beginning of Endgame feels about right, with him going back to his previously hinted roots as an assassin, which actually makes the scene where Black Widow re-recruits him back into the Avengers a great moment: he saved her, and now she finally gets to return the favor by getting him back onto the team. That said, even if the time travel plan works, what Hawkeye’s been doing for the past five years won’t be undone; he just spent five years making god knows how many enemies. If his family comes back, they’ll probably be in even more danger than before when he worked for SHIELD. And he should know this.
He should know his family will be in even more danger when they come back. He does know the plan will work because he got to go back and hear his daughter one last time. He should know what he’s been doing for the past half-decade has built a mountain of sin. This should’ve been Hawkeye’s moment to own all of that. But most of all, it should’ve been the scene where he definitely, inarguably proves that he knows exactly who he has been all this time: “yeah, all I am is a guy who shoots arrows. But I’m still an Avenger. And I’ll do whatever it takes.” He’s at his best as a team player, and his death was earlier hinted at in Age of Ultron, where his demise was heavily broadcasted (c’mon, a guy with a perfect home life to go back to... how in god’s name did he survive being in a Joss Whedon movie?), and this could’ve been the moment for him to finally pass on the torch to Black Widow. Hell, she could’ve even walked away with his bow and arrow, cementing his sacrifice, and her carrying on his legacy (and the finale where the new infinity gauntlet is passed around in the highest stakes game of hot potato still would’ve worked... and yes, I did go back to rewatch Endgame to check this myself).
Hawkeye’s theoretical sacrifice would’ve been the perfect end to someone who was always the butt of the joke, by killing said joke once and for all though making who was always “the most useless avenger”, into the most indispensable one. The one who made the ultimate sacrifice to make the plan work, and save the universe. And yeah, his family would’ve been devastated, but they would be back, and that’s all that would’ve mattered to him. But no; he got to come back to the hate of fans, and the next time we’ll get to see the first woman avenger will be in a goddamn prequel. This could’ve been Hawkeye’s shining moment. But instead, it’s the weakest one of not just this movie, but the entire MCU.