Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye: ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’s’ Ace in the Hole

The Oscar-nominated actor opens up about his gifted superhero-archer, who delivers the most surprising, movie-stealing performance in the blockbuster Avengers sequel.

The Avengers are under fire.

Of course, they weren’t just a few weeks ago, before controversy laid siege to Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. Along with the Avengers: Age of Ultron cast, Jeremy Renner, seated between his closest Bro-Vengers, chortled along as de facto team leader Robert Downey Jr. greeted journalists on the Disney lot with his trademark mock-douchebag snark.

“I must be mellowing with age, but I want to say this very clearly,” Downey solemnly declared minutes into the Age of Ultron press conference, the tone of his voice just a tick on the right side of serious. He paused, hooking his audience. “The next time I’m not asked the first question, I’m going to fucking walk out.”

It was as perfect a faux-diva moment as only Robert Downey Jr. could execute, delivered with the braggadocio-flair of a classic Tony Stark one-liner. The press corps laughed out loud. Downey’s cast mates, director Joss Whedon, and Marvel honcho Kevin Feige erupted in smiles.

Shortly thereafter, as I met with Renner nearby on the Disney lot, he still had a grin on his face. “Only [Downey] can say that,” he laughed, admiringly. “Everybody else just looks like a dick. He gets away with it.”

This week Renner learned just how right he was. Days after Downey made the wrong kind of headlines by walking out on an interviewer’s sweaty-palmed probings for UK’s Channel 4, Renner and Captain America himself, Chris Evans, managed to top that relative nontroversy with a whopper of a PR slip.

Paired together and too loopy to filter themselves, Renner and Evans set off the Internet’s PC alarms during an interview by jokingly slut-shaming Black Widow, Scarlett Johansson’s character, referring to her as a “slut” and a “complete whore.” Clint Barton and Steve Rogers would most decidedly not approve, even if, thanks to the male architects of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, the leather-bound token female Avenger has been known to cozy up to both Hawkeye and Cap in previous films.

The casually sexist frat bro gaffe prompted both actors to publicly apologize with days to go and another probable billion-plus dollars riding on Disney and Marvel’s supersequel opening.

“I am sorry that this tasteless joke about a fictional character offended anyone,” Renner said in a statement Thursday. “It was not meant to be serious in any way. Just poking fun during an exhausting and tedious press tour.”

It’s too bad for Renner that the momentary lapse in media-trained judgment might, at least for the time being, overshadow his surprise MVP turn in Age of Ultron. The superhero sequel, in which the Avengers have finally gelled as a unit only to come apart at the seams under threat from the sentient A.I. Ultron and his robot army, marks the Oscar-nominated actor’s third Marvel appearance to date—and, significantly, the first time his Hawkeye actually has something to do.

First introduced to the MCU in 2011’s Thor in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo, Renner’s bow and arrow-toting S.H.I.E.L.D. operative Hawkeye earned more screen time in 2012’s Avengers, shaking off Loki’s temporary magical enslavement before forming a tenuous bond with Black Widow.

In Age of Ultron, Renner gets to play Hawkeye as a full-fledged member of the team. So vital is he to the Avengers, at long last, that he even gets his own flavor of cross-branded Doritos. (“They gave me chile-lemon,” he exclaims before correcting himself: “Chile-limon. I don’t know why.”) He also lands the film’s biggest surprise character reveal when Hawkeye’s alter ego Clint Barton exposes a huge secret of his private civilian life to his unsuspecting fellow Avengers. For Renner, and for Hawkeye fans, the meaty moment’s been a long time coming.

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“It’s the first time he’s really speaking, or speaking with personality,” Renner gushed. “And the first time he’s revealing himself. Who is this guy? I wanted to know, Joss [Whedon] wanted to know, everybody wanted to know what this guy was all about.”

Scripted by Whedon, the humanist auteur of the Marvelverse, Hawkeye’s Age of Ultron arc lends a rare vulnerability to a squad of otherwise super-powered and practically invincible heroes who’ve defied nearly every course of nature in five epic world-saving adventures so far, including death, physics, and time.

Hawkeye’s big secret, which we won’t reveal here, turns the team’s hierarchy on its head. Where Stark, Bruce Banner, and Natasha Romanoff wrestle with some seriously deep-seated personal issues—monumentally destructive egoism, intimacy issues, and unfortunate taste in men among them—it turns out it’s Clint Barton who’s got the best emotional handle on this superhero thing.

“That’s the core of who he is,” Renner says of the revelatory motivations that drive his character. “It bounces off a lot of who I am as a man, and I think who everybody in the Avengers really wants to be.”

In one defining moment shared with Scarlet Witch (franchise newbie Elizabeth Olsen), Hawkeye becomes a battlefield leader and manages to steal the film’s biggest laugh. Who knew there were superheroes who’d achieved that elusive life-work balance? “As far as responsibility levels and who he is and what he chooses to do, he’s not bogged down with a torturous spy’s life like Romanoff,” Renner mused. “Maybe Tony Stark could be balanced if he wasn’t so self-obsessed and rich. Clint doesn’t have those issues or problems, he just focuses on something else.”

“I understand it because the focus on my life is my child, and nothing else matters in front of her,” Renner continued, referring to his 2-year-old daughter, Ava, over whom he’s embroiled in a very public custody battle with estranged wife Sonni Pacheco. “She’s at the top [of the priority list]. Everything I do is about her and not me.”

Renner admits that the dense and highly CG-driven Age of Ultron script, which Whedon was rewriting on the fly, was confusing upon first read. “I was trying to figure out Ultron and Vision and all these other things… but it’s hard to visualize such a visual movie with just two-dimensional words,” said Renner. “So I just focused on what I could do to understand this, and just trust Joss. I feel like a lot of the cast is the same way. ‘I thought Ultron was a robot! How come there are a thousand of them? Oh, he’s not?! He’s an actual piece of software and he’s going in—and what does that look like?’”

“There were a lot of confusing things about it for me,” he laughed. “To think about what was happening with Romanoff and Banner, I didn’t know… a lot of stuff got lost for me. I just trusted Joss, and if something felt fake I would say so.”

It could come to pass that the very elements that make Barton the most mortal of the Avengers might also make him vulnerable down the road in future Marvel installments. With a Tony Stark-Steve Rogers clash set to divide the superhero ranks in the high-stakes Captain America: Civil War and the epic two-part Infinity War scheduled to conclude Marvel’s massive three-phase master plan, fans expect some heroes will fall along the way.

Renner says he doesn’t know for certain what Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige has in store for Hawkeye—like the fact that the Avengers’ resident archer is also the most vulnerable in battle, a concern that plagues the character in Age of Ultron. (He shares the same game ambivalence about the possibility of rejoining the Bourne franchise: “Am I happy to do another one? Yeah. I’m happy to another one with Matt [Damon], without Matt, or not at all—I’m happy to do any of it when there’s something happening.”)

What he does know about Hawkeye’s fate, he’s staying mum on. “There are always talks about things, but that doesn’t ever mean they’ll become a reality,” he teased. “All these things can still happen. They just pave some road and plant some seeds for future things—if they choose to go down that road.”