Putting a dog in your show is a copout. I can admit this! It is astronomically more challenging to judge a work by its merits when there’s a golden retriever blinking at you drowsily from the screen. If you have a dog yourself, it’s even worse: The two canines always seem, impossibly, to lock eyes through the television; perhaps one of them even barks or whines or makes that heart-melting little chuff sound, and you, in all your cynicism, still can’t help but indulge in another episode. Such a weakness makes for a terrible cultural critic.
And yet—if I may attempt to be objective here, even as my beagle doses on the couch beside me—there is something rare about Lucky the Pizza Dog, a fan-favorite Marvel character from the Matt Fraction-led Hawkeye comics, who’s since graduated to a recurring role in the Disney+ series. It’s easy enough to drop a dog into your story when you need an aww moment, an equivalent of Baby Yoda with a cup of broth. But, as we’ve seen with Baby Yoda, it takes actual finesse to shape a non-speaking character—an animal or alien, no less—who can carry a scene. That’s exactly what Lucky did in the Fraction run; an entire issue of the series was devoted to the dog’s POV. To this day, that book is considered a Marvel comics classic. What remains to be seen is if Lucky can do the same for a Marvel TV show.
In the comics, Lucky the Pizza Dog is a retriever who belongs to Ivan Banionis of the criminal “Tracksuit Mafia,” a gang bent on taking control of Hawkeye (aka Clint Barton)’s apartment building. Among the tracksuits, Lucky’s known as “Arrow”—a purposefully on-the-nose joke at which Clint dutifully cringes—but he’s neglected and abused, more of a weaponized accessory than man’s best friend. After Clint offers the pup a bite of pizza, Lucky realizes true human kindness exists, and when the tracksuits start shooting at his new pal, Lucky jumps in to stop them. He’s rewarded with a merciless beating. Refusing to leave Lucky’s unconscious body behind, Clint rushes him, sopping wet, to an emergency vet. “Fix. This. Dog,” Clint demands, in one of the Fraction run’s most memorable panels.
Lucky survives and makes a mostly full recovery, less the use of his left eye (a characteristic the Disney+ series plays tribute to as early as episode 1). After adopting the dog as his own, Clint renames him Lucky the Pizza Dog, given the latter’s penchant for both near-death experiences and pepperoni. Luck, as he’s sometimes called, becomes a fixture beside both Clint and his arrow-slinging protege, Kate Bishop, who even takes the dog with her when she moves to Los Angeles, sick of Clint’s growing self-pity. When she finally returns to aid Clint’s battle against the tracksuits, Lucky tags along—and proves instrumental in bringing the bad guys down.
Based on Fraction’s own late canine companion, Captain Applejack, Lucky quickly became an essential part of Hawkeye’s success. “As I started to kind of write and give [Clint] this kind of emotional thing he was connected to, like, the character’s animal appeared,” the writer explained in a radio interview in 2014. “It wasn’t a hawk; it was a dog. And then I got the book. I understood what the book was. I knew what happens. I knew what it was about. And if I couldn’t save Captain Applejack, Hawkeye could save Lucky.”
With only two episodes of Hawkeye streaming so far, the Disney+ Lucky—played by dog actress Jolt, with a CGI-removed eye—hasn’t had enough time to prove he can deliver the emotional resonance of his comic predecessor. But the fact that Marvel Studios has opted to include Lucky so early in the series points to an intention beyond heartstring-tugging. If the series gets Hawkeye right—and early reviews indicate it might—it’ll be because the show keeps the plot grounded in Fraction’s original intention: telling the story of a normalized Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), one removed from any multiverse-hopping super-saga. Comics Clint is a messy, coffee-stained-T-shirt sort of hero, with little of Steve Rogers’ nobility or Tony Stark’s cocksure cool. He can be snarky, but he’s equally self-effacing and, more often than not, immature. He’s divorced. He’s selfish. He’s irresponsible. He is also funny, tender, and devoted, especially to those who love him in spite of those grating flaws.
In recent years, as its universe expands in countless directions, Marvel has struggled to retain the tongue-in-cheek, heart-on-its-sleeve relatability that made so many of its earlier films hit. Yes, Iron Man could fly and Hulk turned green and Rocket Raccoon was, well, a talking raccoon, but their effervescent banter and real-world insecurities made them feel like friends. The MCU has lost much of this right-here, right-now familiarity as the studio focuses more and more attention on what’s next. (To illustrate: Marvel Studios has announced planned films well into 2024 and beyond.) Adrift in this franchise-building, Hawkeye became an afterthought. Throughout the films in which he starred, Renner’s Clint vacillated from brainwashed foot-soldier to not-quite-romantic partner to devoted dad to agonized killing machine. Marvel Studios could never figure out what, precisely, to make of the guy with the arrows, an otherwise rich character from the comics.
Disney+—and Lucky the Pizza Dog—could finally remedy that wrong. The show is supposedly about Clint the everyman, an Avenger all too well-acquainted with his B-list status. He teams up with a bubbly young sidekick who peppers him with advice about his “brand.” That’s a long-exhausted trope, until you factor in that dopey retriever.
If Marvel is looking for right-here, right-now character development, they picked the right vessel when they chose a dog—dogs have little concept of today or tomorrow, even less of your sins and shortcomings. As Fraction expressed, this was what made Lucky magical in the comics; he had no understanding of Clint Barton the Avenger, only Clint Barton the guy with the pizza.
A dog is a cinematic copout because they’re such a simple, foolproof pleasure—a naturally rewarding narrative device. But when they work, they work. They love us when we’re not superheroes, so we love them when all they do is appear on a TV screen and loll their tongues. A good dog can also make a damn good story—one that the MCU desperately needs to remind us that Clint Barton is more than just another puzzle piece in the Marvel multiverse. If Lucky does his job—if he shows us the sides of Clint we need to see—he might just remind us why Hawkeye is worthy of a TV show after all.
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