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All hail Jeremy Renner, Setup Man

Renner is an archetype now. This probably wasn’t the plan.

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Mary Cybulski; Jay Maidment; Christian Black

See Jeremy Renner, early 2011. He just earned an Oscar nomination for his supporting turn in The Town, his second straight Academy Award nomination after The Hurt Locker. He made quite an impression when Hurt Locker won Best Picture. Even if you didn’t see the movie — lots of people didn’t; it’s the lowest-grossing Best Picture ever — Renner surely made an impression on you. There he was, onstage behind Kathryn Bigelow, fist-pumping, arm-in-arm with his co-stars. (Bro-stars?)

One year later, here was Renner again, nominated for another live-wire performance. The Town got overpraised, too quickly absorbed into the Ben Affleck comeback narrative. (It’s basically Heat remake in Boston with a lamer ending.) But Renner took the Val Kilmer kookbat-henchman part and ran with it. He looks like a real hardened criminal and he looks like a Cupid-faced roach monster. Renner’s a unique bird: He’s the Venn Diagram overlap between the film’s pretty-person lead cast (Affleck, Jon Hamm, Blake Lively, Rebecca Hall) and the real-person character-acting faces filling out the background (Titus Welliver, Chris Cooper, the great Pete Postlethwaite one last time.)

Renner in early 2011 had a busy schedule ahead of him. A cameo in Thor that we kind of knew about; a big role in the fourth Mission: Impossible movie; a lead role in Avengers; the lead role in the Bourne reboot. All according to plan, right? Isn’t that the playbook? Unknown actor breaks big in small movie, and then unknown actor becomes known actor in big franchise movie. The Zero-to-60-ness of Renner’s blockbuster ascent was unusual — three franchises in one calendar year? — but maybe that was how things worked now. Hollywood had been looking for the Next Great Leading Man for so long: The next Tom Cruise, the next Matt Damon, the next Harrison Ford… whatever your Platonic Ideal of Hollywood stardom is. Maybe that was Renner. Or maybe he would do for now. (It was a different time, a different Hollywood; nobody knew that the Next Great Leading Man would be Jennifer Lawrence.)

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See Jeremy Renner, mid-2015. An Avengers sequel, and a Mission: Impossible sequel. In Rogue Nation, he once again plays William Brandt, the guy everyone thought was supposed to be a Cruise replacement in Ghost Protocol. Brandt in Rogue Nation occupies a curious space. He’s the man in a suit back at headquarters. He doesn’t throw a punch, doesn’t fire a gun. Ghost Protocol drifted a little bit off the notion that Brandt could be a traitor; the new movie gets some residual fumes off that notion. Renner could be to Cruise what Sean Bean was to Pierce Brosnan in GoldenEye: The Bad Twin of the Good Guy. (Ever franchise gets a Dark Link, eventually.) But it’s fair to say that Renner’s real role in Rogue Nation is passive and reactive: He watches Tom Cruise be Tom Cruise.

It’s hard to tell if this was the plan. And it’s hard to tell if Renner wanted more, or if he even still wants this. Between the franchise rush of 2011-12 and the franchise rush of 2015, Renner appeared in American Hustle, the only person on the poster who didn’t get an Oscar nomination. Little-seen The Immigrant earned rave reviews from the kind of people who think James Gray is a bigger name than Jeremy Renner; little-seen Kill the Messenger was a showboat passion project, and disappeared. If we’re talking minor roles, you should add in his incredible turn on Louie‘s “In the Woods,” a kind of movie novella about young Louie discovering weed, with Renner as an endearing-menacing dealer-devil: He’s like an anthropomorphic Say No To Drugs campaign.

You can tell when Renner cares, because you can also tell when Renner doesn’t care. Watch him talk about Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. Or listen to him talk about his 2015 movies. Here’s Renner, in his Playboy interview, on Avengers: Age of Ultron: “Not to be a d—, but I actually get to speak in this one.”

And here’s Renner on Rogue Nation, from the same interview:

This Mission was like all the Missions — great action set pieces with an idea of a story somewhere in there. There have been four successful versions before this one, so why would I fight the process? I just went and gave to the best of my ability in the scenario I was in. Now, was it the best scenario for me? The best at what I’m good at? F—, no. Not having any information about what the heck is going on doesn’t empower any artists to be at the best of their ability.

There’s a tendency to read statements like this as evidence for the prosecution: Jeremy Renner, Difficult Man. But there’s something charming there, too. Compare Renner talking about any of his (very big, generally pretty good) franchise pictures to any other actor talking about their (very big, sometimes awful) franchise pictures. There’s no pretension, no talk about fans or mythology or themes.

It’s worth reading the entire Playboy interview. Renner is the kind of guy who calls his home a structure — as in, “I’m pretty sure this is my last structure.” He describes his resting face as “murderous,” and he claims that, at one point, he was thinking about maybe producing a reality show about house renovation.

The minor cult of Real-Life Renner — a movie star who flips houses! — might have actually eclipsed whatever minor cult there is around Blockbuster Renner. Matt Damon has stepped back into the Bourne franchise, a move that banishes Renner’s Aaron Cross to the same corner of purgatory occupied by Coy and Vance from Dukes of Hazzard. Because Hawkeye didn’t die in Avengers 2, everyone has another year to see if he dies in Captain America 3. Cruise shows no sign of ever leaving Mission: Impossible — and in Rogue Nation, Renner is fourth banana, behind Rebecca Ferguson and Simon Pegg.

In the process, though, Renner has successfully created a wholly new Hollywood archetype: the Setup Man, the movie equivalent of the pitcher who comes in for the seventh or eighth inning, after the starter, before the closer. It’s a tough and unglamorous life for the Setup Man. They rarely get the glamor of actually winning or saving a game. One of the statistics used to measure a Setup Man is called — pause for excitement! — a Hold. It’s a thankless measure for a Setup Man who succeeds, in stark contrast to the other statistic that trumpets his failure: the Blown Save. 

You could argue that Renner earned a Blown Save for The Bourne Legacy, a movie which promised a rebooted side-trilogy that seems destined for oblivion now. But actually, Bourne Legacy is the very definition of a Hold. It earned less than Damon’s Bourne movies, but not embarrassingly so. Where most franchise reboots try to set a new direction, Legacy kept the seat warm for Damon. Actually, because of the movie’s weird timeline, Legacy overlaps with Damon’s third movie, which means that Renner’s character actually watches a news report about the events in Ultimatum.

This is the Renner Archetype in a nutshell: In a movie built around Renner, the Renner character watches a Matt Damon movie. This is his role in Rogue Nation, too: He’s the guy in a Tom Cruise movie who makes it easier for Tom Cruise to be Tom Cruise. (In Inception, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays DiCaprio’s Setup Man — but even Gordon-Levitt gets a zero-gravity action scene.)

The Renner Archetype can’t quite make a movie, but he won’t destroy it. Renner would’ve been a better Kyle Reese than Jai Courtney in Terminator Genisys — or a better John Connor than Christian Bale in Terminator Salvation. Tom Hardy is the Renner character in Mad Max: Fury Road — the first Mad Max movie where Max isn’t the main character. Chris Pratt in Jurassic World is basically a funnier version of the Renner character — indeed, you could argue that Chris Pratt’s role (“Owen Grady”) is written specifically for Renner, and it’s only “funnier” because Chris Pratt adds air quotes. Jason Clarke is the Renner in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes; hell, Jason Clarke might actually be Jeremy Renner’s time-travel duplicate.

Helpfully, Age of Ultron constitutes a deconstruction of the Renner archetype. We learn that Hawkeye is a family man, a remodeling hobbyist — the kind of guy who calls a house a “structure.” The modern movie Superhero has to have a pathology, a love interest, an emotionally complex family backstory, a mythology. Hawkeye’s just a dude with a farm.

Hollywood tried to fit Renner into the decadent era of action-movie history, the current phase where even “realistic” movies star invulnerable god-people. His Bourne movie retconned the franchise into science-fiction — blue chems and green chems and yellow chems! — by way of explaining how Jason Bourne could be the amnesiac version of Neo from The Matrix. He joined the Mission: Impossible series right as the series stopped pretending that Ethan Hunt was a real person. (Towards the end of Rogue Nation, someone refers to Tom Cruise as “The Living Manifestation of Destiny.”) In the context of Avengers, Renner might as well be playing Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye.

In the ’60s, Renner could’ve been some kind of Steve McQueen. But in our decade, maybe Steve McQueen would’ve just been William Brandt, too. (If Pegg in Rogue Nation is Comic Relief, then Renner is Serious Relief.) Renner doesn’t seem to mind the money, but the enervation is real: This is not a man who will go out of his way to hang off an airplane for the greater glory of a franchise fivequel.

Maybe this is the modern playbook: Actor takes minor roles in big movies, says his lines, hits his marks, and goes home. Maybe that is the Renner Legacy. But you wonder what it would look like if one of these big movies cared about Renner enough to make him care. The mind turns to another ornery blockbuster actor with a background in building materials. Harrison Ford always seemed more interested in houses, too. Can Renner find his Indiana Jones? Or, in the weird context of franchise Hollywood, is he Marcus Brody with biceps?

Joss Whedon apparently fought hard for the interlude on Hawkeye’s Farm, which is both the most interesting and least essential part of the movie — it’s like a bottle episode squeezed into a miniature of airplane gin. It feels like a very meta explanation for why there can never be a Hawkeye movie. But the weird thing is, I actually think people would be ready right now for that Hawkeye movie: A $20 million, 95-minute, semi-plotless meander, a Day in the Life of the least vengeful Avenger.

It could start right where Hurt Locker ends: Jeremy Renner, cleaning leaves out of the gutter, going shopping with the wife. He gets a phone call, from Tony or Cap or Fury: Time to go to work. Puts the kids to sleep; puts on the costume. You could see a whole action scene from Hawkeye’s perspective — which, if you think about it, would basically be every scene in Cloverfield, all the really exciting stuff happening offscreen while the puny human dodges god-rubble and electro-beams. He stays behind to clean up while the big powers fly off; he stitches his own wounds closed. Then he comes home, watches his kids sleep. When the sun comes up, there’s the sound of a hammer, or a saw, or a drill. The structure needs work.