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Before we begin: if your opinion is “or how about Clint is just canonically a loving husband and father and there’s nothing wrong with him”: this post isn’t for you. By all means stay and read; there are refreshments on the table - but this is making sense of what does not make sense for Hawkeye.
After Avengers, Clint isn’t seen until Age of Ultron - where he shows up completely fine except for the, “Done the whole mind control thing; not a fan,” line (but we’ll get back to that later). Despite it being a heavily SHIELD based movie, Clint doesn’t appear in Cap 2 either (though he was meant to) and his absence in the movie universe is never explained. His only presence being through Natasha’s arrow necklace that she wears the entire movie - another unexplained plot line.
In the aftermath of New York, Clint and Natasha take some much needed time off to recuperate, which is where the trouble begins. Clint is known to be stubborn; a disaster who’s never been a fan of post-mission psychological assessments. So why should a post-mind control debrief be any different for him? He almost refuses it, insisting it’s fine and that he can still do his job, which is most important. He keeps a distance from SHIELD. Fury agrees that it’s safer considering there are SHIELD agents who lost friends and loved ones because of Agent Barton and no longer want anything to do with him.
The build-up of blaming himself, the helplessness of not being able to stop himself planning the murders of the only family he’s ever known, the thought of being told to kill Natasha mercilessly lingering in his mind, and making him throw up, all became too much and he sunk into a depression. Natasha was the only thing capable of grounding him. One night he has a nightmare so intense about succeeding in killing Nat that he doesn’t realise he’s dreaming until he opens his eyes and realises he has her pinned down, her eyes bulging as she prys herself out of his grasp. The split-second of fear in her eyes that he managed to catch before she composed herself was enough for him to never forgive himself for actually hurting her. After that Clint distanced himself further, and Natasha decided this couldn’t go on any longer. She met with Fury who cautiously told her about Project: T.A.H.I.T.I. (mentioning Coulson’s status is optional since we don’t know whether Barton and Romanoff yet know).
This brings us to the major part of my theory: Clint Barton underwent the T.A.H.I.T.I. protocol ( ... using the knowledge of the project to implant false memories on people, calling it the T.A.H.I.T.I. Protocol. This protocol is based on the mind erasing part of the project, without injecting any serum derived from the G.H. so the patients do not go as insane).
In order to undergo this, Fury explains to Natasha that Clint will still (at a very surface level) remember the fact he was mind-controlled by Loki, but will not remember the agents/civilians he killed and most significantly - Clint will have no memory of their romantic relationship as it is too closely linked to the traumatic idea of killing her. Instead, they’ll be replaced by nicer memories of a family vacation in Tahiti. Natasha then makes the difficult decision to go through with it knowing it’s better to still have him even if they can’t be together, than to watch the man she loves go completely insane. (”After all ,” she says, “I’ve spent my entire life around lies, what’s one more, right?”)
The fall of SHIELD/infiltration of Hydra reveal is complicated, however, because it was such a small circle of trustworthy people working on Clint that it was for the most part unaffected by the many SHIELD agents likely wouldn’t have approved of Barton being back to begin with. Safehouses are also a convenient thing, even say a farmhouse...
Enter: fake family! It can go a number of ways. Laura is a civilian being paid, Laura is an agent who wasn’t Hydra, Laura is an agent whose husband died/was Hydra - whatever concept. But the entire family are a set up in which they report back to Fury/Natasha to see how Clint is coping.
Why does this start to make sense? Erik Selvig was also mind controlled by Loki. In Thor: The Dark World, we see his aftermath. We see him naked and frantic and losing his sanity before he eventually begins to get better. Now why did we never see Clint’s aftermath? Yes, because Marvel didn’t care enough, but in the movie’s universe? Because he was undergoing treatment the second he started showing signs. You could argue Clint handled the aftermath better than Selvig, a civilian, because he’s a trained agent and can keep it together - but Clint is still human, not a super soldier and not an alien being. In the infirmary scene in Avengers (2012) he is visibly shaken after waking up. Why does a secondary, even tertiary, character have more character development than an original six Avenger?
So, we’ve hit the Age of Ultron era. At this point the only people who know are Natasha, Fury, Maria, and the fake-farm-family. It’s why when Clint is taking the team to the “safehouse”, Tony is on call with Maria and it’s not mentioned WHERE they’re going. But somehow Fury arrives on the farm (Tony: “I get it, Maria Hill called you right?”) - But even Tony doesn’t realise that there was no way for Maria to have known WHERE they were since Clint didn’t tell Tony/Maria on the call... or WHICH of the many safe houses Clint could have taken the team to (and why take wanted heroes to your family home btw?).. only Laura or Natasha could have informed them (personally my money is on miss Secret Agent Laura because she approaches Tony to go check on the tractor where Fury is already waiting, and Natasha was recovering).
Let’s talk briefly about Natasha though, just to patch up some holes. Well, she’s still in touch with Fury/Maria. Still a spy. At the end of Cap 2 she says “I blew all my covers. I gotta go figure out a new one”. This is where the opportunity to try and better understand the Hulk, in order to not have the same incident on the helicarrier again, comes in. Bruce Banner is part of the team, but he comes with the Hulk - who Natasha is petrified of (see: all scenes in Avengers, especially her meeting Bruce for the first time. It is complete fear of not being in control, which is what she is used to). We know that SHIELD/Fury is interested in Hulk’s potential, so while Clint is undergoing Tahiti and settling into this “family”, Natasha signs onto this new cover to get Hulk under control.
It was never necessary to establish a romantic connection with Bruce, it was all part of the plan. The goal was to get Bruce to open up, and be more vulnerable to in turn be able to reach him while he is the Hulk. Natasha is extremely forward in Avengers: Age of Ultron, very unnaturally so, and Bruce is often flustered by it. It’s this opinion of Natasha that Bruce forms that allowed her to better manipulate the Hulk when need be. Also good to note, Clint has no clue what Laura means when she mentions Nat and Banner. Laura’s testing him. Natasha’s supposed “best friend” not seeing anything in Nat and Banner but the wife (aka the agent knowing the whole plan) does? Already a fault. Natasha plays along with Bruce’s irrational fantasies of running away, but in the end doesn’t hesitate to call nonsense on running away and push him off a cliff when she needs the Hulk. The last thing Natasha wanted to do was hurt a friend, which is why she seems so shocked and regretful in the end by Hulk taking off in the quinjet - she knows she may have gone too far.
Back to the farm. Clint eases back into it, while Laura has a moment of confusion with him even being home let alone bringing the rest of the team there. Then there’s Natasha’s face, which is the single most interesting part to me:
She’s still recovering from the mind warp, but why would her face falter like that if she were happy for her “best friend”. Natasha needs to keep up the act but can’t help feeling sad because of being too messed up from Wanda to do much. Having to watch Clint introduce this fake life to the rest of the team before she could stop it. A moment of “what if” at what could’ve been had the two of them revealed their relationship status and their home to the team instead.
Another common thing that pops up in Age of Ultron is Clint doing home renovations. To me this is Clint fighting the thoughts at the back of his head that something feels very wrong with his life ("Why would anything be wrong Barton?" "I’m overthinking it I just need a distraction."). When he brings it up with Laura she goes, “Then you’ll find another part of the house to tear down...”, when he brings it up with Nat, she’s barely listening because it’s a frequent thing and that will just keep happening. Much like Coulson, Clint starts to feel gaps in the life he’s living (Um... should Natasha’s smile have made me feel as warm inside as it just did or...).
Clint already feels this way during the events of Age of Ultron, he is constantly trying to prove it’s real and he loves the family but ultimately falters and becomes stuck in feeling like the thoughts are just him maybe not loving Laura anymore (his dismissive “oh... ok...” when Laura jokes with him instead of laughing along, being one).
These feelings start to solidify in Civil War, the movie where almost alllllll his lines sound nothing like a happily married man:
- “Disappointing my kids” - sounds like mimicing something an annoyed wife would use on her husband if he kept neglecting family time
- “You know I wouldn’t have called if I had any other choice.” “You’re doing me a favor.” - a FAVOR? Good lord what does that even mean? The only thing we know is that he’s been with his family, so this line is so intensely, "I can’t keep away from the fight, and being retired was never for me. Thank you for calling because this is all I want to do."
- In the raft immediately after Tony brings his family up, Clint turns away and starts going, “la la la la,” like someone who doesn’t want to hear it. “I don’t know why you didn’t think of them.” Because he doesn’t want to, Tony; he doesn’t want to.
And for now this sort of concludes it all. He’s MIA in Infinity War apart from Nat explaining his whereabouts so we won’t know til Avengers 4.
Theory 2: the family are skrulls and take over Natasha too. The real Clint and Natasha are being held, which is now plausible given that Captain Marvel is introducing the Kree into the MCU.
SO, this is where I’ll end this mess. Natasha wears the arrow necklace to keep him close to her while he’s undergoing Tahiti. The MCU rly needs to start drinking that Respect Clint Barton Juice bc I am too tired and can’t believe my life has been reduced to this!