Marvel fans rejoiced earlier this month when it was announced that Ethan Hawke would join the MCU as the main villain of Moon Knight, the forthcoming Disney+ series starring Oscar Isaac. Because the Marvel Cinematic Universe has already allowed the hard-hitting dramatic actors (Lupita Nyong’o) and indie darling directors (Taika Waititi) it’s attracted to show off new sides of themselves, it is understandably exciting to see Hawke momentarily depart from prestige projects and involved character work to enter his first franchise-based cinematic universe—even on the small screen. But let’s take a moment to recall that Ethan Hawke has long existed in a cinematic universe unto himself, in which he plays dads trying their best.
Multiverse theory posits a hypothesis that there are infinite universes in which all things exist. If one were to apply this framework to Ethan Hawke’s filmography, a number of possibilities arise. Hawke’s plethora of fatherly roles could all exist in corresponding parallel universes that possess a synchronous timeline. This means that it’s possible that the essential elements of Ethan Hawke which come through in these characters simultaneously exist in their linked, albeit distinct, worlds. Under the same theory, it’s also possible that all of Hawke’s dad roles exist within the same world—though this presents some tension for the various characters of the Linklater-Hawke collaborations. If we were to, say, use Marvel’s Infinity Gauntlet as a totem through which to categorize the tiers of Ethan Hawke’s daddyness and its gemstones as signifiers of the placement of these dads in their own cinematic cosmos, it quickly becomes apparent how powerful Hawke’s various on-screen parent performances are. What kind of powers would they wield if they were brought together for a goateed version of that Endgame portal scene?
Would all of these Hawke-fathers be one another’s doppelgangers, unassumingly roaming the Earth without realizing some other Hawke-father was out there? Or would they be entirely unable to perceive one another, were they in the same vicinity? In the spirit of these ridiculous questions and possibilities—raised by the MCU’s own multiverse madness, Ethan Hawke’s consistently great performances and whatever energy he brings to a comic baddie—here are some of the actor’s best entries in the “Ethan Hawke is a dad trying his best” cinematic universe. Excelsior!
First Reformed is an A24 flick where Hawke portrays Reverend Ernst Toller, the pastor at a Dutch Reformed church in New York. Toller maintains a notebook in which he navigates his doubts about his faith. His doubts are partially reinforced by the anxieties young church members have about the environment and by the untimely death of his son Joseph, who was killed in the Iraq War. That’s right, he’s not just a grieving Father, but a grieving father. This Hawke performance earns the soul stone not only because the film offers a religious leader room to navigate their considerable doubt, but because the life and death meditations at the heart of the film are equally spurred on by Reverend Toller’s ability to vivify his faith after the death of his son and the impending nature of environmental catastrophe.
Boyhood is a standout Richard Linklater/Ethan Hawke collaboration. The film was shot sporadically from 2001 to 2013 and follows the literal coming-of-age of Mason Evans Jr. (Ellar Coltrane). Hawke plays Mason Evans Sr., a divorced dad who strives to connect with his children and remain relevant in their lives. Boyhood gets the time stone because over the course of its nearly three-hour runtime, the characters age over a decade as the audience witnesses the change in Mason Jr. and the evolution of Mason Sr.’s attempts to connect with him.
In Maggie’s Plan, Greta Gerwig, Julianne Moore and a sprinkle of beloved SNL alums (Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph) act alongside Hawke. He plays John Harding, a Columbia professor in a crumbling marriage with novelist Georgette (Moore), with whom he has two children. This Hawke character emanates “Let’s spend less time on our phones” energy and “Did you read that Philip Roth interview in the latest Paris Review?” vibes. He fathers a third child with New School employee Maggie (Gerwig) and ultimately becomes so engrossed in the novel he’s working on that he becomes an intermittently deadbeat dad to all of his children. This Hawke performance ironically gets the reality stone because Harding effectively performs being an emotionally available father but never makes the grade.
Juliet, Naked is another gem in Nick Hornby’s collection of adaptations about music-obsessed men who use their taste to condescend to those that love them (High Fidelity, anyone?). Here Hawke plays Tucker Crowe, a middle-aged former indie rock star who begins dating Juliet (Rose Byrne), a museum curator and the ex-girlfriend of Crowe’s biggest fan, Duncan (Chris O’Dowd). He is deeply devoted to his son, Jackson (Azhy Robertson), and attempts to make amends with his estranged, pregnant daughter Lizzie (Ayoola Smart). Hawke nails the fractured family/bumbling, fumbling dad schtick in this film. His efforts to mend strained relationships with his adult child, parent young Jackson and manage his faded rock glory while falling for Juliet combine for an exemplary display of mental actorly gymnastics. Although Juliet is our protagonist, Crowe’s celebrity and fatherhood propel the film’s momentum and serve as a compass for every other character. Juliet, Naked is Hawke’s mind stone film because although Crowe doesn’t necessarily possess the swagger people associate with celebrity, his talent and persona collaboratively wield control over those around him—not unlike the possessor of the mind stone, who controls the minds of others.
In Before Midnight, the most recent installment of Richard Linklater’s Before saga, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) are still navigating their decades-long romance and the trials of middle-aged marriage. This is Hawke’s power stone film. Jesse splinters his time as a parent between his two daughters based in Europe and his son in America. Jesse is no longer merely the peppy American novelist who fell for a charming French woman in the previous films. He is at the center of the family captured in the series and the embodied linkage between characters in America and abroad. It is his commitment to Celine in the end of Before Midnight that suggests their marriage will not collapse; it is his desire to maintain a formidable bond with his American son that instigates the main argument captured in the film.
In Hirokazu Kore-eda’s The Truth, Hawke plays American actor Hank, husband to French screenwriter Lumir (Juliette Binoche). The film follows Lumir as she navigates her rocky relationship with her mother Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve), a famous actress. Hank is an involved, playful father but he—unlike his wife, daughter Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier) and mother-in-law—cannot speak or understand much French. Hawke’s dad performance in The Truth gets the space stone because his character’s language barrier sequesters him into another dimension, separate from everyone else—one in which he talks about acting, wears dumb boho-chic dad hats and still manages to take good care of Charlotte.
Adesola Thomas is a screenwriter and culture writer. She loves talking about Annette Benning’s performance in 20th Century Women and making lasagna. You can follow her on Twitter.