Following a string of lackluster movies, including an unfortunate box office failure in The Marvels, and some seriously snoozeworthy TV offerings, it’s clear that Marvel is in need of course correction.
One of the most glaring problems facing the studio as it continues through Phase 5 of the MCU is that of its overwhelming interconnected lore. Audiences can rarely roll up to a new MCU film or show without a prior understanding of several other films or shows. That’s proving to be a barrier of entry too high for casual viewers. How can you get people excited about your projects when it feels like you need to do homework before even watching them?
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Enter “Marvel Spotlight,” a new banner for select Marvel Studios titles that you can view without any knowledge of the MCU. First up in this category is Echo, a five-episode series focused on Maya Lopez (Alaqua Cox), a deaf Native American antihero originally introduced in Hawkeye. Unfortunately, the Hawkeye connection — as well as some ties to Netflix Marvel series Daredevil — undermines Echo‘s “Spotlight” designation right out of the gate. It’s only as Echo works past the boundaries of the greater MCU that it begins to tell a more interesting story, one of ancestry, family ties, and returning home as an outsider.
Echo gets off to a rough start.
Alaqua Cox in “Echo.”
Credit: Chuck Zlotnick / Marvel
If you have no idea who Maya Lopez is, Echo is determined to catch you up. The show dedicates a large chunk of its first episode to speed running her backstory. We learn how she lost her mother (Katarina Ziervogel) and part of her leg in a car crash in her Oklahoma home town, how she and her father (Zahn McClarnon) moved to New York City, and how her fighting abilities caught the eye of crime boss Kingpin (Vincent D’Onofrio). Oh, and she fights Daredevil (Charlie Cox), because we need to keep that Marvel synergy going, people!
Then, using footage directly drawn from Hawkeye — “Spotlight” label be damned — Echo also reminds us how Maya hunted Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) as revenge for killing her father. But in her quest for vengeance, she learned that it was none other than Kingpin who orchestrated the kill, using her grief to manipulate her into being his perfect soldier. She retaliated by confronting Kingpin, shooting him in the face, and hightailing it back to Oklahoma.
If you can get through this choppily edited crash course in Maya Lopez (most of it made up of recycled material), you’ll be able to reap the rewards of the more original storyline that follows. Upon her return to the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma, Maya strives to take down Kingpin’s criminal empire, all while keeping her distance from her family, like grandmother Chula (Killers of the Flower Moon‘s Tantoo Cardinal) and cousin Bonnie (Reservation Dogs’ Devery Jacobs). Yet as Maya experiences strange visions of her ancestors’ lives, it’s clear that family won’t keep its distance from her. More than that, it may be just what she needs to survive.
Echo‘s strength lies in Maya’s family.
Alaqua Cox in “Echo.”
Credit: Chuck Zlotnick / Marvel
Much of Echo‘s marketing has emphasized its standalone nature (which is not particularly accurate), Kingpin’s involvement (which feels like a lessening of Maya’s role), or its grittier fight scenes and street-level storytelling (which is far more accurate to the tone of the show, even if those fight scenes can occasionally be clumsy). But Echo‘s true superpower is its emphasis on Maya’s relationships with her family, which range from the grounded to the supernatural.
On the more grounded side, we have characters like Chula and Bonnie, as well as Maya’s uncle Henry (Chaske Spencer), her cousin Biscuits (Cody Lightning), and her grandfather figure Skully (Graham Greene). They all offer opportunities to see different facets of Maya beyond the soldier Kingpin has made her, including her more adventurous or heartbroken sides. Yes, she may try to push people away or use them for her own gain, but as the series progresses, there are signs that Maya’s walls are crumbling as she reconnects with the community she left behind. Cox does an admirable job capturing Maya’s conflicted nature: Will she follow in Kingpin’s footsteps, or is there a chance for her to reconnect with her estranged family?
The cast playing Maya’s family also deliver strong performances, especially Cardinal and Greene as exes with very different approaches on how to handle Maya’s return. Scenes of Maya and her relatives — delivered in American Sign Language (ASL) — play out with welcome familiarity, even as tension lingers between them all. It’s a solid pivot from the too-big-to-care multiversal talk we’ve seen too much of lately in the MCU.
That’s not to say we don’t get any superpowered intrigue in Echo. Maya’s visions of her ancestors are accompanied by glowing spirals on her hands, along with the possibility of new abilities. However, it’s not the abilities that are most fascinating here, but the visions themselves — and the women they center on.
Each of the three Echo episodes sent to critics for review begins with a vignette of one of Maya’s ancestors, all members of the Choctaw tribe. They range from an aspiring sharpshooter, whose tale takes the form of a delightful silent film, to the first Choctaw woman. Rendered with care and specificity by Indigenous talent in front of and behind the camera, these snapshots of women across Maya’s bloodline make for a breath of fresh air for the MCU, both stylistically and in terms of showcasing Choctaw culture.
It’s a shame, then, that the MCU machine sometimes takes precedence over these character-building moments for Maya and her family, past and present. The entire show opens with the origin story of the Choctaw people, but instead of letting us sit with that mythology and Maya’s relationship to it, Echo launches into the messy Hawkeye-Kingpin-Daredevil recap show. And sure, Kingpin is important to Maya, but he should not take precedence over her in the pilot episode of her own series.
There’s certainly a powerful story waiting in Echo, one that surfaces more and more the further we get from the jumbled first episode. But it can only remain that way as long as Echo shines its spotlight on the character who matters most: Maya Lopez.