With Echo, Marvel Studios debuts their first show under the new “Marvel Spotlight” banner, which promises shows and movies that don’t require viewers to have completed hours of homework to enjoy some entertainment. It’s a move that acknowledges an increasing skepticism and exhaustion at the idea of watching every single release from the studio. But instead of feeling like a concession to a changing market, Echo succeeds as one of Marvel’s best shows and highlights that less can be more.
Characters and Relationships Come First
The miniseries’ first episode functions as both an origin story for the central character Maya Lopez (Alaqua Cox) and a “previously on” for her appearance in Marvel’s Hawkeye from 2021.
The show introduces Maya as a child (played by Darnell Besaw) living with her family in Oklahoma. She is the deaf child of loving parents and has a close relationship with her grandparents and cousin. The series immediately shows off its phenomenal cast of recognizable indigenous actors, including Graham Greene, Tantoo Cardinal, and Zahn McClarnon as Maya’s grandparents and father. Sadly, neither Maya’s mother nor father lasts long; the former dies in a car accident that leaves Maya with a prosthetic leg, and a mysterious figure kills her father after he and Maya move to New York in the wake of her mother’s death.
The show packs a lot into these early moments, especially in the exposition of family history and dynamics. But the writers make these moments of exposition feel natural and borne out of emotional crises. Maya’s father has a criminal history, and her grandmother Chula never trusted him and feared that he would endanger her daughter, something that sadly comes true when some of William’s enemies cut the family car’s brake lines. After the death of her daughter, Chula struggles to differentiate between her son-in-law and her granddaughter, causing a significant rift in the once close extended family as Maya and her father leave Oklahoma for New York.
The “Previously On” Problem Persists But is Handled Well Enough
Shortly after the move to New York, though, the first episode kicks into perhaps too high of a gear. It offers a montage of Maya’s falling in with Wilson Fisk, aka Kingpin (Vincent D’Onofrio), after her father’s death, a run-in with Daredevil (Charlie Cox), leading her to become a trusted soldier for Fisk, learning from Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) that Fisk was involved in her father’s death, and killing Fisk. It’s an onslaught of information necessary to understand the story that Echo will tell, but that doesn’t make it any less overwhelming.
It’s disappointing that the first episode shifts gears from a character and relationship-centered drama into a plot-feeding machine for its middle third. However, the “previously on” nature of the segment ensures that the show will not fall into the frequent MCU problem of viewers not knowing or remembering plot points and characters introduced in previous franchise installments. The plot dump also allows the show to slow down and fall into its own rhythm as a genuinely affecting family drama with exciting action scenes.
Marvel’s Best Family Drama
Echo succeeds because its most significant conflicts are interpersonal. Yes, Maya has a bounty on her head, and she’s making moves against the people who want her dead, but more than that battle, the show centers on what Maya’s return to Oklahoma seeking refuge means for the family she left behind.
Maya seeks out her uncle Henry (Chaske Spencer) and requests his help in her war against what remains of Fisk’s organization. But instead of leading the story into a plot about an uncle and niece duo seeking revenge for their lost brother and father, Echo centers on Henry’s mixed feelings of guilt about his continued relationship with the criminals responsible for his brother’s death, concern for his niece, and his fear of the violence she may bring with her. Instead of centering Maya’s plans and actions against Fisk’s organization, the show spends time with various family members discussing what Maya’s return means for them and others, especially Maya’s cousin Bonnie (Devery Jacobs).
The multigenerational cast of talented indigenous actors brings these moments of interpersonal conflict, confiding, and consoling to life beautifully. There’s a real joy not only in watching a grounded and emotionally resonant family drama but in watching what feels like a passing of the torch from greats like Greene and Cardinal to a younger generation of actors like Cox and Jacobs, with Chaske as the bridge.
Stylistic Swings, Misses, and Hits
But Echo is still a Marvel show and, as its Daredevil-inspired opening credits alert viewers, it’s a Marvel show that seeks to return to the viscerality of the MCU’s batch of shows created initially for Netflix in the 2010s. The show’s fight scenes focus on complexly choreographed hand-to-hand combat that the show’s directors (Sydney Freeland and Catriona McKenzie) do their best to capture in interesting ways.
Sometimes, Freeland and McKenzie succeed; sometimes, they make themselves too obvious. Freeland (whose Her Story web series should be a modern classic) makes the show’s first action sequence a fake single-take with several noticeable seams, repeatedly obfuscating the camera’s view with a combatant’s body or some aspect of the environment. The “single” take choice is distracting more than anything else; instead of pulling viewers into the fray, it highlights the artificiality of the show. But it doesn’t minimize the impressive choreography or the actors’ and stunt performers’ commitment to conveying the desperation of the fights.
Sound in these battles is more deftly handled by Freeland and McKenzie. Throughout the “single” take battle in the first episode, sound cuts in and out, often allowing only what Maya, as a deaf person, can feel in vibrations to come through to a hearing audience in the form of heartbeats and bone crunches. In episode three, Maya blasts Rob Zombie’s “Dragula” over the speakers of the skate-rink, where she attacks several members of Fisk’s gang, robbing them of their sonic advantage while offering viewers a fun, propulsive soundtrack to the battle.
That’s not to say that the show lacks style visually. In the first episode, Maya walks outside the warehouse her father uses as a headquarters. He witnesses an assassin kill various henchmen and, finally, her father in a single take that’s very effective at placing the audience in Maya’s perspective and heightening the tension of how she will or will not confront the assassin. In the second episode, Maya embarks on a stealth mission to break into a train bound for New York as it passes through Oklahoma, and the camera smoothly moves with and around her to wordlessly highlight her obstacles and goals.
A Miniscule Miniseries
The first three episodes of Echo offer a well-acted and scripted family drama that draws viewers into the lives of its complex and compelling characters, with some hard-hitting action scenes and nail-biting suspense sequences. The only problem is that the miniseries is only five episodes long. The final two episodes may tie everything up satisfactorily, but it’s already disappointing that there isn’t more of this show.