Between the brutal action and heartfelt characters resulting in an intriguing crossover/transition of Marvel Television’s Netflix tone to Marvel Studios’ Disney+ sensibilities, season 1 of Echo is great, kinetic, and enjoyable featuring wonderful insights into a seldom seen culture.
Introduced to television audiences in Hawkeye on Disney+ in 2021, Maya Lopez (Alaqua Cox) not only stood out as an engaging presence but also as a character that moved the needle in a huge way regarding on-screen representation on multiple fronts. Echo continues and expands upon that in a big way by not only focusing on Maya, her past, and her disabilities but also showcasing her Choktaw heritage and culture in an accessible manner.
Season 1 of the series also represents the first major attempt at melding the previous Netflix shows (that were under the entity of Marvel Television) to the Disney+ stable as well as greater Marvel Cinematic Universe (which is, of course, under Marvel Studios). Previous appearances Fisk and Daredevil were more like teasers or “dipping the toe” in (and could easily have been waved away as “alternate timeline” variants, which is still not out of the question).
The first episode is somewhat clunky as it serves as more of a catch-up to the events of Hawkeye as well as a current series/story setup. And once again I’m going to assume “filmed during a pandemic” (mid 2022) as to explain some of the sporadic clunkiness in the rest of the five episodes but overall it’s a fascinating and entertaining action adventure.
Speaking of episodes, it was refreshing to see the amount of story being told match and fit the number of episodes, which has been one of the advantages of Marvel Studios calling its own shots, for a lack of better term. So often over the last decade, long-form storytelling has been blighted by the apparent need to stretch out stories to fit the number of episodes ordered resulting in poor pacing and uninteresting filler. It often crossed the line from deliberately “meditative” to dreary and dull, making the binging experience quite arduous. This was one of my major hang ups when it came to the Marvel Netflix shows (and more recently the various Star Wars series).
The pacing of Echo is actually quite a decent balance. With its own moments of dourness and meditative build-up where appropriate, it doesn’t waste time on moody atmosphere and instead just tells its story, preferring to be lean and mostly to the point (with one possible drawback, which I’ll get to)..
One of my other criticisms of late is the weekly rollout of episodes. Yes, I know it harks back to the way television used to be (I’m in my 40’s, for goodness sake) and I realise it helps extend the visibility of the product in the zeitgeist (oh I hate myself for that marketing speak) but some series are better consumed in a binge format, For example, I enjoyed season 2 of Loki but that really could have benefitted from the entire season being released all at once. Whether they did that with Echo based on feedback from other Disney+ shows or (cynically) a fear that people won’t take to this particular show on a weekly basis, either way it worked for me to be able to do this in a single evening.
The plot itself is a familiar one: After the events and revelations experienced by Lopez in Hawkeye, she returns to her hometown and plans to take out a major part of Wilson Fisk’s operation. However, trouble follows her when Kingpin (Vincent D’onofrio) survives Maya’s attempt on his life, endangering her estranged family.
After the first episode, so much of the story feels like a combination of different eras of filmmaking in the way it was told and shot. There is an overall vibe reminiscent of 80s action flicks (the way the powwow was shot feels like the guerilla filmmaking in public spaces with real crowds), the fight choreography reminds me of that seen in 90’s Hong Kong martial arts films (along with the way the camera moves) and of course, ostensibly being a spinoff of Daredevil, it has the some of the high contrast cinematography and graphic brutality from the 2010s media.
The producers have said that they didn’t set out to make a violent series but there is a good balance between that brutal and “gritty realism” with the lighter, heartfelt, and more fanciful elements preventing the series from being a dour slog. Which makes sense and they’ve made it reflect Lopez’s journey from Kingpin’s personal assassin/adopted daughter to anti-hero, along with other transitional elements that I won’t spoil here.
From what I’ve been able to look up about Echo’s comic book origins, broad strokes elements and plot points come from the comics but for the most part, Maya Lopez is almost an entirely new character. I am fascinated by the way they merged that with with brand new, real world aspects of Choktaw culture. A lot of close consultation with the Choktaw Cultural Council was undertaken for the show and the Choktaw Nation have even launched their own website promoting and detailing their experiences collaborating with Marvel Studios. As a layman viewer and an outsider, it doesn’t feel like mere lip service nor does it seem like some tropey and outdated appropriation (there’s even a gag that makes fun of Native American stereotypes, or at least the gullibility of certain people about them).
Between the zombie film Blood Quantum from 2019 (which I still need to watch), 2022’s Prey (which is a prequel to 80’s classic Predator), and Echo and Kahhori in Marvel Studio’s What if…?, it’s not just a win for Native American or First Nations representation but also the accessibility of legitimate and genuine culture being normalised in popular media.
Also, the very reality of Alaqua Cox being deaf has made for a rather unique viewing experience. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much sign language being used in any type of media to this extent. The fact that Lopez’s family can all sign without too much hesitation or fuss, as matter-of-fact aspect of their lives (even after 20 years of separation) is really pleasant to see and it doesn’t slow down the pacing at all (it also plays into a very important character beat that I loved). However it does provide some, understandably, quieter moments as well as a focus on background music (the licenced tracks in the roller skating rink was just sending me!!!)
The performances are all great among the familiar and new faces. It’s important to highlight that while many of them are playing archetypes we’re familiar with, they’re not playing stereotypes. Maya’s uncle, Henry (Chaske Spencer) is appropriately intense as someone under the thumb of Fisk, cousin Biscuits (Cody Lighting) is always good for a chuckle and his childlike demeanour doesn’t make him pathetic (which is too easy to slip into) and instead highlights his enthusiasm. Graham Greene is a stalwart among Native American actors on screen and his grandpa Scully is also wonderfully amusing and charming. Offering up wisdom without resorting to cliché,
The tough role to nail would be Chula (Tantoo Cardinal) as Maya’s grandmother. Continuing the recent trend of POC filmmakers telling stories of generational trauma, Chula is the family matriarch who does instil some “fear” with her authority and the way she disapproved of Maya’s father. Getting the balance right in not disliking her when needed just works. And of course the other tough gig is on the lead, Alaqua Cox as Maya (aka Echo) because she is playing the anti-hero here, doing what needs to be done to defeat the bad guy. Cox plays it tough almost all of the time but is able to also balance more vulnerable moments that garners sympathy for the character. Her disabilities are showcased but are never mocked or used for sympathy by the story nor are they turned into “super powers”, they just are a part of her regular life.
On the topic of sympathy, I reckon Wilson Fisk, aka Kingpin (Vincent D’Onofrio) has had the most fascinating transition from Netflix to Disney+. In Hawkeye he wasn’t as deep or violent as he was in Daredevil so this was the opportunity to showcase him properly. The previous focus on him in the Netflix series worked way too hard to over-sympathise with Fisk, almost defending his actions. It crossed a line from explaining and contextualising to just making excuses. In Echo, he’s presented as the manipulative, abusive, and maybe even delusional villain that he is. He lies, he gaslights, he’s unable to regulate his emotions, there’s very little to redeem this narcissist and D’Onofrio continues to hit it over the fence with such ease.
The only one who I think gets shortchanged is Maya’s cousin, Bonnie (Devery Jacobs, who also voices Kahhori in What If…?). Jacobs is actually really good in the role but for some reason she wasn’t given enough to do. There’s a whole set up about her childhood with Maya as well as the fact that they are cousins but only the latter gets a payoff and the former barely gets addressed or resolved.
For all my praise of the pacing and number of episodes to fit the amount of story being told, there does feel like a chunk is missing, in particular with Bonnie. There’s also a clunkiness that’s carried over from the first episode to the finale, which actually starts off very strong, the third act climax is a lot of fun but the aftermath feels awkward and abrupt. Also, certain “supernatural” moments don’t feel as “special” as they could have been, with the filmmakers opting for a more straightforward approach and presentation, as opposed to taking cues from Black Panther for instance (trying not to spoil it but you hopefully get the idea).
Some may not like the resolution at the annual powwow in the third act and I get that but again, that harks back to the 80’s action flicks that I mentioned before and I loved it!
It has its flaws but Echo is a highly enjoyable action series that deals with redemption and the meaning of family. It also marks a proper transition of the Netflix ground level characters and style into the MCU proper. The series also soars in representing the often underrepresented, as well as showcasing and providing access to genuine depictions of a culture many of us can benefit from learning more about, and normalising all these elements in a familiar and digestible package worthy of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe.
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