The question looms over every Marvel Studios release these days: “Is it a game-changer?” Does this latest show/movie/sequel change the formula, or rekindle the magic or…accomplish anything? Marvel’s new series Echo certainly serves as a frame-changer, centering a Native American character who also happens to be deaf and an amputee. Alaqua Cox is extraordinary in the role of Maya Lopez, all the more impressive because, prior to Echo’s introduction in Hawkeye, Cox had little acting experience; but she is in fact Native American, deaf, and an amputee (both Cox and her character have a prosthetic leg). And if you’re the trolling YouTube-commenter type who has a whiny negative opinion about casting someone with the lived experience of being indigenous, deaf, and an amputee to play an indigenous deaf amputee, I’m gonna tell you a valuable secret: that particular opinion of yours is garbage. Ask yourself, before slapping that “post” button: is there anything wrong with having a show about a Native American deaf amputee? It’s not like there’s a ton of them. And if Maya hadn’t been written exactly that way, is there much chance there would be any show with someone who has that lived experience?

Are we better for having one TV show starring someone with this perspective? Yes, we are all better for it.

Changing the frame (in this case, the tried-and-true Marvel formula of centering blonde dudes named Chris, who have given us much joy in their overabundance) is a difficult and complex process, and along the way we will occasionally face the fact that good choices were made. Echo shows us the exhilarating results from one of those good choices. (SPOILERS AHEAD for the Echo TV series.)

For those unfamiliar with her comics origins, Echo comes from the Daredevil neighborhood of the Marvel Universe, debuting in a truly beautiful run of DD stories in the 1990’s, by David Mack and Joe Quesada. MCU Maya first appeared in Disney+’s Hawkeye, thanks to the re-emergence of Kingpin (a.k.a. Wilson Fisk, played by Vincent D’Onofrio), with whom Maya Lopez shares a tumultuous canonical history. With much pleasure I can report that the Echo show is kind of like the Daredevil show, which is the highest in-MCU compliment I can pay. It also shares some DNA with DD’s co-Defender Jessica Jones in tone and complexity. Echo is, of course, uniquely its own story, but in its emphasis on street-level criminality and recognizable human drama over flying robots and multiverse incursions, it borrows from the best aspects of Marvel’s two finest TV shows (no offense to Loki, Secret Invasion, and Hawkeye, but Daredevil and Jessica Jones’ first and third seasons are a tier above).

(Right): Alaqua Cox as Maya Lopez in Marvel Studios’ Echo, releasing on Hulu and Disney+. Photo by Chuck Zlotnick. ©Marvel Studios 2023. All Rights Reserved.

For one thing, she’s a baddie, Maya Lopez is: She’s a villain, at least from the outset of the first episode. This is part of the concept of the “Marvel Spotlight” banner (Echo is the first Disney+ show under this new designation), which will feature Mature Audiences content (read: some bloody violence) and also allow for characters who aren’t, strictly speaking, heroic. Wild, right? Raised under Kingpin’s tutelage, Maya is an all-world melee fighter, an assassin, the muscle a crime boss sends when he wants limbs broken. And worry not, Marvel nerds, one doesn’t have to wait too long before Maya’s mob missions lead her into the path of actual Daredevil (Charlie Cox), whom she fights mano a mano in Episode 1. Daredevil’s appearance here is brief, but it’s also a lot cooler than whatever he was doing in She-Hulk.

(Is it a little funny that Alaqua Cox and Charlie Cox have the same last name? It is, but as far as I can tell it’s not due to some Illuminati-level machinations.)

Echo’s structural strength is in the relative simplicity of its plot and the complexity of its characters. Again, not a lot of exposition dumps about Vibranium-chronal-entanglement events here. Following the offscreen-cliffhanger events of Hawkeye, Maya wants to take over Fisk’s role as the “Queenpin” of crime, and in so doing must re-encounter the family and friends she once left behind to do gangster stuff in New York. In this sense, a classic small town values vs. big city sins dynamic permeates Echo, and keeps the audience grounded in a way that recent cosmic forays like Quantumania and Dr. Strange II didn’t. Small homey details, like the ’80s songs playing in the roller skating rink and the faux-“Indian” tchotchkes sold in Maya’s hometown’s gift shop establish the world where Echo lives and breathes. The strong supporting cast is for the most part blessedly unaware that they’re in a superhero show, and I mean that as praise of their acting: Graham Greene, Devery Jacobs, and Chaske Spencer bring warmth and urgency to their roles, enhanced I think by the fact that they use ASL (American Sign Language) in every scene involving Maya: Sign language naturally augments a person’s expressiveness, and it’s a delightful contrast to the blasé snark that has regrettably become the house style of most recent Marvel shows. (As I learned from the Echo press junket, most of the cast did not have previous signing experience, and learned ASL in the course of joining the show.) The trademark snark is still evident in the subtitles, which makes me wonder whether ASL interprets superhero sarcasm literally or approximately; I’m honestly just wondering out loud, I’d love to know.

There is some legacy magical stuff — it is a Marvel superhero show — mainly towards the end of the fifth and final episode, and it’s arguably the weakest part of the show, simply because it seems out of sync with the naturalistic style preferred by the preceding four episodes. The ancestral super-strength motif evokes Ms. Marvel and HBO’s Watchmen more than anything else. And I could do without any of the glowy powers honestly, but then the Marvel fan in me remembers that at one point in the comics, Maya becomes Phoenix. Which would make Echo a perfect pivot point towards the X-Men. But I digress.

The action sequences are sparse and purposeful. There’s one downright wicked fight scene in an old-school arcade. Aided by the overarching theme of hands as both communication devices and weapons, Echo’s hand-to-hand combat is expressive, akin to the slickest choreography from John Wick or the Bourne films. Echo’s hands are a kind of music in themselves; kudos to director Sydney Freeland for fully embracing the character’s unique cinematic vocabulary. The simple trick of occasionally cutting out the sound works wonders towards giving this show an intensely intimate point of view, something unfortunately absent from recent MCU offerings.

But mainly it’s all about Alaqua Cox, who is arresting in every scene she’s in. Yes, she glowers and scowls a lot, and it works. Never mind the minor miracle of finding an actor who precisely matches Echo’s physical attributes to play the part, Cox makes us believe in every improbable situation in which Maya finds herself. When we talked via Zoom, Cox stated her hope that Echo could give hearing people a taste of the deaf perspective. Having now watched the whole season, it’s hard to overstate how refreshing the perspective shift in Echo is. It is, and is not, exactly like a formulaic superhero story. That is, it’s that story, with someone you’ve never seen before at the center of it. And for added bonus points: Maya does not have a big love story plotline at any time, yet in the course of three-odd hours of television she conveys every emotion that matters.

Devery Jacobs (who also voices Kahhori in What If? S2) helped disambiguate an interesting difference between the Echo comic and the TV show: in the comics, Echo’s heritage is Cheyenne, but in the show, she is of the Choctaw Nation. Cox herself identifies as being of the Menominee tribe. And unlike with some book-to-screen adaptation problems, the change in Echo’s background is meaningfully integrated into the story. I had to look up a historical thing or two to even make an attempt at parsing this show, and I think I’m a little bit smarter for it.

3 FUN ECHO EASTER EGGS/REFERENCES:for those of you who enjoy a cheat sheet to the Marvel minutiae

In the comics, Echo’s special trick is she can replicate the fighting style of anyone she sees, but they don’t really touch on it in the show, perhaps because it’s pretty close to what Taskmaster does in Black Widow, and that’s fine. But fans at home may wish to know that Echo’s reflection in the DC Universe is Cassandra Cain/Batgirl; both characters were introduced in 1999; Maya is deaf, Cassandra is mute; Maya is Native American, Cassandra is part-Chinese; both have semi-extrasensory abilities that augment their fighting skills. Marvel and DC have a long history of counterpart characters who are non-coincidental mirrors of each other; without going down the rabbithole, see Deathstroke-Deadpool, Darkseid-Thanos, Catwoman-Black Cat, and so on.

Cassandra Cain isn’t always drawn that way, but here, she is.

My favorite little music gag is in Episode 3, when one of the small-town thug’s ringtone for Kingpin’s goon is the (relatively obscure) Don Henley song “New York Minute.” Because the big gangster contact from New York, and the small-time guy trying to impress him, and, oh, that was priceless. Also, the K-Ci & JoJo song “All My Life” shows up at one point, and that’s never a bad thing.

I dunno if there’s been an issue about this, but Maya’s metal leg is kind of a brilliant foil/complement to Daredevil’s billy club: the symbol of a disability converted to a blunt weapon. (Also cf. the original purpose of Iron Man’s armor.) And speaking of Daredevil, the very very end of Echo hints at the story arc which may be featured in Daredevil: Born Again, the Disney+ reboot that is going to exist one of these years.

(Because the comics’ “Born Again” arc was already done in Daredevil Season 3 of the Netflix era, and they oughtn’t do that Born Again again. That would just be weird.)

© 2023 MARVEL.

 The question looms over every Marvel Studios release these days: “Is it a game-changer?” Does this latest show/movie/sequel change the formula, or rekindle the magic or…accomplish…  Read More