Marvel’s new show falls into a franchise hole

Clarisse Loughrey’s Show of the Week column, published every Friday, spotlights a new show to watch or skip. This week: it’s the MCU’s latest series Echo.

Disney+’s Echo, so we’ve been told, marks the debut of the Marvel Spotlight banner – a new signifier of “more grounded, character-driven stories… focusing on street-level stakes over larger MCU continuity”. This is a lie. In its very first episode, of five, we’re fed a hurried, disjointed recap of all the information we’re already meant to have absorbed before sitting down to press play: Maya Lopez (Alaqua Cox) is the deaf, Choctaw vigilante first introduced in 2021’s Hawkeye, who’s risen the ranks of the New York underworld to become the right-hand woman of crime lord Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio).

Her father, William (Zahn McClarnon), was killed by Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), back when he was grieving the snapification of his wife and child by entering his murder phase – only for it to be revealed, in Hawkeye, that Fisk was the one who ordered William’s death. Maya repaid her mentor and ersatz uncle with a bullet in the eye, which he has, of course, survived, since Fisk was already established as the primary antagonist of Daredevil (Charlie Cox) in the old, Netflix Marvel shows. And since those shows are now officially part of the MCU, that’s also demanded a brief cameo from Daredevil in Echo’s first episode.

Confused? That’s your problem, the MCU retorts. It’s dug its franchise hole so deep now that audiences are expected to carry the burden of an encyclopaedic knowledge of decade-old stories simply to enjoy the fistful of shows and films it’s trying to shove down your gullet each year. There’s nothing standalone about Echo, which begs the question of what exactly motivated Marvel to slap the “Spotlight” sticker on this series – and not, let’s say, 2022’s Moon Knight, a genuinely standalone series which concerned itself only with Oscar Isaac being chased around by a large, skeletal bird, and was blissfully free of cameos.

The implications here are, to be blunt, not great. The phrase “street-level stakes” plays uncomfortably like code for “inessential” or “skippable”, which is an awkward way to throw one of the MCU’s most radical pieces of representation under the bus. Here we have a series spotlighting a deaf, Native character who uses a prosthetic, played by a deaf, Native actor who uses a prosthetic, with the support of an entire team of both Native and deaf creatives. And Maya’s a well-conceived character, played with palpable force by Cox. There’s no patronising inclination here to present her disabilities as the secret source of her superpower – they are a neutral, but integral part of her identity, present in Echo’s extensive use of ASL and in the clever consideration of her prosthetic in its fight sequences.

And Marvel’s promise of a “more grounded, character-driven” narrative is another trick, really. All the MCU problems you know too well rear their head again in the very same way. It’s clear Marion Dayre, Echo’s creator and showrunner, came to the table with an impressive pitch: Maya has fled the scene of Fisk’s “death” and returned to her hometown of Tamaha, Oklahoma, on the pretence of cleaning up his empire. But she soon finds herself drawn back into old memories. Maya is a woman who walks between worlds: not only between spiritual and physical states, the legacy of her Choctaw ancestors pulsing through her veins, but between the illusion of family Fisk created in New York, and the flawed, but real one she left behind.

Yet, Dayre has no room to breathe, and Echo is inevitably reduced to a fragmentary collection of good scenes and great performances. In fact, there’s a fair amount of crossover here, both in front of and behind the camera, with Disney+’s excellent (and recently concluded) Reservation Dogs, and its star, Devery Jacobs, delivers a standout turn as Maya’s cousin Bonnie. At only five episodes, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Marvel thinks of Echo as less of a boutique entry into its canon, and more of a conveyor belt to take us from Hawkeye to the upcoming Daredevil: Born Again series, where Fisk and Maya will inevitably feature. Far from a fresh start, we’re back in the same place: with too much care for franchises, and not enough for stories.