For years, Maya Lopez believed that she’d made the best of a turbulent life. She had been born deaf, lost a leg in a car accident and then her father to tragedy but his employer had taken her under his wing and helped her triumph beyond her circumstances and disability. In return she’d become part of his business and a very capable, tactile and persuasive person commanding respect within the ranks. But her employer was Wilson Fisk, a man better known as the Kingpin and her ‘job’ was often brutal and unforgiving, her talents for close-quarter combat quite extraordinary and lethal. As ‘Echo’, she’s faced down many adversaries, including the masked vigilant Daredevil and the mysterious ‘Ronin’, but then Maya learned she had not been mentored so much as manipulated: Fisk had engineered her father’s death and though he cared about her welfare and perhaps saw her as the daughter he never had, he also saw her as an asset to his own goals. She had ultimately faced Fisk down and shot him in the face at point-blank range – with many believing that the blow had been fatal.
Now several months later, Maya is returning to her home town in Oklahoma. But this is anything but a social visit… it’s part of her plan to throw what’s left of Fisk’s empire into chaos.
However, Fisk has survived and he wants both his original empire and Maya back within his grasp. As Maya’s recklessness endangers those she once held dear, she will have to make key life and death decisions – but perhaps the innate power that flows within the history and women of the ‘Choctaw Nation’ may provide the tipping point for salvation… and not just for Maya herself…
Recently – and not just because of the arrival of Echo – I started revisiting Netflix‘s Daredevil (now entrenched over at Disney+) and, almost a decade on, I’m reminded that not only was it a truly excellent comics-to-screen adaptation, but it remains a benchmark. Charlie Cox’s earnest, conflicted, contradictory lawyer and vigilante… Vincent D’Onofrio proving he’s one of the most magnetic performers on the planet giving us a Wilson Fisk full of angry stillness and barely-contained righteousness… the should-never-be-overlooked or underestimated support of scene-stealers Elden Henson as Foggy, the self-deprecating but whip-smart better half of the Murdock/Nelson lawyers and Deborah Ann Wohl as Karen Page, the troubled angel and conscience of the firm. Steven De Knight’s adept showrunning brought those fine performers together with great writers, superb fight-choreography and alluring neon shadows to create legal lightning in a bottle and a show that really wasn’t emulating anything seen before.
The years between those three seasons of Daredevil and now have been divisive ones for Marvel and the characters. Post Avengers: Endgame many of the Marvel movies found audiences but in lesser numbers. Marvel and Disney solidified their deal, ending the partnership with Netflix moving almost all of their comics-inspired characters under the Disney+ banner. A myriad of interesting but somewhat flawed efforts followed. WandaVision, Loki, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Secret Invasion all arrived with great fanfare, threatened to entice and then fizzled by the time they wrapped-up. There was also She-Hulk, a fourth, fifth and sixth wall-breaking comedic take on Jennifer Walters, Bruce Banner’s cousin whose day job as a lawyer let her cross paths with a far more light-hearted Matt Murdock (reprised by Cox) and also Hawkeye, a Jeremy Renner vehicle that introduced Hailee Steinfeld as his protégé. But the latter also had a darker B-story, introducing Maya/Echo (Alaqua Cox), a deaf ex-enforcer beginning to realise that the death of her father may actually have come not at the hands of ‘Ronin’ (Clint Barton’s second alter-ego) but by the actions and will of her own mentor Wilson Fisk (again, D’Onofrio). It’s out of that latter story-arc that Echo‘s own solo outing springs – all five episodes released simultaneously on Disney+ and under the partnership’s TV-MA (Mature Audiences) and ‘Marvel Spotlight‘ banner that promises a more gritty take than recent Disney+ endeavors.
There was some question as to how this new run would fit in to previous continuity. Marvel have been using the multiverse to make sense of different styles and continuities and both Echo and the forthcoming Daredevil: Born Again both seemed initially wary of fully pinning themselves down. On one hand, the critical success of Daredevil and its rare alchemy of elements was something Disney clearly wanted to capitalise upon, but on the other hand the ingredients that made up that adult beverage were somewhat at odds with Disney‘s more wholesome brand. The danger was that in trying to play to both audiences, neither would succeed. Daredevil: Born Again, currently being retooled after a SAG/WGA delay and the exit of show-runners Chris Ord and Matt Corman who apparently struggled to balance the needed elements, remains an unknown quantity thus far and we won’t know of that outcome until later next year… but Echo‘s arrival this week gives us an opportunity to judge on how the latest piece of the evolving jigsaw acquits itself.
And there are different ways to judge it – some very positively , some slightly less so, with the problem being that it’s not always the sum of its interesting parts…
With some judicious pruning and editing could have been a very effective 100 minute tv movie, but with the season format (running to about twice that time in total) we instead get something that feels like several concepts spliced together and a result that can’t quite commit to a common core. There’s certainly enough here to enjoy and to applaud the outcome, yet quietly still mourn the decisions that created a good outcome rather than a great one…
Two things the show gets very right are things that set it apart.
The shift away from urban sprawls to rural backwaters is fine in and of itself – it gives us a chance to explore Maya’s deeper background, extended family and the life she was forced to give up after early tragedy. It’s deliberately very different from the grime of the city and perhaps not what viewers were anticipating… a little like tuning in for the culturally-specific action of The Sopranos and getting Ozark instead, though with far less profanity. It’s not always an easy transition and one can feel that there’s fleeting glances westward from Oklahoma to NYC, wanting to keep the big Apple at arm’s length but knowing the importance of the shadow it must cast. The pride, traditions and humour of the Choctaw Nation are centre-stage and are woven into a generational tapestry that forms the backbone of the show. (The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and the organization IllumiNative were involved in research and advising the writers). That being said, the ancestral part of proceedings is well-intentioned but uneven. We immediately have a CGI-heavy flashback to a ‘before times’ that feels like a mix of The Eternals and a subterranean Avatar and initially feels completely at odds with our series expectations. Later we have a sports sequence that take place in the 1200s that feels dangerously close to a LARPing lacrosse reenactment and then an 1800s set sequence that’s once again fine in its own right but has a weird b/w showreel approach (with captions including the word ‘Bang!‘) at odds with its serious subject-matter. It’s an attempt to show the generational power being passed down through female ancestors/descendants but, tonally, it doesn’t quite hold together.
The other thing the series does very well is in integrating aspects of ASL (American Sign Language), having several key sequences that rely on ASL or subtitles, making a ‘hearing’ audience appreciate the differences and difficulties in communications. What could have been a brief ‘stunt’ becomes an integral part of the show’s DNA… one that rightly expects that wider audience to appreciate and to put effort into their viewing. This is something to highlight and applaud and one of the main reasons that the show feels genuinely important in representation. The idea of Fisk creating a contact-lens that allows Maya to see his words as AI hand-gestures is a neat and a truly imaginative piece of tech, more effective as a visual element than entirely logical… though it raises the question as to why Wilson Fisk never learned sign-language. (The series ultimately suggests it’s because on an egotistical-level everything needs to be on Fisk’s terms, bowing to his viewpoint, though that explanation seems to fly in the face of a character who never does anything by half if it feels it’s important and Maya is clearly important to him. Scenes where we experience events from Maya/Echo’s silent perspective are often highly effective but used sparingly for effect… and one can perhaps only dream of the impact of having an entire episode devoted to such if the show had decided to go all-in.
It’s clear that in greenlighting the show, the intent was not to just give us more of ‘Echo’ but more of ‘Maya’ herself. Rising star Alaqua Cox, who is deaf in real life and also a genuine member Menominee and Mohican Nation, continues her interpretation of the character with an obvious fearlessness, more than capable of handling the role’s demands on an emotional and physical level. (In the comics Maya/Echo is not an amputee, but the show did more than include the aspect to accommodate Cox’s real life artificial limb, they made it central to the way that the character moves, acts and approaches life). Cox is more than up to the job and does her best to hold together a script that’s always earnest but isn’t always consistent. D’Onofrio is nothing less than a consistently brave and superbly talented actor and it’s great to see him back in a role that he obviously enjoys. No, this isn’t quite the visceral delight of his early menace of Daredevil days and though his acting carries Fisk through every scene, the script and plotting don’t always convey the whys of the character’s decisions as fully. We all know that despite his presumed demise, Fisk was going to turn up alive but his devotion to the daughter of one of his lackeys is more obsessional than fully explained here for newer viewers. We saw in Hawkeye that he looked after Maya and, recognising her talents, cultivated her as an asset, but the show doesn’t fully explain why Fisk risks everything to bring her ‘home’ against her will (especially after she blew out his eye). Yes, we eventually get parallels to Fisk’s own troubled upbringing, but they aren’t really fully explored until the climax. Still, D’Onofrio’s interaction with Cox’s Maya and her younger self (played by Darnell Besaw) are always intensely watchable. (A flashback scene where Fisk beats up an ice-cream seller that’s been disrespectful to Maya and she’s not terrified by Fisk’s actions – as he and the audience initially suspect – but actually joins in with his punishment is a key moment of the whole run).
There is also able support from the likes of Graham Greene, Chaske Spencer, Tantoo Cardinal, Cody Lightning and Devery Jacobs (who voiced Kahhori in two episodes of the recent What If..?) each bringing some humour and pathos to their characters.
Five episodes, all released simultaneously to the platform this week, is enough to quickly binge-watch and also enough time to assess that one of the Marvel/Disney+ series’ problems remain intact: great premise, moments of genius and style… but that pesky pacing remaining a stumbling block. Echo, narrative -rich and well-acted though it is – has a lot of ideas and they often compete for space, not always gelling together smoothly in the allocated episodes. There’s great themes, socially, intellectually, dramatically and historically… but they are unevenly assigned screen-time and sometimes collide rather than coalesce. Much of the opening episode caters of late-comers and gives us an expanded back-story of the Maya Lopez character yet most of the seminal beats pivot around recycled footage from both Hawkeye and Daredevil. But even if we’re actually assuming that some of the audience will be new, then the lip-reading lip-service given to Maya/Echo’s original drive for vengeance probably makes little real sense without a wider MCU context to the events. Maya’s loss of her father (Zahn McClarnon reprising the role) is hugely important and the pivot to her grief, but we briefly skip through the NYC events that lead to his death in rather superficial fashion and I guarantee at least one ‘newbie’ will have furrowed their brow and said “I don’t understand, isn’t that Jeremy Renner – why is he dressed differently and where are all his arrows?“). It’s the sense of having too much time devoted to backstory for those familiar with it and not enough for those trying to understand pivotal context. It’s cliff notes with cliffhangers…
In original continuity or not, this isn’t quite a return to the Netflix series vibe some may have been crossing their fingers to see. Disney has obviously given the production more room to breathe, grunt and scream and it’s certainly bloodier and harder edged, more grounded in some ways than recent productions. It feels like a statement of intent and a welcome one. But though it dishes up plenty of fights and action and dish-loads of attitude – setting itself apart from the family-friendly fare – there’s still something about the tone that is just a little less brutal and nihilistic. For example, a newly-shot flashback confrontation between Maya and Daredevil is impressively and ambitiously choreographed but can’t quite shake the feeling of a ballistic ballet rather than the grimy, earthy, sweaty and uncomfortable, combustible carnage of old. Watch the Netflix show’s hallway hand-to-hand, dark alley beat-downs and visceral close-quarter combat and Echo is enthusiastically fresh but not as brutal, taking the ‘hard R’ to a sharp ’15’. Your mileage may vary on how important or not that is.
Five episodes is an interesting decision. Everything here is potentially interestingly and worthy of exploration yet nothing is quite fleshed out enough. Echo/Maya’s mission seems to be to reclaim her life away from the events of New York… despite that premise we find out that she’s not finished wreaking revenge on Fisk’s enterprises, even in the wake of his assumed death . She’s back in her hometown to kickstart a takeover bid for his misbegotten empire. But returning to her home town is something we’re shown leaves her feeling uncomfortable and exposed and one could narratively argue she could have achieved much of what she sets out to (including the train bombing) in another location. After she plants explosives on a train heading back from Tamaha, Oklahoma to the rotten core of the Big Apple, it all becomes a bit handwavery as to exactly how she intends to be a ‘Queenpin’. She has abilities and athleticism (though her ability from the comics to be able to quickly learn, mimic and evolve talents merely by exposure to them – something intrinsic to the character – is, disappointingly, sidestepped here) but she seems aimless, easily distracted and the show itself offers no real direction to her plan, just the gravel-spraying power of momentum: speed rather than velocity.
The idea of a deaf Native American with one leg and a climax that’s rooted in ancestral female power and indigenous rites will likely drive some into vapid spasms and pouting, hollow claims of ‘woke’ (whatever that term presumably means to them this week) and in which case I hope the door hits them on the way out. Ultimately, Echo isn’t the landmark triumph of Netflix‘s Daredevil, but it is interesting and enjoyable and proof Marvel can still take some chances. With some judicious pruning and editing could have been a very effective and superior 100 minute tv movie, but with the season format (running to about twice that time in total) we instead get something that feels like several concepts spliced together and a result that can’t quite commit to a common core. There’s certainly enough here to enjoy and to applaud the ambition, yet quietly still mourn the decisions that created a good outcome rather than a great one.
- Production Design / VFX8