Marvel’s ‘Echo’ Introduces an Indigenous Hero With Bloody Grit

This is reportedly going to be a slow year in terms of Marvel releases. Just as the studio’s output is about to slow down, it releases “Echo,” a gritty and entertaining series that feels like old-fashioned action TV. At the same time it’s another one of those productions that uses popcorn distraction to introduce some broader diversity into media. Here we have a Native American hero in a series that balances cultural inclusion and high-octane thrills pretty well. While longtime Marvel fans will be looking out for every link and reference to the broader universe, this show can also be enjoyed on its own terms. General plot beats are familiar, since most of these superhero yarns follow the same patterns, but it’s well executed with a dynamic lead.

Alaqua Cox plays Maya Lopez, a deaf Native American from Oklahoma who lost her mother and a leg very young in a car accident. Her father, William (Zahn McClarnon) takes her to New York, where it turns out he has some kind of connection to local crime boss Wilson Fisk aka the Kingpin (Vincent D’Onofrio). When William is killed by an unknown assassin, Fisk offers to take Maya under his wing as a hired gun. She soon proves to be a very skilled killer. But when Maya discovers Fisk was connected to William, she puts a bullet in the crime lord and heads back to her hometown. There, she reconnects with old friends and tries to mend family ties. But Maya also has the extremely dangerous goal to plot revenge on Fisk by hitting back at his local operations, with the aim of expanding her assault into an eventual takeover.

Though Maya was first introduced to viewers when she appeared in the “Hawkeye” series, there is little to strongly link “Echo” to the broader MCU, Avengers story tree. There’s more in common here with bygone action shows like “Nikita” or “Dark Angel.” Alaqua Cox still challenges the mold of those archetypes by creating a great character who is also disabled. Artistically this gives the series a unique style in that much of it is spoken through sign language. As a whole the series is also a fantastic showcase of Indigenous talent on par with Hulu’s “Reservation Dogs.” Cox is of the Menominee and Mohican nation while the cast features many notable Native American talents like Tantoo Cardinal and Graham Greene as Maya’s grandparents. Film buffs will love this latter pairing considering Cardinal and Greene were also a couple in “Dances With Wolves” over thirty years ago. 

“Echo” is also shorter than the average Marvel offering with only five episodes, which are all being streamed at once. Does the studio have faith in this one? It should, considering that the cold reception of other recent MCU series had more to do with audience fatigue from keeping up with the whole archaic panorama the MCU has turned into. Maya does have powers, though at first they are quite vague and you have to keep watching to understand them. There is also a whole other timeline that episodes keep flashing back to, one involving events in an ancient Indigenous civilization. The main focus is on Maya’s journey to avenge her father and reconnect with figures from the past. When she returns to Oklahoma as a grown woman, she must reconnect with best friend and cousin Bonnie (Devery Jacobs). Maya also shares her plans with an uncle, Henry (Chaske Spencer), who owns a roller rink and is terrified of the war his niece is threatening to unleash if she goes against Fisk. Cody Lightning is a lot of fun as Biscuits, an overly nice cousin of Maya’s who will no doubt get roped into her intrigues.

The writing rushes through these introductions because it’s so quick to establish the conflict. It really is driven by the action, right from the first episode where the production’s impressive stunt work shines in fight scenes that look borrowed from John Woo movies. Marvel fans will get a bit of their fandom fantasies fulfilled when Daredevil very briefly appears in the pilot. This is the one time in the season that “Echo” openly winks at the wider MCU roster. Even then, the red hero only trades a few punches with Maya, which is enough to impress the Kingpin into saying no one else has battled his nemesis like she has. Cox looks like a natural beating down assassins and in the grander, pricier action scenes as when she carries out an operation against a train belonging to Fisk. Some headlines are already emphasizing how this is one of the bloodier MCU shows on Disney Plus. It’s not necessarily graphic, but there are more bullet wounds and broken necks than your average Marvel offering. More bullets are spent than lasers. 

What eventually makes the character of Maya and Cox’s performance so compelling is the gritty, human realism brought to the role. Maya is a truly haunted, raging personality out to get revenge because of genuine pain. She wants to become “queen” over Fisk’s enterprise in order to get the ultimate payback. This is why she can also be quite reckless. “Echo” delivers this saga while also focusing just enough on Native American life. Graham Greene has a hilariously biting scene running a small shop where white customers want something more “southwesterny” to decorate their “casita.” When Marvel goes for it, some of their best shows and films also have the freedom to make the kind of social commentary high-browed productions shy away from. But in the end “Echo” is simply a lot of fun while packing a strong punch and announcing its lead as one to watch.

Echo” season one begins streaming Jan. 9 on Disney+.