‘Echo’ Review: Grounded Crime Drama Sticks With Marvel’s Same Old TV Mistakes

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Earlier in the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, back when the company was still routinely releasing a mere two movies per year, the franchise branched out with a group of Netflix shows from the then-independent Marvel Television division. Though still nominally set in the MCU, these offshoots centered around a grittier approach to superheroes, adapting more grown-up comics storylines situated in a smaller-scale corner of this world. Eventually, Marvel became more interested in big-ticket-but-small-screen extensions of its marquee heroes, rather than further exploring the likes of Luke Cage or Jessica Jones, whose series weren’t overseen by MCU honcho Kevin Feige.

Whether by design or luck, Marvel’s latest show “Echo” revives that earlier sensibility under Feige’s watch. It even brings back major characters from “Daredevil,” the first Marvel-Netflix series, to help fill out the crime-centric world of antihero Maya Lopez (Alaqua Cox), a deaf Native American introduced as a criminal organizer in the 2021 miniseries “Hawkeye.”

Maya worked for Daredevil baddie Kingpin (Vincent D’Onofrio) following the death of her criminal father – until she found out, toward the end of “Hawkeye,” that Kingpin signed off on that hit. The new show fills in some of Maya’s backstory to include vignettes of the Choctaw ancestors, who eventually pass down some ill-defined superpowers, plus the obligatory scenes of psychology-forming childhood traumas, and a lavishly choreographed fight with Daredevil (Charlie Cox, no relation to Alaqua) set sometime around that show’s original run. But most of the new show is set five months after the end of “Hawkeye,” where Maya shot, but apparently failed to kill, her intimidating former boss. She returns to her Oklahoma hometown, enlisting the reluctant help of her Uncle Henry (Chaske Spencer) in her plan to assume command of the Kingpin’s shady operations in the region. Naturally, this proves trickier than expected, despite her considerable physical prowess.

Given that the show features a taciturn, sometimes violent lead character returning to her rural home and clashing with family and colorful criminal lowlifes alike, “Echo” could be described as the MCU’s answer to “Justified,” mixing crime drama elements with a contemporary western. (It’s even streaming on Hulu in addition to Disney+.)

Making a pulpy but prestigious neo-western seems like a well-timed experiment (or possible accident) in the wake of Marvel’s lackluster 2023 offerings (especially the barely-coherent “Secret Invasion”). Then again, that’s a lot to put on a show that was shot back in mid-2022 and just now made it to air under the hastily branded “Marvel Spotlight” banner. That label is supposed to signal a show with more adult content and de-emphasized Marvel continuity, though in this case it feels more like a shorthand for assuring potentially confused viewers why this feels more in line with that “Daredevil” series than the more colorful likes of “She-Hulk” or “Ms. Marvel.” “Echo” is also more violent than those shows – Maya has a past as a genuine killer – but its uneasy yet predictable arc toward heroism also means it becomes less interesting as the series sputters toward its conclusion.

If the oddly abbreviated five-episode season isn’t sufficient tipoff that perhaps “Echo” was subject to some second-guessing and tinkering, the very first installment seems to confirm it: The episode combines all of the aforementioned backstory and a little forward story motion into a single package that manages to feel both unwieldy (for its multiple lurches forward in time) and truncated (for its 45 minutes or so before the credits roll). In other words, despite the additional blood and pulled-back quips, it’s classic MCU TV, shaped and reshaped and misshapen until it gets lost in a netherworld between feature film and television. Future episodes don’t feel as drastically recut, but they do continue to feel truncated – compelling scenes that don’t quite flow together.

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Marvel Studios

As far as Marvel’s uneasy lurches into TV go — even those early Netflix series didn’t exactly master the art of episodic storytelling — “Echo” does have some novelty on its side. One episode features both black-and-white flashbacks to Maya’s ancestry and an extended fight sequence set at a roller-rink, a refreshing change-up for a universe that, even at its grittiest, has tended to favor generic warehouses or dimly lit hallways for its smaller combat scenes. The color palette isn’t quite so murky and washed-out as other MCU shows, and the Oklahoma setting feels lived-in, even if it was mostly fudged in Georgia.

Cox has a presence appealingly removed from the usual superhero ingratiation – stoic and steely, perfect for a sorta-western. Maya’s history, both familial and criminal, is too knottily individualized for Marvel to try passing it off as kind of a wan imitation of their high-water-mark “Black Panther,” but that’s just what happens in the show’s final stretch. The communing with the characters’ Choctaw ancestors ultimately feels more like montage fodder than a story with its own emotional pathways.

In many ways, “Echo” winds up feeling motivated by the same old conglomerate strategy powering so many franchises these days: If you’re sick of one set of continuity-obsessed Easter eggs, how about this slightly different set, in a new basket?

“Echo” is now streaming on Disney+ and Hulu.

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