Echo was always going to be a risk.

The series is a spinoff-from-a-spinoff, focusing on the breakout character from 2021’s largely forgettable Hawkeye series. It’s the shortest MCU TV series, with only five episodes released all at once. To add to that, entire scenes are in other languages, making for a lot of reading for an audience used to standard MCU fare. But somehow, Echo manages to turn each of these obstacles into a strength.

Echo is the antidote to Marvel malaise. The series brings the franchise into a new future by calling back to a brutal, neck-snapping era of TV that makes Echo feel like it’s lifted straight from the early 2000s. Echo strays from the go-to formula that has catapulted the MCU to where it is today, subverting what fans have come to expect, and deviating from the Marvel norm in increasingly satisfying ways. It’s not only the best Marvel series in years, but the first glimmer of hope that the MCU can shift direction from what looks to be a downward spiral.

We didn’t learn much about Maya Lopez in Hawkeye. She’s a fearsome fighter, is Deaf with a prosthetic leg, and is stinging from the loss of her dad after he’s slain by Ronin (Hawkeye’s alter ego) acting on Kingpin’s orders. But most importantly, she’s stubborn as all hell. In Echo, Maya is seeking revenge on Kingpin, bringing her back to her hometown, where her mission clashes with the family she hasn’t seen in years, and the tight-knit Choctaw community she abandoned.

Her roots in her tribe are explored in the series’ flashbacks, which take the action from when Maya was a little girl, to pre-colonial Alabama and everywhere in between. Usually, this many changes in the setting would be a signal of a disorganized story, but Echo’s entire superheroic identity is tied up in a past she isn’t exactly willing to accept. In the three episodes that critics received for review, we see silent movie heroes, ancient celebrations, and even how Maya came to lose her leg, but every glimpse we get of the past is further proof of the legacy that she’s about to inherit.

Echo is the first MCU TV series to be rated TV-MA, and it milks every drop of blood it can from that allowance. Necks are snapped, viscera spatters, and there’s not one but two backroom surgeries in the first three episodes alone. The complicated Marvel fight choreography still carries over in the form of glossy set pieces like a train robbery, but now there’s crunchy sound design and genuinely disturbing threats to accompany them.

Take, for example, the skate rink fight in Episode 3. It’s polished, but with one big twist: Maya cranks up the volume of Rob Zombie’s “Dragula” to distract her enemies without swaying her focus at all, a twisted allusion to Wait Until Dark. That single needle-drop, juxtaposing the ultra-violent action with an objectively goofy song and disco lights, catapults the scene to be one of the best action scenes in the MCU ever.

But the most inventive thing about Echo is when its hero’s supposed character “flaws” become superpowers. Maya’s true powers are slow to develop, so she finds ingenious ways to make her disabilities work to her benefit. Her Deafness isn’t set dressing or some massive obstacle she needs to overcome. Instead, it’s a crucial plot point. Her prosthetic leg is tricked out, and American Sign Language becomes a code as well as a language. If Maya has a flaw, it’s her passion, not her disability.

As Maya Lopez, Alaqua Cox is well aware of the legacy the Marvel Cinematic Universe carries, but she’s not afraid to play with the expectations for the Marvel hero. Even though she’s communicating through ASL, Maya makes it very clear she’s a new type of superhero: surly, ambitious, and without a single Marvel Movie Quip. This balances well off of her family members: her Uncle Henry (Chaske Spencer), cousin Biscuits (Cody Lightning), and Grandmother Chula (Tantoo Cardinal) are all imbued with a warmth that mask their own desires for vengeance.

But recent What If…? star Devery Jacobs is the breakout as Maya’s childhood best friend and cousin Bonnie. From the second she’s reunited with Maya, the two have undeniable chemistry, slotting back into their old dynamic even in the worst circumstances. Their relationship allows the audience to see Maya behind the ruthlessness and her constant declarations that “it’s time for a queen.” Bonnie knows Maya as the girl who blamed herself for the biggest tragedy in her life, a version of herself Maya locked away long ago.

Echo is the inaugural show of “Marvel Spotlight,” a new imprint of MCU TV that promises smaller scopes and grittier “street-level” action; but smaller scopes do not mean lower stakes. Echo has the increasingly rare freedom of not needing to fit into the grander scheme of the MCU. There are no multiverse implications or cosmic adventures. Maya doesn’t have to save the world. She just has to save her world. It’s the kind of small-scale storytelling that makes Echo so enormously affecting. Her navigating her family’s history and her own emotional priorities is more exciting than another horde of nameless henchman getting defeated. Instead, Echo makes us keenly invested in every triumph that she enjoys, every loss that she suffers, and every punch she throws — though it helps that the punches are especially brutal.

In a Marvel Cinematic Universe that can’t seem to catch a win lately with issues both fictional and not, Echo is proof that given a blank slate, quality still can become the priority. It’s just a matter of giving characters the freedom to chase after smaller goals — they may just be the biggest stories of them all.

All episodes of Echo are now streaming on Disney+.

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