Marvel Studios begins 2024 on different footing. A powerhouse brand for over a decade, the studio’s 2023 was not their brightest year, with critically panned projects, underperforming films, and story after story about how mismanagement crept into their famously well-maintained release calendar. The reasons for the falter are varied, but no matter the origins, Marvel is trying to rebuild their reputation.
In the midst of the sea change is Echo, announced in 2021 and shot in 2022, which emerged from reported creative tumult as a five-episode miniseries, the first in what the studio calls the “Marvel Spotlight.” The label is meant to showcase characters and concepts essentially disconnected from the current multi-project saga and declare to viewers burnt out on Multiverses and ongoing tales across film and TV that substantially less foreknowledge is required.
Of course, the “Spotlight” concept arrived very late in Echo’s development, and as those who binged the program after it premiered on January 9 know, it is still firmly part of the Marvel world – well, one of them, anyway. So, what does it mean for the miniseries to stand alone? Also, what can the studio take from it and iterate upon to make “Spotlight” projects stronger in the future. Let’s take a look at Echo and see what works, what still needs improvement, and what might happen if the studio invests in more one-off ideas.
(Warning: Spoilers for Echo Follow)
(Photo by Chuck Zlotnick/©Marvel Studios)
Whether by design, accident, or a realization in the editing bay, Echo surprisingly recreates the sensation of reading a particular type of comic book miniseries. For lack of a recognized industry term, we’ll call it the “character mini” – a four-to-six-issue comic meant to give greater depth to a breakout supporting character. In the Marvel Comics world, this format is often used to showcase X-Men characters. In fact, Wolverine’s first solo outing, a four-issue series by John Byrne, Frank Miller, Joe Rubinstein, Glynis Wein, and Tom Orzechowski in 1982, established many of the format particulars: The story takes the spotlighted character out of their usual milieu to revisit some aspect of their past never before examined. New supporting characters are introduced, the character grows in some way, and they either make a choice to return to their main book or continue journeying in a solo title or another miniseries.
In Wolverine’s case, Marvel chose all the options, returning him to the X-Men books, centering him in a Wolverine ongoing series, and featuring him in any other title in need of a sales boost.
(Photo by Chuck Zlotnick/©Marvel Studios)
For Maya Lopez (Alaqua Cox), though, Echo serves as both a character mini and an origin story — fair enough, as her Marvel Cinematic Universe debut in 2021’s Hawkeye had precious little time but to make her an antagonist and establish part of her relationship to Kingpin Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio). Nevertheless, the series as it appears on Disney+ (and Hulu during its initial release period) follows much of the character mini format: new locale, new supporting characters, and a chance for the title character to change. Along the way, though, we also learn a lot about her and see her given an extreme choice to rejoin the environment she knew in Hawkeye or become something new.
While knowledge of her Hawkeye appearances will deepen the viewer’s experience with Echo, it’s far less homework than, say, the myriad of referenced storylines one might need to navigate Loki or comprehend Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. And, indeed, much of Echo’s first episode serves a much-needed recap for those entering the story with Maya on her motorcycle.
That is one of the great advantages of the character mini format. It is a purposeful opportunity to find new readers in comics and, if Marvel continues to explore this format in television, new viewers. More of the studio’s TV output should keep that in mind.
Granted, the success of such a format is entirely dependent on those viewers digging the story being told.
One key way Echo stands alone is by moving its action from the New York area to Tamaha, Oklahoma. Outside of a handful of projects, notably She-Hulk: Attorney At Law, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Moon Knight, and the Ant-Man films, few Marvel characters are far from the Big Apple. Even the Jersey City of Ms. Marvel still has the New York skyline in the distance. But by moving Maya halfway across the country from the city of Avengers, Hawkeyes, and Defenders, easy cameos become impossible and the tale must make an effort to build a new world for the featured character to inhabit.
Echo just about pulls that off. Like New York, Tamaha is a real town. Unlike the epicenter of Marvel action, though, it is a really small town. That sensation permeates the program’s attempted world-building. Maya’s grandmother, Chula (Tantoo Cardinal), is clearly known around town as the mail carrier for a population of under 200 people – a job made easier when Biscuits (Cody Lightning) doesn’t take her truck for his own. The place to be on any given night is Black Crow’s Skate World, operated by Maya’s uncle, Henry Black Crow Lopez (Chaske Spencer). Her grandfather Skully (Graham Greene) runs the local pawn shop, and her cousin Bonnie (Devrey Jacobs) is a member of the town’s paramedic squad.
Although none of Maya’s family develops too much across Echo’s five episodes, there is a sense of place on display that, under different circumstances, could lead to a setting viewers want to come back to again and again. Aiding that are the one- or two-line characters who reinforce Chula and Biscuit’s place in the community. Tamaha could be the center of an ongoing story, but we think part of making a Marvel tale stand alone is creating a tantalizing glimpse of a new and interesting environment. At the same time, Marvel should invest more creative energies in building settings outside of the New York tri-state area. The results could be quite compelling.
From just about the moment Echo became known to the public, a persistent rumor suggested Matt Murdoch (Charlie Cox) would follow Maya and Fisk to Oklahoma. His reason: to search for a lost friend reportedly set to be revealed as Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter in the self-titled Netflix series). In the end, his role was limited to the program’s one easy cameo — Jeremy Renner’s brief appearance was archival material from Hawkeye — and a seeming confirmation that neither he nor Fisk were Blipped.
Remember when that mattered?
Whether or not Daredevil’s Oklahoma sojourn was ever real or just an online fantasy, limiting his appearance to a scene establishing more of Maya’s brutal Manhattan life keeps the focus squarely on Echo‘s main character and not the promise that Daredevil may swing in and save the day. Although, it should be noted Marvel and Disney took full advantage of the character and Fisk in the marketing of the series.
This is a lesson Marvel could learn a little bit more as, ultimately, the mid-credit stinger scene in the finale set up one plot point for the upcoming Daredevil: Born Again series: Fisk entertaining a bid for mayor of New York. It is one of the few indications of Maya’s place in the ongoing Marvel storytelling and, frankly, the show could have done without it. Instead, it would have been more interesting to leave Fisk seemingly altered by Maya’s ancestral power and end the program on the note that she healed everyone she ever cared about. Even the Kingpin.
Of course, as Echo is still a Marvel show, it can’t avoid all of the previously established world-building. Nevertheless, Roxxon gas stations and a mention of “authentic” Navajo rugs being produced in Madripoor (the lawless city featured in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier) are far more welcome tips of the cap than a Daredevil tease. And if more Marvel Spotlights are to come, they should evade any sort of preview of future events to make the story we’re currently watching feel more complete.
(Photo by Chuck Zlotnick/©Marvel Studios)
One reason WandaVision suggested Marvel Studios’ television programs would be particularly strong was its showcase of acting talent. Subsequent series have not been as solid for a variety of reasons. But Echo gets closer to the WandaVision ideal thanks to work from Cardinal, D’Onofio, Green, and, of course, Cox herself.
It’s clear why Marvel jumped to give her a lead role despite only appearing in one project prior to Hawkeye. She has star chops, and in scenes with just about every actor, she takes a commanding lead. If Echo was meant to continue, her work here would be a strong indication why.
Going back to the notion of the comic book character mini, showcasing talent like this should be one of the key reasons for the Marvel Spotlight. With less worry over how a story fits into the larger Marvel tapestry, actors get more ownership of their roles and scenes. The results: people you want to spend more time with, even if you know they will only be here for an extremely limited time.
Granted, that’s tempered by some story quibbles. Maya and Bonnie never get a proper on-screen resolution, for example. It is confined to the backyard dinner in the closing moments, and that scene is more about Chula embracing the surviving Lopezes. The lack of an earlier, proper heart-to-heart between Maya and Bonnie may also be the reason why the latter’s moment with the ancestral power does not land as strongly as it should. In this format, character defines the action more intensely than it might otherwise. And those character beats need to be logical, emotional, and well-paced. The lesson for Marvel in this aspect is obvious: spotlight the performances and the characters.
Even if the mission statement is for Echo to stand alone from the Multiverse Saga, the miniseries still establishes Maya (and Cox) as someone you want to see reappear at some point in the future. But it has to be the right story and the right idea. With the way the ancestral power is realized — particularly when Chafa (Julia Jones) saves her people from the cave-in using that power and “becomes human” — the temptation might be to tie Maya to mutants or some other group of powered people. That is the wrong way to go. Instead, a future drop-in by Maya should be less concerned with her past or powers and indicate a place for her going forward. At the moment, she is no longer seeking a criminal empire. Will she be content reconnecting with her family and, presumably, protecting Tamaha?
Then again, maybe this is the right place to leave her. And, perhaps, the lesson for Marvel here is that sometimes, a story cannot be extended. If characters are to grow and change, they cannot remain in stasis, waiting for the Avengers to call them into service. And for some of them, living a life without any more promise of superhero antics is the right ending.