Marvel’s Echo is a ground-level, culturally complex superhero story (sort of)

Marvel's Echo, deaf, superheroMarvel’s Echo, available on Disney+ and Hulu, is a major re-telling of a B-List Daredevil character, in a disorganized, risky and ultimately admirable but not completely successful attempt at telling a ‘deeper’ story despite the superhero genre. It’s far from perfect, but pretty encouraging when you stack it up against the string of shallow, sloppy, and emotionally stunted “big” super-movies we’ve been spooned the last few years. And of course, it was made just for me.

It’s not exactly a secret: I’ve been a huge comic book nerd since I was 10 years old, back in the Sixties when there was absolutely nothing cool about reading the funnybooks. For me, my first was Adventure Comi, featuring Superboy and the Legion of Suuper-Heroes. I remember them even now; I remember crying when Lightning Lad died – you know, for the first time. And I have read comics consistently since then, for literally 60 years now. Imagine: the first Marvel Comic I bought with change out of my Dad’s pocket was Avenger #4, when Captain American was fished out of the ice for the very first time. And I even published comics for a short while in the early 90’s after hanging around with people like Frank Miller and Steve Gerber and Stephen Grant.

Never mind. Don’t get me started. The point is that the whole blossoming of superhero movies as a genre over the last couple of decades was specifically designed just for me. So yes, I tend to be very forgiving and very critical of every superhero adaptation for screens large and small. I admit it.

And as if that wasn’t enough when it came to my predisposition for a sincere attempt at depth and quality – Echo, remember? — there’s a deaf thing. Again: all about me. I was deeply involved in the deaf community throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. It was a personal family thing, but I tell you: raising a deaf child taught me a great deal – maybe as much as a hearing person could learn at the time – about deafness and deaf culture when all anybody knew about it was repeated viewings of Children of a Lesser God and The Miracle Worker. So here, too, Echo seemed made for me: a prime example of the expanding use of deaf actors, as well as the introduction of characters and plot line where the character’s deafness isn’t always central to the plot. Recent seasons of Only Murders in the Building and The Amazing Race and even The Great British Bake-Off are prime examples, and of course, that means a great deal to me even though I’m no longer deeply involved in the deaf community, and it has changed radically in he last decade alone. The fact is, I still get all teary-eyed when I see a car commercial with a deaf father and son in it.

So given all that, I should be falling all over my for Echo, a sincere and high-quality attempt to tell and deep, smart story about, of all things, a deaf superhero. Right?

I just wish I was.

Though I’m mostly a DC and independent comics guy – I wandered away from Marvel years ago; too many X-men, too many clones – I was well aware of Maya Lopez when she was introduced in Daredevil a few years back. At the time I was relieved to see that her superpower – being able to duplicate anybody’s fighting style, rather like Deathstroke and Taskmaster in other comic book universes – wasn’t linked to her hearing issues, unlike Daredevil’s blindness being the ‘thing’ that made him ‘super.’ (well, that and a random bar of radioactive waste). Yes, they played a different game with her powers in the TV series, but still – she’s not a ‘superpowered deaf girl.’ Instead, she’s a fascinating, pleasantly dark character that works very hard to avoid many of the tropes and cliches of superhero movies, deaf stories, or Native American tales.

And yet… Echo is only … okay. More of a relief that they didn’t friggin’ screw it up than an inspiration. I was very pleased to see that Maya’s chosen family in Oklahoma all worked hard to learn sign – C-sign, at least, if not full-on ASL. I appreciated that they didn’t make her a super-lip-reader or skipped over the difficulties she often had in communication. And I was glad the main story had very little to do with her disability – yeah, don’t at me, the language is hard to cope with sometimes – and much more to do with her abandonment and her rage – deeply human emotions and flaws for humans of all types.

Unfortunately, Echo has its issues. The story itself was unnecessarily tough to follow, even for an old comic book geek like me. Her necessarily taciturn, emotionally distant persona and her ‘loner’ status made it hard to understand her motives or her ‘master plan’ a lot of the time, and the introduction almost casually, of a supernatural element in an otherwise deeply realistic story made things even more difficult to accept. Yes, Alaqua Cox’s performance was pretty amazing, even up against powerhouses like Vincent D’Onofrio and Graham Greene, but the fact that this was her first on-screen role showed around the edges more than once. Regardless, I was very, very glad they found a damn good deaf actress to play the part rather than go for a damn good actress who was pretending to be deaf.

D’Onofrio was, as always, brilliant, but boy, did they let him of the hook with the signing thing. Where her whole extended family and friends signed throughout, Wilson Fisk – who supposedly loved her deeply – could never be bothered to learn sign, and though the callous murder of the interpreter in the later episodes did play an important role in exposing his truly evil nature – as if we didn’t know! — the subsequent introduction of that fantasy technology that gave Maya ‘magic’ contact lenses that allowed her to see a ghostly hologram of sign over the Kingpin whenever he spoke, as well as allowing him to hear an AI voice whispering in his head whenever she signed … yeah, very convenient and very annoying. You have to wonder if it was done just to speed up and simplify those last few scenes between Echo and Kingpin, or if there wasn’t the time or inclination to teach Vincent D’onofrio the signs he needed. In any event: a squirmy and unexpected flaw late in the game.

All in all, the fight scenes were very good – better, weirdly, than the fight scenes in The Marvels, but we’ll get to that some other time – the characters are strong, and the cameos by Daredevil and Hawkeye, the latter entirely in cuts from earlier shows – were, at the very least, painless. I wasn’t crazy about the open-ended “more to come in Daredevil’s own show” conclusion, but I also wasn’t surprised… and let’s see if Maya does show up when DD’s own series finally arrives… whenever that is.

So bottom line: Echo wasn’t great It was no Loki or What If…?. But there was a down-to-earth, gritty quality to it that makes it worth watching. Maybe not binging, but enjoyable now and then when there’s nothing else around.

But please, please … can we be done with the ‘superpowered disabled people” bit for a while now? We’ve got DD, we’ve got Echo, we’ve got Moon Knight with his multiple personality disorder and …

.. oh, I see the Sentry is scheduled to be part of The Thunderbolts next year.

Great I guess we’re not done with this particular trope after all.

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