Not ‘Captain America’: Marvel Studios’ ‘Echo’ Shatters Superhero Stereotypes With Gritty Realism & Indigenous Truth

Marvel Studios has long captivated audiences with its fantastical tales of superhuman feats, cosmic battles, and larger-than-life heroes but with the introduction of its latest Disney+ offering, Echo, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is taking a detour from its usual superhero fare, and into a realm that’s darker, grittier, and steeped in the cultural authenticity of Native American heritage.

This narrative shift is a bold move for Marvel, as Echo marks the studio’s first TV-MA offering, targeting mature audiences. The series, following the events of 2021’s Hawkeye Disney+ series, centers on Maya Lopez (Alaqua Cox), a deaf Native American Choctaw and former leader of the Tracksuit Mafia, a crime syndicate overseen by Wilson Fisk. 

Haunted by her clash with Clint Barton and branded a fugitive after shooting Wilson Fisk/Kingpin (Vincent D’Onofrio) for her father’s death, Maya Lopez flees back to her Oklahoma roots. There, she confronts her tumultuous past and reconnects with her Choctaw roots, weaving an emotional tale of family, community, and self-discovery.

Director and executive producer Sydney Freeland, a Navajo filmmaker of Reservation Dogs fame, emphasises the uniqueness of Maya’s journey as a character far removed from the archetypal Marvel hero. 

“The goal was never to try to turn her into Captain America. In the conversations with Marvel, the response was like, hey, let’s lean into that. Let’s see if we can push it out a little, how far we can go down that rabbit hole,” Freeland notes in a recent press conference that Geek Culture attended.

First introduced in the Daredevil comics in 1999, Maya has also adopted the Ronin identity though in the MCU, Ronin was the persona adopted by Clint ‘Hawkeye’ Burton when he started killing criminals during the ‘Blip’. While the comic version has “photographic reflexes”, or the ability to perfectly mimic the movements of others, the live-action version doesn’t seem to possess the same ability.

Photo by Chuck Zlotnick. ©Marvel Studios 2022. All Rights Reserved.

Unlike the clean-cut dichotomies of good versus evil often seen in character stories like Captain America’s, Maya inhabits a morally ambiguous space, scarred by a violent past and this nuanced portrayal adds layers to the character, challenging the conventional superhero narrative and embracing a darker, more mature tone. 

“Maya has the death of her mother, and all these tragic events that happened in her life,” Alaqua Cox shares. 

“Maya is a character who has really difficult decisions to make, and ultimately has to confront people she loves in order to grow and change,” executive producer Brad Winderbaum explains, and this shift allows for a deeper exploration of the character’s internal struggles and her quest for self-discovery.

“It creates a more grounded story for the audience. Marvel is at its best when the storytellers follow the character and let the character kind of lead the dance, lead the journey.” 

Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2023 MARVEL.

Vincent D’Onofrio, who returns to his role as Wilson Fisk/Kingpin as first seen in the now defunct Netflix series of Marvel TV shows, opens up about Kingpin’s current complex familial dynamic with Maya in Echo, and his take on playing the same yet different character. His return to the character is also not the only one, as Charlie Cox makes an appearance as Matt ‘Daredevil’ Murdock, also from the same Netflix library of Marvel streaming shows.

“Even if I’m playing Fisk over and over again, my first job is to service the story. In Echo, we’re very fortunate to be able to portray these characters as a father-daughter, or a niece-nephew, however you want to say it, kind of relationship.”

Echo also breaks free from the usual MCU mold of a superhero spectacle with a more intricate portrayal of family ties that anchors the narrative in authenticity, paving the way for explorations of profound themes, including the series’ portrayal of Maya’s Indigenous heritage. Marking a significant shift in Native American representation, Echo rises above the tired stereotypes that plague past Hollywood portrayals, distinguishing itself with a depth and authenticity seldom seen.

Devery Jacobs, doubling down on her Marvel presence (she also voices Indigenous hero Kahhori in the second season of What If…?), plays Maya’s fiercely loyal cousin Bonnie and  underscores the show’s focus on family. “The relationship between Maya and Bonnie is, even though they’re cousins, it’s almost like they’re sisters. Bonnie loves Maya. We really wanted to make sure that we were able to root it in that relationship between them.” 

In fact, Jacobs had earlier publicly criticised Martin Scorsese’s critically acclaimed Killers of the Flower Moon for its disrespectful depiction of the real-life Osage Reign of Terror and its portrayal of mistreating indigenous characters, spotlighting the harm such portrayals can inflict on Indigenous communities. Echo, in stark contrast, presents a nuanced and authentic view of Indigenous experiences, particularly the portrayal of Choctaw language and traditions.

“When it comes to telling our stories, making sure that there are as many storytellers from that community as possible is paramount. There have been a hundred years of lack of representation, misrepresentation, and intentional exclusion of Indigenous voices in Hollywood,” noted Jacobs.

“To have us be a part of these conversations is integral to making sure that we’re able to accurately tell our stories from our perspectives. There are authentic elements of Choctaw legends and history that are incorporated in Echo.”

Photo by Chuck Zlotnick. ©Marvel Studios 2023. All Rights Reserved.

Freeland emphasises the necessity of engaging with the Choctaw Nation to ensure an accurate depiction of their culture. “We want to be as authentic in our portrayal of the Choctaw language, the Choctaw culture, the Choctaw experience as we can,” she states. 

“Every tribe is different, every language is different, every culture has its own unique specificities. It was an absolute necessity that we engage the Choctaw Nation to tell that story.”

Cox, who brings Maya to life with stunning rawness, echoes this sentiment. “I’m just so proud to be able to represent a platform that is uplifting voices for Indigenous people. It’s so great that we have authentic people being picked for these roles, and we’re able to show them on the screen in authentic representation. And we’re doing it the right way.”