Marvel Studios’ first Spotlight series is a gritty, violent spin-off of Hawkeye and Daredevil that doesn’t quite hit as hard as it wants to.

PLOT: Marvel Studios presents Echo, spotlighting Maya Lopez as she is pursued by Wilson Fisk’s criminal empire. When the journey brings her home, she must confront her own family and legacy.

REVIEW: As Marvel Studios continues trying to reinvent their franchise after a lackluster year at the box office and on Disney+, Kevin Feige and his team kick-off 2024 early with many firsts. Echo is the first MCU series to debut simultaneously on Disney+ and Hulu, the first to drop the full season on the same day, the first spin-off of another Disney+ series, the first project under the new Marvel Spotlight banner, the first series featuring an indigenous actress in the lead role (not to mention the first Deaf lead and first lead with a prosthetic limb), and the first MCU series with a TV-MA rating. Echo, starring Alaqua Cox in the title role, is a grittier and more violent take on Marvel Comics than we have seen in the MCU but not quite as brutal as the Netflix series with whom it shares some characters. A five-episode event series, Echo boasts some intriguing mythology centered on Native American fables and a cast full of great actors but does not do much to earn the mature rating that has become a major marketing point for this series.

The first three episodes of Echo were made available for this review, having previously debuted in limited fan screenings at the end of 2023. Each episode clocks in forty minutes to an hour and is designed to be watched without audiences needing a deep understanding of the dozens of MCU films and series that came before it. To accommodate that entry-level approach, the first episode of Echo gives us more details about Maya Lopez’s childhood. It rehashes several scenes from Hawkeye to inform viewers who may not have watched the Jeremy Renner-led series in 2022. The premiere features Jeremy Renner, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Charlie Cox as Clint Barton, Wilson Fisk, and Matt Murdock to facilitate that. Some of these scenes are new, while others are taken directly from Hawkeye. As someone who has watched all of the Marvel series and films to date, I caught the references and connections, but I still feel that there will be an uphill climb for audiences to follow what is happening.

The crux of Echo‘s story finds Maya Lopez on the run after shooting Wilson Fisk in the face in the Hawkeye finale. Heading back to Oklahoma, where she grew up, Maya reconnects with family members, including her uncle Henry, played by Chaske Spencer (Banshee, The English), grandfather Skully (Graham Greene), and grandmother Chula (Tantoo Cardinal). Maya also enlists help from her goofy cousin Biscuits (Cody Lightning). Maya’s cousin Bonnie (Devery Jacobs, who also voiced Kahorri in the recent MCU series What If…?), who was almost like a sister to Maya, lives in town and works as a firefighter. Trying to take the assumed dead Kingpin’s place, Maya aims to send a message back to New York as she tries to claim the crown. Little does Maya know, but Fisk survived and is coming for her. Over the three episodes I have seen, Maya spends most of her time in Oklahoma facing the family she left behind and the shadow of her deceased father, William Lopez (Zahn McClarnon), and mother.

Most of Echo plays out like a crime series without any superheroics, but being an MCU series, you know there has to be something. A cursory glance at details about the comic book version of Echo will show you that her abilities are different in the MCU. Each episode I saw opens with a flashback to different eras of Choctaw history, starting with an origin myth featuring the first Choctaw leader, Chafa, played by Julia Jones. Through each flashback, Maya’s different ancestors show abilities that Maya herself is able to emulate. The source of these powers is not clearly explained, and they do not take up much time in the overall story, but I anticipate the series’ final two episodes will rely heavily on them.

Both the first and third episodes of Echo come with the viewer discretion warning that earned the series the TV-MA rating, and most of it is due to multiple guns being shot at point blank rank, with blood splatter coming from skulls and eye sockets. None of this is worse than what we saw on Daredevil or The Punisher back in the Netflix days, but nothing would shock a PG-13 audience. There is no sexuality nor profanity in these episodes, which almost makes me think Marvel Studios pushed for the TV-MA rating as stunt marketing. We have seen plenty of people get shot in MCU films before. The only difference here is we see the bullet make contact with the victim and some blood. Call me jaded, but I would have expected more to garner a rating like this as there is nothing more intense than the violence seen in The Matrix films or even Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. In keeping with the Disney brand, characters never smoke, and one character in a bar drinks a soda. So edgy!

Eleven writers chipped into script the five episodes of Echo, with directing duties split between Sydney Freeland and Catriona McKenzie. The limited run of five episodes is an anomaly for an MCU series, as most have run at least six chapters, but through the first three episodes, I already feel like at least one chapter could have been cut out entirely. The acting is solid, with Alaqua Cox perfectly cast as Maya Lopez, but it is sometimes difficult to root for her as she freely murders over a dozen people in the first three episodes alone. Granted, these are bad guys, but she does so with a constant scowl and never really warms up as an approachable character. Conversely, everyone else is fantastic, especially the great Graham Greene. Chaske Spencer is solid, and the always-great Vincent D’Onofrio uses his limited screen time to great effect, even if it feels cursory in the opening episodes.

Echo is an intriguing concept and story that gives us a cool look into Choctaw folklore and mythology while forging a unique character in the MCU. The problem is that this series is being marketed as a mature and gritty series when the only difference between this and any other Disney+ Marvel series is CGI blood. Much of the unique approach to airing this series feels like an attempt by Marvel Studios to try and curry better ratings for a series they don’t have a large buzz around. Echo is fine overall but far from being the boost the MCU needs to remain relevant. I will check out the final two episodes to see how this story wraps up, but I am keeping my expectations low.

Marvel Studios’ Echo premieres all five episodes on January 9th on Disney+ and Hulu.