Although it was met with mixed reviews from critics, it’s undeniable that Eternals has shaken things up in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
The film features the first deaf character in a Marvel film, and as such, it’s raised questions about the representation of deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals in pop culture, as well as the overall accessibility of theaters for deaf moviegoers. Throughout the film’s promotion cycle, Lauren Ridloff, the deaf actress who played the character Makkari, has been vocal about making films more accessible for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals through subtitles.
“I know that people have an idea about accessibility; subtitles are not a new concept,” Ridloff said in an interview with NBC News. “But I think people are starting to see that when we talk about accessibility, it actually comes with the idea of universal design, which basically means that accessibility is for everybody.”
In the comic book series that originated Eternals, Ridloff’s character was originally depicted as a man without any hearing-related disabilities whatsoever. The film’s director, Chloé Zhao, has noted that in casting the film, she and the production team set out to include a diverse ensemble of actors, and the film has been lauded for its inclusion of a wide range of racial and sexual identities alongside its representation of deafness, especially given Marvel’s commitment to increasing the diversity of the MCU.
American Sign Language (ASL) features fairly prominently in the film, and Ridloff’s husband worked as an ASL consultant on the film, in order to develop unique signs for each character’s names.
While language access for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals has been a hot topic in fields like healthcare, law, and politics, Ridloff and her role in Eternals seem to be bringing the conversation front and center in the entertainment industry. Subtitles are not particularly prominent in English-language films shown in theaters in the United States, and as a result, deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals find them difficult to engage. Even in the case of Eternals, some deaf and hard-of-hearing audience members said it was difficult to find screenings with open captioning, or live ASL interpreters.
“It’s not just for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. It’s not just for people with a disability. It’s literally for everybody,” Ridloff told NBC News.