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Eternals Introduces Marvel’s First Deaf Superhero. But Accessibility Issues Still Plague Moviegoers

Chloé Zhao’s Eternals, released on Nov. 5, introduces one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most diverse ensembles. It also brings the franchise’s first deaf superhero. Makkari has super speed, and is featured in this film. One of the Eternals.—immortal beings with special powers who were sent to Earth to protect humanity from monstrous Deviants. Originally depicted as a white, hearing male in the Marvel comics, Makkari is a woman of color in Marvel’s latest movie and is played by the actor Lauren Ridloff, who is deaf. The character’s portrayal has sparked conversations both about onscreen representation of the deaf and hard of hearing community and about the need for greater accessibility in theaters.
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Ridloff has herself spoken extensively about the subject. Regarding Makkari’s depiction, the actor has discussedHow Deaf Gain is a term that describes the benefits of hearing loss and it applies to the hero. Part of the superfast character’s power is the sonic boom created when she runs. Because Makkari can’t hear, the sonic booms do not faze her. Ridloff was also not affected by them. DescribedIn a VarietyInterview about being the sole person in the interview EternalsFilming one scene without hearing protection is possible.

Ridloff also spoke out about the importance of Normalize subtitlesThese movies are more accessible for the hard-of-hearing community. The premiere of Eternals in Los Angeles, Marvel Studios consultedRespectAbility is an organization that advocates for disabled people. They host an inclusive screening. With American Sign Language (ASL), interpreters were present, open captions were readily available. Open caption screenings are difficult to find in remote areas due to limited resources.

TIME spoke to members of the deaf and hard of hearing community about Makkari’s portrayal, the significance of Lauren Ridloff’s casting and the need for theaters to improve accessibility.

Reprezentation: A significant step forward

Delbert Whetter, a deaf producer who is the vice chair of RespectAbility’s Board of Directors, says that a strength of Makkari’s portrayal is that her disability is one of the superhero’s many features and not her defining trait. “A lot of times when people think about trying to develop characters with disability they find a way to connect it with the story,” Whetter tells TIME. “But her disability is not connected to the plotline.” Instead, it’s a part of Makkari that isn’t over-explained, he says.

Denny Tu is Chief Marketing Officer of IMAX Corporation and also identifies with hearing impairment. “I think if you ask Makkari, I would guess she would say being deaf is the least interesting thing about her,” Tu says. He explains that beyond her deafness, the character is many other things: loyal and passionate, for instance, and “freaking fast.” Tu describes the experience of seeing the first deaf MCU superhero in IMAX as overwhelming. “Some of the biggest fans of Marvel are members of the deaf/hard of hearing community, myself included,” he says. In his eyes, Makkari’s depiction is the first of many crucial steps toward diverse stories being told authentically on screen.

Sophie MutevelianMakkari (Lauren Ridloff) in Marvel Studios’ ETERNALS. Photo by Sophie Mutevelian. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

Her identity as superhero gives the character a special meaning. “This is a bold break with previous stereotypical portrayals of deaf people as being somehow limited by deafness,” says Joseph J. Murray, president of the World Federation of the Deaf. “Past representations of deaf people onscreen have often been highly dramatized, with a focus on hearing loss as being tragic or insurmountable.” Murray, who is deaf, has not seen EternalHe also discusses Makkari as a deaf super hero who speaks sign language. “Many deaf children today face barriers to accessing natural sign language environments and deaf peers,” he explains. “I hope this film shows these kids a different way of living is possible, one in which deaf people are confident signers and fully equal to others around them.”

Increased visibility for sign language and the significance of Ridloff’s casting

The use of sign language in the film—Makkari communicates in ASL—is also significant given the international reach of Marvel, says Whetter. “There are still countries that are fighting for recognition of their national sign language,” he explains. “Having a global property like the Eternals shown around the world to hearing people… you have to feel like that’s going to have some impact on how people perceive sign language.” ReportThe World Federation of the Deaf reveals that sign languages are legally recognised in 69 countries. Only 124 of them have. Lack of legal recognition is tied to obstacles including deaf people “not having equal and real-time access to information and communication in their daily lives,” according to the organization.

Find out more EternalsASL visibility extends far beyond the movie. Whetter points to the example of Marvel’s action figure series portraying the immortal superheroes. In Makkari’s toys, the character’s right hand is positioned in the ASL sign for “I love you.” “Even though it’s ASL, this is a sign that’s recognized all around the world—probably the most well-known sign around the world,” Whetter says. Children who are deaf will now be able see toys that display a familiar sign.

The deaf community is happy that Ridloff was chosen to portray Makkari. “No one can tell our stories as well as we can,” says Phee Elizabeth, who is deaf and watched EternalsShe lives in Bristol (England) during the festival’s opening weekend. “We have lived through disabled/deaf experiences, and no amount of research can share the first-hand knowledge that we have accumulated from living life while being deaf,” she says. Elizabeth also adds that while abled, hearing actors can “easily move onto abled roles,” the same is not true for disabled, deaf actors.

ETERNALS
Courtesy of Marvel Studios—©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.(L-R): Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), Gilgamesh (Don Lee), Thena (Angelina Jolie), Ikaris (Richard Madden), Ajak (Salma Hayek), Sersi (Gemma Chan), Sprite (Lia McHugh), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) and Druig (Barry Keoghan) in Marvel Studios’ ETERNALS. Marvel Studios. Photo by Barry Keoghan. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

Ridloff’s casting also highlights the significance of intersectionality, as someone who is part of more than one marginalized group. He was the child of an African American mother and a Mexican American dad. “We don’t get many deaf characters, and if we do they are white men or white women,” says Krystel Hamilton, who is deaf and lives in Spokane, Wash., where she also watched Eternals on opening weekend. “Making this character a woman and person of color gave the deaf community a voice we wouldn’t have had otherwise,” Hamilton says.

A larger scale shows the variety in the cast Eternals It has encouraged partnerships between groups that work for the different communities underrepresented to be formed. RespectAbility was one of the founder partners. One OpenThe Gold Open Campaign spinoff, was launched by non-profit Gold House in order to guarantee the success of Asian-led films at their opening weekends. One Open saw the collaboration expand to include more actors and filmmakers.

Open captions are needed and theaters should be more accessible.

Eternals’ introduction of the MCU’s first deaf superhero has also prompted calls for more open caption screenings for people who are deaf and hard of hearing, which is one part of One Open’s campaignYou can find it here. Unlike closed captions, in which text appears individually to viewers—through devices like a pair of glasses, for instance—open captions give everyone the same viewing experience. “It’s not just deaf and hard of hearing people who benefit from open captions. It’s also for people that have English as a second language, it’s people that may have difficulty with auditory processing, or maybe they’re distracted easily by other sounds,” Whetter says. While devices like the closed captioning glasses have been a great step towards accessibility technology, they do not allow for moviegoing. “There’s a limit to how many devices you have, for example, so if you want to fill a theater with deaf people, there may not be enough devices to go around,” Whetter says.

Hamilton shares some of her experiences in screenings with no captions. “Normally, I have to rely on caption glasses, which hurt to wear and for me, almost always glitch halfway or towards the end of my movie,” she says. “I’d go to more movies if they had more open captions.” For EternalsShe claims that she was able to find an AMC theatre in Spokane with open captions. “They didn’t provide many showings with [them],” she says. “I was lucky to even find one for my showing.”

Elizabeth didn’t have that experience. Elizabeth says it was difficult to find subtitled theaters in Bristol. Eternals She sat and watched the movie without her glasses. “I managed to fare as best as I could with just my hearing aids turned up to full and a lot of focusing, but I know a lot of deaf people won’t be able to do that,” she says. Elizabeth shares that her hearing aids amplify the slight hearing she does have, and describes the sounds as “extremely muffled.” She says that across England, there’s much work to be done in implementing accessibility measures in theaters. “Captions are a must, and so helpful, for TV and film because accents, certain words, certain dialects, all of that can trip me up so much and I often end up missing chunks of whatever I’m watching,” Elizabeth says.

This film was made in Hollywood and starred an American actor who’s deaf. Eternal This has led to increased scrutiny about accessibility in American cinemas. AMC rolled out accessibility improvements in October. AnnoucedThe screenings of open captions are available in approximately 240 places across the United States in more than 100 countries. “A real advance for those with hearing difficulties or where English is a second language. And right in time for Eternals from @Disney,” AMC CEO Adam Aron tweeted. IMAX’s Tu said that while he is thrilled to see the progress, there is still work to be done. “There’s no reason why the 15+ million adults in the U.S. with a hearing disability should be limited in choice and accessibility,” he says.

“The United Nations has made it clear that peoples with disabilities are to have equal participation in cultural life,” says Murray. Article 30 of the UN’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities includes guidelines for how countries can take part in enabling access to recreational, leisure and sporting activities. “It is high time deaf Americans are able to have the same cinematic experience as everyone else.”

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