Wednesday, June 12, 2024

‘Eternals’, Deafness, and the Future of the MCU

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Anyone who reads me regularly knows that my relationship with the Marvel Cinematic Universe is at best hesitant delight and downright contentious at worst. I make no apologies for any of this. A franchise I once waited with bated breath for each new installment has become a sprawling behemoth institution for mediocre white men. Perhaps, in the end, it’s not the franchise that changed, but me.

Yet, there have been some bright spots. Unlike most of my fellow critics who share my feelings about the MCU, I liked Captain Marvel. I thought Black Widow was a breath of fresh air from a visually and emotionally stagnant studio. I’m not saying it re-wrote the book on visual language, but it moved like a movie and not some half-baked marketing plan hellbent on trying to get you to buy the next three movies while ignoring the one you’re watching right now. While others cheer Winter Soldier as perfect, I think Black Panther did it better. 

It’s no coincidence that the times the MCU has shown genuine promise has been when white women, or PoC, have been behind the camera. If for no other reason than they manage to do something other filmmakers in the MCU have failed, which is finding a way to tell these stories in new and refreshing ways while attempting to overcome the studio’s mandates. A studio whose size and reach are, at times, hard to conceive. 

This brings us to Chloe Zhao’s Eternals. Now, I’d be excited for the cast alone. Salma Hayek? Angelina Jolie? Brian Tyree Henry? Gemma Chan? Yes, yes, yes, thousand times yes.

Aside from all that, there’s Lauren Ridloff. Miracles of miracles, a deaf actor is playing a deaf character. Some of you may be unaware, but I am partially deaf (and without my hearing aids, I’d literally be up a creek). But even if I wasn’t, characters with disabilities are so rarely played by actors who share them that it crosses a line into negligence. 

Yes, there is Marlee Matlin, Millicent Simmonds, and others. But, sadly, they aren’t playing characters in one of the most successful franchises in history. 

She’s All That gets talked about a lot by folks in my generation; for good reason, it’s a fun and charming movie. But it’s also one of the few times I remember sitting in a theater watching a romantic comedy and seeing someone with hearing aids. What’s more, it wasn’t part of the plot; he was just a hard-of-hearing kid. It didn’t make the movie great because of that, but it made it memorable to me.

Or there was the time while watching Simon Birch, where the character, Simon, played by Ian Micahel Smith, went swimming in the quarry. Now I may be country, but I’m not that country. I swam at public pools and not in any rock quarry. But what stuck with me about the scene is what Simon did with his hearing aids. He places them on his shoe like I did when I went swimming.

Representation can’t save a movie, nor should it. There are limits to it, of course. Casting all the disabled actors in the MCU still won’t solve the ableist ways theaters show those movies, and it won’t fix the way the systems seem designed to punish us for being disabled. But… it’s nice to see yourself on the screen.

Deaf characters, or characters with any disability really, are not mainstays in pop culture juggernauts. But with Ridloff playing Makkari, as well as the casting of Alaqua Cox who will play Echo in Hawkeye… I won’t lie-my interest has been piqued. 

Now, this isn’t to say that I’ll love Eternals or Hawkeye simply because they’ve cast deaf actors to play deaf characters. Talk about clearing a bar so low it’s still in the dirt. But it does mean that I might be a little more optimistic for the future of the MCU.

Images Courtesy of Walt Disney and Marvel Studios

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