Despite mediocre reviews (more on that later) the theater I saw The Eternals in last night was packed — mainly with teenagers that looked like they were on their way to prom. I was a bit baffled by this, trying to remember if schools help prom in the middle of the week … or in November.
As I was waiting in line to get my large popcorn with copious amounts of butter-flavored substance on top, I realized that although the lobby was crowded with teens, it was eerily quiet, although many of them were gesticulating wildly. Then I got it. They were deaf.
The Eternals features the MCU’s first deaf superhero, the speedster Makkari, who is portrayed on screen by deaf actress Lauren Ridloff. Ridloff, who rocketed to fame with a Tony-nominated star turn in a Broadway revival Children of a Lesser God. She was actually hired to be a sign-language tutor for the play’s director Kenny Leon, who liked her so much he cast her as the lead.
Ridloff quit her job as a kindergarten teacher to pursue acting full time — a nerve-wracking decision for any actor, but an especially nerve-wracking decision for a deaf actor. In May 2018, Ridloff told The New York Times she wanted to play a superhero.
“At that time, I still wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue in acting,” Ridloff told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “I was honestly terrified. I had given up a career as a teacher and I went to try acting, but then my Broadway show was ending. What’s next? Do I even bet on auditioning? I didn’t think Hollywood was ready for a deaf actor at the time, let alone a deaf superhero.”
When she was called in to talk to the people at Marvel, she had no idea she was being considered for a major role. She thought she would be cast as “a woman in distress — some sort of victim.” Then she found out she would be a hero.
“In the beginning, I admit I was terrified,” Ridloff said. “It was almost like I couldn’t get out of bed. I was so overwhelmed with the responsibility of being the first and only deaf superhero. How do I even start to represent people and a community?”
Ridloff now notes that although she was the first deaf hero in the MCU, she won’t be alone for long. In a storyline taken from the comics, Clint Barton, a.k.a. Hawkeye, will be portrayed as deaf in his upcoming Disney+ miniseries. “I’m not going to be the only deaf superhero in the MCU,” says Ridloff. “We’re going to have another one joining very shortly, which I’m thrilled about.”
With its incredibly diverse cast, The Eternals is a movie built on firsts. The first deaf superhero. The first gay kiss. The first female Asian lead. And surprisingly, the first superhero sex scene. With multiple audiences getting to see themselves represented as heroes on the screen for the first time ever, The Eternals diversity is its strength — not a weakness. No matter what the trolls might say,
I personally loved the movie with its epic scope and charismatic leads. Set across the entire span of human history, the story is slower than most Marvel movies. The slightly too witty quips come fewer and further between. But when you take it for what it is instead of what you might have expected it to be, it is a beautiful and heart-rending story about what it means to be human as perceived by people who are far more than human.
When she received the 2018 Women’s Crystal Award for Excellence in Film, Brie Larson famously noted that the Hollywood film critics establishment was overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male. Speaking about A Wrinkle In Time, another movie with a diverse cast that received middling reviews from the establishment, she said, ““I don’t need a 40-year-old white dude to tell me what didn’t work about A Wrinkle in Time, It wasn’t made for him! I want to know what it meant to women of color, biracial women, to teen women of color.”
So perhaps The Eternals was not specifically made to cater to the white male critics that felt it missed the mark. But as I looked around the lobby after the film at the smiles and the people animatedly signing to each other about their favorite parts, I can’t help but think that there is an audience out there that has been waiting their entire lives to see this movie..
The Eternals is for them.