Marvel’s First Deaf Superhero: A First Step for Disabled Filmmakers

Marvel’s Eternals, the film franchise’s latest silver screen installment, was released in theatres on November 5th—with actress Lauren Ridloff paving the way as Marvel’s first Deaf onscreen superhero. Ridloff, who also starred in the popular The Walking Dead series, expressed her enthusiasm in representing the Deaf community upon the film’s public announcement one year ago: “I am more thrilled than overwhelmed about being given the opportunity to represent the deaf community. I’m very thrilled about that—just to bring in that storyline within the MCU. I think there’s plenty of room for more stories like that,” Ridloff said in an interview with HeyUGuys.

Her inclusion in the film is proving to have a real impact, even before its premiere. Since the cast of The Eternals was formally announced in July 2019 at the San Diego Comic-Con, there has been a 250% rise in internet searches for beginner’s interest in sign language. Still, Deaf film industry professionals and moviegoers seek further systemic change for Deaf inclusion in film and television. 

Jade Bryan, a filmmaker, writer and creator of the #DeafTalent movement, has advocated on behalf of Deaf film creatives throughout her professional career. Bryan, in fact, cast Ridloff in her 2001 film debut, ‘If You Could Hear My Own Tune”’ “I’m an activist. I’m very vocal. There’s not enough visibility about Black, BIPOC Deaf actors behind or in front of the camera—and on the big screen.” said Bryan. In 2015, she pitched a story about a Black Deaf superhero to both Marvel and DC, championing for a “spotlight on multiculturally & racially diverse Deaf Talent playing superhero roles in film and television.” There are a number of Deaf and hard-of-hearing superheroes featured throughout the history of Marvel and DC comic books, such as the popular Avenger’s hero, Hawkeye, who becomes Deaf and uses ASL to communicate as early as the hero’s 1983 comic series. Jeremy Renner, who portrays the character, is also featured wearing hearing aids in the latest Disney+ series, “Hawkeye”. 

However, Ridloff’s character, Makari, is the first Black Deaf woman superhero to be portrayed in a major picture series on the silver screen. The lack of on-screen and behind-the-scenes inclusion of those with intersecting identities such as Ridloff’s has proven historically scarce in the casting world. According to a report by DisabilityScoop, “In an analysis of the 100 top-grossing films from 2019, researchers found that the disability community was missing from 48 of them. Moreover, 77 of the movies had no female speaking character with a disability.” 

Bryan has used her trademarked hashtag, #DeafTalent, on social media to bring awareness not only to up-and-coming Deaf talent, but also to commend Black and Deaf women creatives who are veterans in the industry, like actresses Michelle Banks and Natasha Olifi, who voices Haily Cooper in the Spiderman: Miles Morales video game. 

Fortunately, audiences are now demanding more diverse films for their dollar. According to the 2021 UCLA Hollywood Diviersity Report, “Films with casts that were at least 21% minority enjoyed the highest online viewing ratings among all racial groups in the all-important 18–49 age category.” However, the report also states that “People of color and women are still underrepresented as film writers and directors and typically helm lower-budget films.

Yet Lauren Ridloff’s leading role in The Eternal’s has ignited worldwide attention, not only to the historical and ongoing exclusion of Black Deaf film creatives from popular media, but to pressing accessibility issues for moviegoers who are eager to enjoy these performances. Marking her impact on the industry is proving to be an important first step toward a future of inclusivity for filmmakers, film actors, and film-goers.

Natalie Crystal Doggett

About the Author: Natalie Crystal Doggett is a fellow with The Loreen Arbus Accessibility is Fundamental Program, an inaugural fellowship created to train women with disabilities as professional journalists so that they may write, research and report on the most crucial issues impacting the disabilities community.

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