Marvel’s Cinematic Universe of superheroes just got a lot more human.
In a series of announcements at this year’s San Diego Comic Con, the movie studio unveiled its first Asian-led film, LGBTQ+ heroine and deaf superhero – the latter played by The Walking Dead star Lauren Ridloff.
A white hearing male in the comics, Ridloff’s upcoming portrayal of Makkari in The Eternals – scheduled for release in November 2020 – offers up a brand new backstory for the character.
The decision, albeit long overdue, places a talented deaf actress in the spotlight when all eyes are on Marvel after its record-breaking epic, Avengers: Endgame. Much like young girls are now looking up to Captain Marvel, deaf children and young people now have Makkari, at a time when deaf role models in film and television continue to be few and far between.
It’s not only the amount of deaf representation in the media which can be an issue, but also how the condition is portrayed.
Like with many other disabilities, hearing loss or deafness – with a few exceptions such as Ridloff’s aforementioned appearance in The Walking Dead and the Oscar-winning short film The Silent Child – is either painted as an incredibly negative burden or a source of wonder and amazement.
‘Inspiration porn’, as the disability advocate Stella Young described in a TEDx talk in 2014.
Superhero movies give human beings extraordinary abilities, and so I did, at first, fear that Makkari’s deafness could well be grouped with her superpowers – namely super strength and speed. Something incredibly ordinary could be seen as unnecessarily superhuman.
All of this could sound endearing and as a charming celebration of disability, but aspects of deaf culture have already been met with over-the-top fascination.
Lipreading and British Sign Language are still seen as gimmicks and party tricks by some people, and some members of the community still have to deal with the occasional backhanded compliment – ‘you speak well for a deaf person’ being one of them.
We need the mainstream media to display deafness with honesty and humanity, and as weird as it sounds, a Marvel superhero film may be the answer.
That’s simply because at its heart, in among all the magic spells, fight sequences and tight costumes, are human stories. Whether it be a tale of family, grief or companionship, there’s something that grounds Marvel movies in realism, when everything else might be unbelievable.
If done right, The Eternals could show disability as just one of the many things that makes up a person, as opposed to using it as a substitute for a poor plot. Audiences only need to look to Marvel’s handling of sight loss in adaptations of Daredevil as an example of this being done well.
In the end, we should reach a point where disability representation doesn’t even need to be highlighted or praised.
Yet, that involves more than just diverse casting – it requires these marginalised voices to be heard throughout the creative process.
As actor Lenny Henry has noted in the past in relation to racial minorities, these communities need to be involved off-camera as much as they are on the screen. It’s why, despite being thrilled with the news that Marvel has its first deaf superhero, I still have my reservations.
Representation is a multifaceted process, of which casting is the first bold step.
A character’s truth is meaningless if they have not been provided with the right atmosphere or narrative in which to tell it. It’s one thing to make representation commonplace, but it also needs to have value.
In other words, it needs to be the exact opposite of Marvel’s first openly gay character in Avengers: Endgame – a grieving man played by co-director Joe Russo in what is a brief and underwhelming scene with Captain America.
When it comes to representation, the best example of it being done right is simple: it’s when the extraordinary becomes ordinary.