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Nerding with Sy - Three Big Thoughts on "Eternals"
Disability, Identity, and Creation Stories
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Warning: This article has spoilers for Eternals.
I have a lot of thoughts on Eternals, the most recent installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The bulk are on disability, but I’ll get into Christian engagement with art and theology as well because boy, this movie has some theology.
First, a quick summary of some relevant plot points: The movie tells us the origin story of the main universe in the MCU. We learn that a powerful creator being, the Prime Celestial Arishem, existed at the beginning of time and created immortal beings called Eternals to fight evil creatures that threatened to destroy various sentient populations. Why does Arishem want the Eternals to save all these people? Benevolence? Nope. It’s so that other Celestials like him can incubate in the cores of planets by feeding off the energy of those sentients and come to life to create even more worlds. We find out by movie’s end that as the Celestials are born, they destroy the planet in which they are incubating, sacrificing the inhabitants. But most of the Eternals are not supposed to know that the people they are fighting to save are destined for destruction. Of course, the crew of Eternals assigned to Earth figures out the game and some of them decide to try to save the planet from the Celestial growing deep underground.
Makkari and disability representation
Eternals is a small explosion of representation within the MCU. It has the first woman of color director, Oscar-winning Chloé Zhao. And some articles will tell you that the story introduces us to 10 new superheroes, only 4 of whom are white. But that is just the Eternals themselves. Including the mid- and post-credit scenes, the count is 13 superheroes making their first appearance, 6 of whom are white. We also meet the MCU’s first gay couple and their son.
But I’m going to focus on the disability representation here. The obvious place to start, though definitely not where I will end, is the Eternal Makkari, the MCU’s first deaf character. Deaf actress Lauren Ridloff broke down in tears when she saw herself in the movie for the first time, signing with characters played by movie stars like Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek. I understand that response. It took me a bit longer than Ridloff to sort through my emotional reaction to Netflix’s portrayal of blind attorney Matt Murdoch, the alter ego of superhero Daredevil, as he used a screen reader and a number of other things I use to navigate everyday life. For the first two seasons of Daredevil, I didn’t think much of it. But during the ten minutes or so that the team-up series The Defenders tried to act like Daredevil was dead, I became unexpectedly furious, and thought, “oh, this might be important to examine.” It has been said a million times, but it’s hard to overemphasize the affirmation that comes from watching your experience play out on screen when that is otherwise a rare occurrence. And to know others are also watching that experience, normalizing it, is both relieving and exciting. Having that seemingly taken away from me, even briefly, evoked grief. (By the way, most everybody else watching The Defenders knew that Daredevil Season 3 had already been greenlit and Murdoch was therefore obviously not dead. So my little emotional outburst was purely for my own personal revelations).
It is also significant that Ridloff is herself Deaf. There is an odd and revealing back-and-forth that seems to repeat itself in discussions about casting disabled characters. Actors with disabilities consistently point out the dearth of available roles, and how many of those roles are taken up by able-bodied actors. A frequent retort is that those able-bodied actors are, well, acting. If you already are something, you don’t have to “act” like it. But this reduces the entirety of a disabled person to their disability; if you can be convincingly disabled, you have fully inhabited the character. There’s nothing more to do because the disabled character is nothing more than that. Talented actors like Ridloff playing characters like Makkari blow up that perspective, and hopefully convince writers and casting directors to see skill, depth, and value in disabled actors and characters, instead of just disabilities.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Makkari’s story to me is that her deafness is never explained and is not a plot point of the movie. She is just a deaf superhero. All her super friends know American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate with her. Nobody is weird about it, and she just goes about her life. (She also gets to do arguably the most cathartic bad guy pummeling in the final battle.) These are the stories about disabled people that we need to multiply exponentially if the general public is going to start thinking of us as capable, three-dimensional people. Ridloff herself is extremely thoughtful about how to portray deafness, and the multi-faceted ways that disabled characters can help everyone improve our understanding of the world we inhabit, and the worlds we see on screen.
As an aside, I laughed at the part of the first article I linked to where Ridloff and Zhao are discussing whether Makkari should use ASL despite the fact that she is an ancient, immortal being who is not from Earth. Zhao finally just says, “Look, everybody is speaking English,” which is a very good point. I also love the last line of this 2018 piece about Ridloff, which explains her unexpected later-in-life entry into the acting world. The interviewer asks her what she wants to do after her debut in the Broadway reboot of Children of a Lesser God, and she says, “I would like to be a superhero.”
Thena, disability identity, and acceptance
So I knew going in to this movie that I was going to pay close attention to Makkari. What I did not expect was the deep and encouraging messaging around disability from the subplot about Jolie’s character Thena. During one mission, Thena falls into a sort of trance and begins attacking the other Eternals. They eventually calm her down, and conclude she has something called Mahd W’yry, a sort of psychosis they believe is caused by the sheer volume of an immortal being’s memories. They say she can be cured, but only by erasing her memories. Thena chooses not to go through with this and keep her memory, leading a quiet, secluded life with another Eternal, Gilgamesh (Don Lee). Ultimately, Thena learns to live with her condition, and plays a crucial role in the final battle.
Now let me try to explain how amazing this is. Mahd W’yry is effectively a disability — a sort of cognitive overload. Disabled people are constantly explaining to the rest of the world that disabilities are not defects to be cured, but personal traits to be celebrated and accommodated; we want to build a world that works for us and end the many ways people try to ignore or eliminate us. Obviously, sometimes we need to medically treat a disability, but our focus as a society should dramatically shift away from fixing disabled people to fixing the world around disabled people. This is exactly Thena’s message. She refuses to be cured explicitly because it would involve erasing who she is — blotting out her whole self along with the Mahd W’yry. She goes through what amounts to a process of rehabilitation to learn how to live with her new condition. She has someone with her who finds a way to create a rhythm of life that works for her, until she ends up finding her place back with her family, who easily make the choice to love and trust her while fighting alongside her toward their common end. The more I thought about it leaving the theater, the happier I got.
One note though: I don’t love the fact that Mahd W’yry manifests in violence. It’s common for people to believe, against all available evidence, that people with cognitive disorders, autism, or intellectual disabilities are more likely to be violent. But perhaps since Eternals are born and bred to be warriors, it would be expected for violence to be symptomatic of an atypical Eternal mind. I’m not sure whether that resolves the issue for me.
Christians and creation stories
Finally, one non-disability related thought about (especially white) Christians watching this movie. We tend to get prickly around stories that involve anything in the realm of theology. Our hackles raise in response to the perceived threat of Hollywood undermining our beliefs. The opening crawl of this movie actually starts with the phrase “in the beginning,” so I knew from the start the defensive Christian takes were coming. Just a couple reviews down in the list of articles that lead to Eternals’ extremely low Rotten Tomatoes critic score (the score doesn’t reflect the nuance of most reviewers) is this gem from the National Catholic Register. It chides the film for introducing fallible gods, and contends that those fallibilities make ethical assertions in the MCU impossible. When discussing the moral conundrum of the Eternals who do not want Earth’s population to die, it pulls out some youth group apologetics: by what standard can they make moral judgments? Friends, we do not need to do this.
For one thing, this movie does not explain the origins of all existence in the MCU, just one universe among many. But more importantly, we can spend time imagining alternative universes that the Christian God did not create. We can tell stories in those universes that are still thoughtful and fun. Those stories can still raise and explore interesting moral and theological questions. They won’t lead us or the world astray from the truth, or whatever the concern may be. Christians do not need to be so controlling of our own and others’ imaginations. That is an instinct of supremacists and authoritarians. It is certainly not the instinct of our Creator, who grants us freedom and powerful, creative agency. Don’t trust me? Spend some time looking into the origins of the extremely Christian universe of The Lord of the Rings’ Middle Earth. You won’t find the Trinity there. Hopefully Tolkien’s unofficial sainthood among white Christians carries more authority than I do. But complaints on this subject are obnoxious to those who are listening, and there are very few listening outside the Church.
So go have a good time and see this movie if you haven’t yet. It has a few problems, as any Marvel movie does, but it’s heartfelt, fun, and raises a lot of interesting questions. You won’t regret it.