As movie theaters continue to adapt to the effects of the ongoing covid-19 pandemic, conversations about the accessibility of the theater experience—for audiences, critics, and creatives alike—have become an important factor in discussing the industry’s slow attempts to return to “normalcy.” But a star of one of Marvel’s theater-exclusive superhero projects wants to keep reminding people an accessible movie theater stretches beyond the needs of the current pandemic.
One of the many stars of Chloe Zhao’s Eternals is deaf actress Lauren Ridloff (Connie from The Walking Dead) who plays Makkari, a speedster that, in the comics, is a hearing, muscle-bound giant of a man. Speaking to the New York Times recently about her experiences on the set of the giant Disney project, Ridloff made clear that for her, being part of something on the scale of a Marvel movie isn’t just about the conditions made to keep her safe and welcomed as she works, but the way she consumes movies herself. “Hollywood needs to take the lead on subtitling ads, trailers, and those cute little interviews with clips that celebrities do promoting their movies,” Ridloff told the Times. “Another thing I’d like to see improve is the specifics of audio description. It’s not enough to see ‘music is playing’ in a scene—what kind of music is it? Happy? Scary?”
But it’s beyond just marketing material and interviews that Ridloff wants to see accessibility consideration improved in a way that benefits all—it’s the theater experience as well. Especially when, as a moviegoer herself, Ridloff is frustrated at the state of accommodations made for subtitling and captioning in the industry as it is. “We’re an afterthought in movie theaters, and that needs to change. You have to use a special closed-captioning device to watch subtitling in a theater, and it’s a headache, because most of the time the devices don’t work,” the actress continued. “Then you have to go back to the front desk and find somebody to help, and by the time they figure it out that it’s not working—that it’s not going to be subtitled at all—the movie’s halfway done. Then you get, ‘Well, how about I give you a free ticket for the next movie?’ And I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ That doesn’t fix the problem.”
Ridloff’s frustrations are entirely valid, but also interesting considering that, alongside the recent release of Shang-Chi, her appearance in Eternals is something of a vanguard for Marvel’s return to exclusively theatrical debuts, after the studio was forced to spend much of the last 19 months delaying its release slate. Of Marvel’s originally planned releases for the last year, only Black Widow simultaneously debuted in theaters and as a premium option on Disney+, providing a chance for audiences still uncomfortable returning to theaters to experience it at home. In the case of viewers like Ridloff, the steaming option would let them see it captioned properly, without having to worry about outdated technology or the hassle of it potentially not working.
Ridloff is being completely frank about the challenges she faces as a deaf woman trying to view movies in theaters—a movie she’s starring in included!—so the very least Marvel/Disney could do is use its vast platform as a force at the modern box office to advocate for crucial accessibility changes, especially as there is no choice for audiences to view Eternals anywhere else when it debuts. One thing remains clear: movie theaters have been lacking when it comes to accessibility and there’s no sign they’ve used the past two years to make viewing experiences equitable to all. And neither has Disney.
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