Like a Halloween haul of glimmering treasures with a pale band of Necco Wafers waiting at the bottom, Thor: Ragnarok is an entertaining gem full of treats and surprises that can’t quite obscure one sad problem: The film’s main villain, Hela, is a disappointment. Adding insult to injury, she’s played by Cate Blanchett, one of the greatest actresses of her generation, who should never be any movie’s Necco Wafer.
Blanchett’s performance as Hela isn’t bad — she fully commits to giving viewers a sumptuous Jack Kirby cosmic necromancer drag queen. She more than holds her own in a movie that features Anthony Hopkins, a resurgent Chris Hemsworth, and Tom Hiddleston, who has benefited from playing the most charismatic character in the franchise.
No, the problem isn’t Blanchett. It’s Marvel’s disposable villain syndrome.
A common criticism that follows Marvel Studios is that their movies each have essentially the same plot: reluctant hero finds themselves/their team in possession of a super power or weapon, but then villain finds said power or weapon, and the hero(es) must find it in themselves to save the world — but with different superpowers and superheroes. It’s a fair critique, but what’s even more noticeable is how it underscores the fact that Marvel’s villains, no matter how enduring or powerful or enigmatic they are in comic books, often fall flat when they make the leap to the movies.
Hela, Blanchett’s delicious goddess of death, is no exception.
Thor: Ragnarok doesn’t do Blanchett favors by having her hang out alone
To be crystal clear, I’m not here to bury Thor: Ragnarok. It is, without a doubt, the best Thor movie Marvel has created, and director Taika Waititi has made arguably the funniest Marvel film. The scenes with Thor on the planet Sakaar really flesh out the hero, and the oddball mix of characters is super enjoyable. The film’s faults aren’t glaring missteps so much as missed opportunities, and its biggest missed opportunity is that for large parts of the movie, it squanders Blanchett.
The film reveals Hela’s origin story as Odin’s firstborn, a status that gives her immense power and seeming immortality. Together, they conquered the nine realms, Hela’s violence growing and growing until Odin, seeing her unquenchable bloodlust, had a change of heart and decided that she needed to be exiled and their legacy as conquerors papered over with a nicer, diplomacy-focused historical record.
Through some deal where Hela is bound by Odin’s life force, she’s prevented from invading places while he’s alive. So when Odin dies, she pops up out of nowhere to surprise Thor and Loki and, in a scuffle, dump the two of them through a wormhole. Both eventually end up on the planet Sakaar, while Hela travels to Asgard via Bifrost so she can lay siege to the planet without interference from her brothers.
The logic of this plotting makes some sense — a coup on Asgard would be much more difficult if Thor and Loki were on the planet. But it also maroons Blanchett on the opposite end of the movie, away from the other characters and the talented actors that play them. Aside from her initial interaction with Hemsworth’s Thor and Hiddleston’s Loki in that first act, the next and final scene all three share (Hemsworth and Blanchett predominantly) is the big CGI-festooned battle scene that makes up the movie’s climax.
Instead of interacting with Thor and Loki, or any of the film’s other memorable characters, Blanchett’s Hela spends most of her scenes making expository speeches about her past and how much she wants to make all the kingdoms kneel before her glory, delivered to empty throne rooms, a sea of anonymous Asgardian soldiers, or Karl Urban’s Skurge, a dopey minion to whom Hela takes a liking.
These speeches make clear that Hela wants to take over the universe, but we’re given little motivation for that desire beyond the fact that she’s the goddess of death and this is apparently what goddesses of death do. Nor are we told how killing every Asgardian and ruling an undead army contributes to a larger vision for power, beyond wanting to hang around an undead, obedient army. It’s clear she wants to destroy Thor and Loki because they stand in the way of achieving her goal of world domination, but any deeper motivations rooted in their familial history are glossed over in favor of highlighting her pure destructive malice.
You can tell Blanchett is having fun playing as big and bad as possible, preening and tossing her antlered head about like a cosmic, world-crushing drag queen. But her scenes, disconnected as they are from the movie’s main action, end up feeling more like brief interludes — a narrative reminder that Hela exists that doesn’t provide any real insight into the character.
As a comics character, Hela is similarly big and bad, but also complex in her plans and motivations: She’s a notorious double-crosser known for entangling heroes in nefarious, last-resort bargains and agreements. In Ragnarok, however, she becomes a one-dimensional destructive force. She’s flattened into a character whose sole purpose is to be defeated by the hero, the latest villain from Marvel’s finishing school for evildoers, rather than an antagonist the franchise can’t live without.
And therein lies the problem.
Marvel’s villain problem, explained
With Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War Part I on the horizon in May 2018 — on the heels of February’s Black Panther, Marvel’s last solo superhero movie before its big team outing — we’ve already seen the onscreen deaths of several iconic Marvel villains. The list includes Red Skull (Captain America: First Avenger), Ronan the Accuser (Guardians of the Galaxy), Ultron (Avengers: Age of Ultron), and Ego, the living Planet (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2). At the end of Ragnarok, it seems like Hela joins those ranks.
For comic book readers, Ultron, Hela, and Red Skull are some of the Avengers’ most iconic foes. To see them so easily swept away at the end of their respective movies is almost entertaining in the context of how long they’ve lived in the pages of comic books — literally decades upon decades.
The giant differentiating factor between comic books and movies is, of course, the life span and boundaries of the medium. Movies have to account for budgets and the contracts of actors, producers, and directors in a way that comics don’t; you can have Hela appear in thousands of comics as long as someone can draw and write her and Marvel editorial approves of the storyline. But having Cate Blanchett appear in multiple Marvel movies would require all kinds of money and deals being cut.
Further, in Marvel Studios’ case, there’s been an overarching narrative strategy to its cinematic universe that culminates with Thanos (Josh Brolin) and Infinity War. Bits and pieces of Thanos’s quest to assemble all of the Infinity Stones and take over the universe have been peppered throughout Marvel’s movies (some more than others); that quest will presumably come to fruition in May when the first part of Infinity War hits theaters.
In the MCU, Thanos is the biggest, baddest threat to the Avengers, Earth, and the universe — and because Thanos has always represented the end point, it’s made almost all of the villains that have come before him, Hela included, feel temporary. It’s difficult to reconcile Thanos being the biggest, baddest, most unbeatable villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe if there are other villains in existence that have bested the Avengers; therefore, any villain who precedes him cannot succeed in doing so, creating a context in which each new Marvel villain is destined for defeat, no matter how powerful they appear to be.
The flip side of that coin, however, is that each new Marvel movie has to convince us that its next villain (before Infinity War, anyway) is different from all those who have fallen before them, and that they’re really, truly a threat this time. (Spoiler: They’re not.) A lot of that is on Marvel’s screenwriters, many of whom have shown little variation when it comes super-powerful villains with interchangeable dreams of ruling whatever world they’re on. But it’s also reflective of the Catch-22 that’s built into the MCU as long as Thanos is still on the horizon.
Of course, there are two enduring exceptions to Marvel’s disposable villain rule: Bucky Barnes, a.k.a. the Winter Soldier, and Loki, Thor’s adoptive brother. Both were introduced as a threat on a much smaller scale that represents something more personal to the heroes they’re tethered to. As such, they’ve remained part of their respective franchises, evolving into something more like antiheroes, who can be incorporated into the story in new and different ways.
What makes Loki effective (aside from what Hiddleston brings to the role) is that the audience gets to see the psychology behind his villainy. They may not agree with his actions, but they understand what’s going on in his head: his animosity toward his father, his feelings of inferiority to his brother, his true nature as a trickster god. There’s much more going on there than a villainous man with a nefarious plan, and as such, he’s not so easily dispatched.
Loki, of course, has also been given three movies, not including Ragnarok, to get to this point, and he’ll reportedly be a part of Infinity War as well. Other villains haven’t been so lucky — and really can’t be. With the way Marvel has directed its overarching cinematic narrative toward Thanos and Infinity War, it’s hard to imagine how it could devote that sort of time and energy to another villain without deviating from its release schedule.
That’s a shame, both for audiences who are starting to tire of the interchangeable villains Marvel puts on screen and for fans who love what Blanchett brought to Hela. After seeing how Loki wriggled his way into a crucial role in the Thor franchise following his villain turn in The Avengers, I was half-hoping Hela would get a similar treatment, evolving into something more like a necessary evil or a reluctant ally. Alas, that doesn’t appear to be on the horizon, barring some retroactive twist on Ragnarok’s conclusion. (I thought her death was pretty clear, but a friend of mine insists she’s coming back.)
Despite Blanchett’s best efforts, her character is ultimately no more dangerous or consequential than any of the villains who come off of Marvel’s assembly line — which is a damn shame. Hela is absolutely glorious in her first time onscreen, a whirling menace that’s all horns, daggers, and death. We’d be extremely lucky to see her last more than one movie — but when it comes to Marvel’s movies, we’re almost never that lucky.