While 2011’s “Thor” is unlikely to top many lists of favorite Marvel Studios films — not when there’s “The Avengers,” “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” to consider — it did introduce Tom Hiddleston as Loki, to this point the only truly memorable villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Ronan was little more than a footnote. Thanos has so far merely grinned and menaced from the shadows. And Ultron? Despite sharing marquee space with Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, he’s fairly one-dimensional.
But Loki is charismatic and complicated, so much so that he graduated from conniving brother in “Thor” to aspiring world conqueror in 2012’s “The Avengers,” a role that hasn’t been topped in the eight Marvel films that followed. (Sorry, Malekith, Yellowjacket and Kaecilius, we barely knew, or remember, you.) However, the usurper’s own golden throne is about to be seized by his fellow Asgardian, Cate Blanchett’s Hela.
There’s much to discuss about the first trailer for “Thor: Ragnarok,” which arrived earlier this week to much social-media fanfare, from the spot-on choice of music, to the lighter tone, to the nods to the comics of Jack Kirby, but none has as much of an impact as Blanchett’s goddess of death. That’s not simply because Hela receives nearly as much screen time as Chris Hemsworth’s Thor in the first minute or so of the trailer, but because of how she spends that time.
From the moment she struts on screen, toward a bound and humbled god of thunder, it’s clear “Ragnarok’s” queen of Hel is powerful, so powerful she can destroy Mjolnir, putting to rest weeks of speculation about the whereabouts of Thor’s hammer, and banish the Odinson to the far reaches of the universe. We know from the film’s synopsis that Hela is “ruthless,” but she’s also apparently worthy, at least on some level, as she can actually hold the enchanted weapon aloft (when so many others have failed), at least long enough to crush it in her bare hand.
Perhaps more important than her power is her sense of purpose. Hela’s mission is made clear in only a few seconds of footage: Whereas Loki asked for a front seat to watch Earth burn, Hela’s desire is to bring about Ragnarok, the fabled destruction of the gods. “Asgard is dead,” she proclaims in all her Goth glory before unleashing fiery hell and leveling its golden spires. “She’s been locked away for millennia getting more and more cross,” Blanchett, a two-time Academy Award winner, revealed last month, “and then, with a mistake, she gets unleashed and she ain’t getting back in that box.”
So, yes, Hela has a backstory — it’s probably safe to assume Odin and Thor both had a hand in her imprisonment — but there’s nothing convoluted or ambiguous about what she wants now. She’s not a pawn doing the bidding of a shadowy player working behind the scenes, or an artificial intelligence with a god complex, or whatever you want to call Helmut Zemo and his byzantine plot to make heroes fight each other. Hela, at least to her mind, has been wronged, and she wants to hurt those responsible. It’s probably the most relatable motivation for a villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since Loki tried to make his adoptive father love him (and show up his lunkhead brother) in “Thor.” Those are base desires, the kinds we mere mortals can appreciate.
Still more significant is that more than nine years after the release of “Iron Man,” Marvel’s movie universe is finally getting its first female primary antagonist in Hela. The closest the studio has come before now is Nebula in 2014’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” who, despite being characterized by actress Karen Gillan as “the female villain” was … not that. More sullen teenager and envious sibling than anything approaching “evil,” Nebula was little more than a henchwoman for her adoptive father Thanos who played second fiddle to the cardboard Ronan the Accuser. In the sequel, which opens less than a month from now, she actually becomes a member of the Guardians.
But, despite the presence in “Thor: Ragnarok” of Loki, Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster and Karl Urban’s Skurge, Hela appears to be the villain of the film, the one whose machinations set the plot in motion. It’s her actions that lead to Thor’s banishment to the barbaric planet Sakaar, where he’s pitted in gladiatorial combat against the Incredible Hulk for the amusement of Grandmaster and Loki, to say nothing of movie audiences. And it’s her plan to destroy Asgard that gives Hemsworth’s god of thunder a reason to fight his way free of Sakaar and claw his way back home.
It’s part of a watershed moment for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and for superhero films as a whole, as the Power Rangers confront the threat of Rita Repulsa on the big screen and, after nearly 76 years, Wonder Woman prepares to headline her first solo feature. “Can you believe it?” Blanchett said last month when asked, rather narrowly, about being “Thor’s” first female villain. “Can you believe we’re having this conversation and it’s 2017 and we’re talking about the first female villain? It’s ridiculous. There’s so much untapped potential villainy in women. It’s really exciting. I think finally it’s beginning to be acknowledged that women and men want to see a diverse array of characters, and that’s race, gender across the sexual spectrum.”
Before the arrival of “Power Rangers” and “Thor: Ragnarok,” female antagonists in mainstream superhero movies have largely fallen into two categories: the henchwoman/second fiddle (Nebula in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Ursa in “Superman II”) or the femme fatale (Catwoman in “Batman Returns,” Poison Ivy in “Batman & Robin”), with occasional overlap (Emma Frost in “X-Men: First Class”). The Enchantress from “Suicide Squad” may not fit comfortably into one of those molds, but she was possessed by ancient force of evil and wasn’t acting of her own accord. To find another female foe who isn’t a femme fatale or a pawn (willing or otherwise), we may have to search as far back as Faye Dunaway’s Selena in the 1984 film “Supergirl.” That’s more than three decades ago.
Beyond sheer power, purpose and agency, Blanchett’s Hela also wields the most distinctive, and most awe-inspiring, costume/arsenal in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since Iron Man. Oh, hell, Tony Stark has nothing on this goddess of the underworld. While her everyday look may channel the cool girl from psychology class (a style actress Elizabeth Banks jokingly suggested she swiped from Rita Repulsa), Hela saves for her most intimidating moments a headdress that combines her traditional Marvel Comics regalia with the disturbing Wendigo from “Hannibal.” But as amazing as it is from a visual standpoint, it’s not just for show.
“She’s able to manifest weapons,” Blanchett recently teased. “Her headdress can be weapons. She can manifest weapons out of different parts of her body. I won’t tell you which — I’ll leave that hanging.” We may have caught a glimpse of that ability in the trailer, when a sword seems to appear out of nowhere to punctuate Hela’s bold assertion that “Asgard is dead.”
Loki may be burdened with glorious purpose, and even adorned with fancy new headgear of his own, but it’s clear his time in the sun is over. Hela is ready to rule “Thor: Ragnarok,” and maybe even beyond.
Set following the events of “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” director Taika Waititi’s “Thor: Ragnarok” finds Thor banished by Hela to a barbaric planet on the other side of the universe, without his enchanted hammer Mjolnir. Determined to make his way home in time to save Asgard from destruction, the thunder god must first survive a deadly gladiatorial contest that pits him against his former ally and fellow Avengers, the Incredible Hulk.
The sequel to 2013’s “Thor: The Dark World,” “Thor: Ragnarok” stars Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Tom Hiddleston as Loki, Cate Blanchett as Hela, Idris Elba as Heimdall, Jeff Goldblum as Grandmaster, Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie, Karl Urban as Skurge, Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/the Hulk and Anthony Hopkins as Odin. The film arrives Nov. 3.