WARNING: This article contains major spoilers for Marvel's Thor: Ragnarok, opening Friday in North America.
In case the marketing onslaught somehow hasn't made it clear, the primary antagonist of Marvel's Thor: Ragnarok is Hela, the Asgard-conquering, Mjolnir-destroying goddess of death played by Cate Blanchett. Unsurprisingly, the two-time Oscar winner nails her performance, but it’s also the costuming, campy commitment to her cause and characterization that make Hela such a memorable villain. She's unlikely to be forgotten anytime soon, because the film she has given her one hell of a backstory.
However, before we delve into that, let's revisit her Marvel Comics origins, as well as where her creators, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, drew their inspiration: Norse mythology. Hela is based on the Norse goddess Hel, and comes up against Thor numerous times. Appointed by Odin as ruler of the underworld -- also named Hel, hence "go to Hel" -- and Niflheimm and dominion over a portion of the dead. But she wanted more. She's also traditionally depicted as the daughter of Loki, the god of mischief portrayed in the Marvel Cinematic Universe by the fan-favorite Tom Hiddleston.
But in director Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok, Hela is swiftly revealed to be Odin’s first-born and, therefore, is the older sister of Chris Hemsworth's thunder god. The information is related to Loki and Thor by Odin himself (Anthony Hopkins), seconds before he passes away. Shortly afterward, Hela presents herself to her younger brothers and explains her plan to take her rightful place on the throne of Asgard.
In true hero style, Thor attacks Hela without a second’s thought, but before he can do any damage, she destroys his enchanted hammer Mjolnir (as prominently featured in the trailers), and the more cowardly Loki calls to Skurge (Karl Urban) – now guardians of the Bifrost Bridge – to transport them to safety. Unfortunately, Hela hitches a ride, knocks Loki and Thor off course, and arrives in Asgard alone, ready to take control of the kingdom … as well as to drop some more truth bombs about how her late father really became ruler of the Nine Realms, with her by his side.
She explains she was Odin’s appointed executioner, as well as leader of the Asgardian army, and together they savagely invaded and conquered Jotunheim, Niflheim, Muspelheim, Midgard, Vanaheim, Alfheim, Helheim and Svartalfheim. As Marvel Comics fans well know, Skurge is also known as The Executioner. In the film, he’s referred to by that nickname only briefly, when Hela divulges how keen she is for him to become her executioner, while she assumes power over the Nine Realms, and gifts him with a double-bitted ax.
In one scene, Hela guides Skurge into the Hall of Asgard and exaggeratedly despairs at the ceiling’s murals, which suggest Odin was a peaceful and respectful ruler. “Proud to have it, but not proud of how you got it,” she growls as she examines the wealth in the room and frenziedly tears down the ceiling, an act that reveals a very different mural beneath, depicting the far bloodier conquest that Hela and Odin shared.
It’s a great moment that pulls the rug out from under the audience as it completely changes the established view of Odin. It has a particularly strong impact, too, seeing as how, just a few scenes before, we witness his moving death. It’s always beneficial to understand a villain’s motives – something that films often fail to clarify – but that rippling effect of learning Hela and Odin’s shared secret history is the best thing about Hela’s backstory.
After redecorating the hall, Hela goes on to reanimate an army of dead Asgardian warriors, as well as Fenris, the enormous wolf she's depicted riding in the hidden murals. She then bitterly remembers to Skurge how Odin reveled in her skills and used her to his advantage during his rise to power, but as soon as he became fearful of her ambition and willingness to kill, he imprisoned her. With his death, she's now free. And naturally, she’s looking to carry out some kind of vengeance, in any way she can.
At this point you’d be right in thinking that audiences learn a lot about Hela in Thor: Ragnarok’s relatively trim 130-minute running time, but what we’ve detailed so far isn’t even everything. Later in the film, Thor spots a Valkyrie symbol on the arm of Tessa Thompson’s character and questions why she would abandon Asgard in favor of the rubbish-filled planet Sakaar. Her painful memories are revealed in a flashback in which she and her sisters, the legendary Valkyries, try to defeat a wild-eyed Hela. Thompson’s character only survived because another Valkyrie jumped in front of Hela’s super-powered assault, sacrificing herself.
It turns out, Valkyrie couldn’t overcome her guilt and fled to Sakaar to distract herself from what had happened, but that’s not the point; it's that even the assembled Valkyries weren’t powerful enough to stop Hela before Odin banished her.
Opening Friday nationwide, director Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok stars Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Mark Ruffalo as Hulk, Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie, Tom Hiddleston as Loki, Cate Blanchett as Hela, Jeff Goldblum as The Grandmaster, Idris Elba as Heimdall, Anthony Hopkins as Odin and Karl Urban as Skurge.