With Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie, Thor: Ragnarok has technically introduced the first canonically queer character to appear in the MCU, but because the only explicit nod to Valkyrie’s sexuality was ultimately cut from the film, her queerness remains almost entirely subtextual. It’s a bummer, but we can take solace in the fact that with Hela, Marvel has, accidentally, brought queer representation to its Cinematic Universe—in a very particular way.
Queerness here isn’t defined as the straightforward expression of one’s sexuality or gender. Rather, I’m referring to the subversive elements of a character that become readily apparent when they’re analyzed through a queer lens. Disney has a storied history of coding its villains as queer even if it doesn’t go so far as to insinuate things about their sexuality or gender identity. The design for The Little Mermaid’s Ursula, for instance, was inspired by famed drag queen and John Waters muse Divine. Ursula’s queerness, then, doesn’t necessarily reveal itself at first glance or when you simply take her at face value, but requires that you bring a certain degree of knowledge about queer culture to the table.
The same is true of Hela.
The moment that Hela first saunters on screen from her extra-dimensional prison isn’t marked by much fanfare or a particularly ominous musical cue.
Soon after stepping through a glowing vortex, Hela matter-of-factly explains to Thor and Loki that, as the oldest of Odin’s children, she is next in line to rule Asgard and her long-lost brothers would do well to accept their new queen. When the two balk at Hela’s proposal, she casually summons the first of her many swords as a warning and gives the men a simple command: “Kneel.”
Naturally, Thor hurls his hammer at Hela and, well, by now you know what happens next.
As Ragnarok unfolds and we learn more about Hela’s backstory, a very traditional kind of Marvel villain comes into focus. Hela wants what’s rightfully hers, and after being wronged by her family for so long, she’s all too willing to kill masses of people in pursuit of her goals. But there is something about Cate Blanchett’s performance and Ragnarok’s Kirby-inspired aesthetics that transforms Hela into something so much more than your standard cookie cutter baddie.
While watching Ragnarok for the first time this weekend, I struggled to put my finger on just what it was about Blanchett’s take on Hela that made me instinctively pay more attention to the screen whenever she was its focus. Ragnarok is a visual spectacle-and-a-half that realizes so much of the mind-bending imagery that defined Jack Kirby’s career, and Hela’s appearances are no exception.
Where Thor is summoning bolts of lightning from the sky, Hela is manifesting blades of death from her body in the blink of an eye. She’s a living weapon whose ability to exude power precludes the need for her to brandish it the way her brothers do. Through artistically rendered, dreamy flashbacks, we’re told that Hela is said to have the power to wipe out entire armies by herself. But Ragnarok does the extra work of showing us the way that Hela moves through battles in real time. Like death, she is cold and calculating, shifting between simple moves, like stabbing a foe with a sword, and impossibly fluid maneuvers that are as graceful as they are savage.
At the same time, Hela also is an exquisitely campy, outsized personality who revels in the gauche, obsidian garishness of her divinity. Hela doesn’t just transform her cascading hair into her antler-adorned helmet—she stops, luxuriates in her own lethality, and quite literally takes a moment to feel herself before she gets down to business. Hela is simultaneously Siouxsie Sioux and David Bowie—undeniably feminine while also disrupting whatever ideas we may have about her gender. Hela insists that she is not (just) a queen, but she is performing a kind of high-concept drag that transforms the horrors of death and war (concepts we traditionally associate with masculinity) into a gorgeous ensemble.
Hela is undeniably sexy, but she’s never sexualized in a way that feels as if it’s meant for the gratification of the viewer. She emanates the kind of energy that comes from a character who is so single-mindedly focused on her end goal that she can’t be bothered with any sense of prudish modesty.
In a very real sense, Hela is the embodiment of Asgard’s raw power, divorced from the Kingdom’s sanitized facade that we’ve seen so often in the past. Hela eventually explains how Odin once used her as his ultimate weapon to conquer and plunder countless other kingdoms. As Asgard’s might and wealth grew, so too did Hela’s power, leading the Allfather to cast her into her otherworldly prison out of fear and regret.
Hela is her father’s shameful secret, hidden in such a way that Odin himself would never have to confront his daughter about what he did to her. Rather than fixating on the father that wronged her, or the brothers her parents were perfectly fine raising, Hela brushes the weight of the past off her shoulders, leaving tons of would-be Freudian baggage behind in favor of a much leaner character arc that’s almost entirely about her reclaiming the throne. She’s supremely unbothered by Thor and the Revengers, and the idea that anyone might try to kill her is never really something that Ragnarok even tries to entertain.
Like all Asgardians, Hela queers time with the countless anachronisms that define her people. She’s steeped in old Norse mythos and iconography, but she’s also from a far-flung maybe-future where hovercraft are made to resemble ancient Viking ships. The circumstances leading up to her inclusion in Thor: Ragnarok are modern, but Blanchett taps into an Old Hollywood style of arresting glamour as she gleefully chews through the film’s gorgeous scenery.
Hela’s a misunderstood outsider who is demonized for being true to herself, but is resolute in her (very accurate) belief that nothing is wrong with her. Hela’s the type of character that I always gravitated toward as a kid: big, outlandish, and unapologetically committed to her own madness. She is at once exactly the kind of villain you’d want from a movie like Thor: Ragnarok and nothing at all like what you’d think Marvel would ever be comfortable with.
What more could you want?