While the Marvel Cinematic Universe recovers in the wake of Captain America: Civil War, the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok is set to show us what’s been going on one realm over with those characters who missed out on all the fun – specifically Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), along with Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who is currently sitting on the throne of Asgard in the guise of Odin (Anthony Hopkins).
Among the new characters being added to the MCU’s version of Asgard is Hela, the first main female villain thus far and set to be played by Cate Blanchett. We’ve seen concept art, heard whispers of plot details and had promises made of this being an Asgard-shaking event, probably all caused- at least in part- by Hela herself. But who exactly is this Norse goddess of the dead with magnificent headgear?
Hela in the original myths is known as ‘Hel’, ruler of the realm of the dead, also known as ‘Hel’. So it’d be like if Odin was the ruler of the realm of… ‘Odin’. Confusing, but when you’re the boss of an entire realm (as well as Niflheim, the ice world) you can be as egotistical as you like. Hel received a portion of the dead, mostly those less fortunate souls who died of old age and sickness; those who died warrior deaths would instead be spirited away by Valkyries to either Valhalla or Fólkvangr, which were more like the Norse version of heaven.
Hel herself, like a lot of similar ancient deities (such as Hades) was pretty much a neutral force who got on with her job and didn’t mess around with mortals like a lot of her godly peers. Hel (the place) wasn’t even depicted as all that bad in many ways – just not as good as the warrior alternative. However, she was described as having half a normal face and half blue (frost giant style), and also having a terrifying ‘thunderous’ expression all the time.
Hel was re-imagined in Marvel comics as Hela, a daughter of Loki who was constantly trying to increase her real estate by taking over the dead in other realms, including those of Valhalla. This has led her to clash with Thor and Odin many times, either trying to steal their own souls or stepping over her boundaries to steal souls that still definitely don’t belong to her.
Hela has quite the distinctive look, generally dressed in your typical comic book supervillain-looking suit with her massive spider-like headgear denoting her station. This look has shifted throughout the years, she always stays with the theme of a poisonous green and the aforementioned helmet/hair that seems to stretch on for miles. In terms of powers, Hela isn’t exactly a front-lines fighter but still has all the abilities of your typical Asgardian, including great strength (on par with Thor), near-immortality, immense durability and great speed. She also wields quite a bit of magical power, and as the goddess of death, she’s able to steal souls with only a touch. Though this is meant to be a strictly on-the-job perk, Hela’s death touch is still one of her most potent weapons.
We first meet Hela as the ruler of Hel and Niflheim, both of which were realms of those who had the misfortune of dying while not doing anything particularly exciting. She acts as a more generic villain in her first appearances, trying to extend the boundaries of her realm and steal souls in Valhalla. This has become an important pieces of motivation for Hela, since controlling Valhalla would give her dominion over all the dead in Asgard, particularly the heroic ones. Fólkvangr doesn’t seem to have quite the big brand recognition in the Marvel Universe.
Hela clashed with Thor most famously when he tried to rescue Lady Sif from her clutches. Hela later stole a piece of Odin’s soul and created a monstrous entity known as ‘Infinity’, who defeated Odin and posed a major threat to the nine realms.
Hela’s motivations have become murkier and more complex since then, often allying herself with other major villains such as Malekith and often Loki, only to reveal a hidden agenda or even working with the heroes on occasion. Like most gods of death in modern depictions, however, Hela has mostly been a straight-up villainous figure. Hela’s appearance in the MCU ties into her connections to Ragnarok in the comics, where she conspired with Loki to get the ball rolling several times and eventually succeeded (and died horribly, because that’s sort of the point of Ragnarok). The storyline in the comics had her eventually revealed to be hiding in the body of a mortal on Earth like all Asgardians, and revived after Thor blasted the world with a load of magic lightning bolts. It makes sense in context.
We don’t know all that much about Hela’s appearance in the movie, though concept art has shown her arriving in Asgard and not receiving a particularly warm welcome. Perhaps some misdemeanors from the comics have also happened in the MCU version’s past, or maybe Hela is just known as a generally shifty death goddess who never shows up unless something really awful is about to happen.
Given how many times she and Loki collaborated on evil creative projects in the comics, it seems pretty likely that this Hela and Loki will also have words to say to each other… though as Tom Hiddleston’s character now rules all of Asgard, he might be a bit more reluctant to see the whole thing go up in flames. Unless Hela’s arrival and the upcoming battle of the gods is all part of his plan, which nobody would doubt for a second.
Whatever Hela’s role in the oncoming storm, there’s really no one better to play the MCU’s first major villainess than a two-time Oscar winner who’s no stranger to the realm of fantasy. Let’s just hope Cate Blanchett has strong enough neck muscles to hold up that gravity-defying headgear.
Captain America: Civil War is in theaters now. Doctor Strange opens November 4, 2016; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – May 5, 2017; Spider-Man: Homecoming – July 7, 2017; Thor: Ragnarok – November 3, 2017; Black Panther – February 16, 2018; Avengers: Infinity War Part 1 – May 4, 2018; Ant-Man and the Wasp – July 6, 2018; Captain Marvel– March 8, 2019; Avengers: Infinity War Part 2– May 3, 2019; and as-yet untitled Marvel movies on July 12, 2019, and on May 1, July 10, and November 6 in 2020.