Warning: SPOILERS ahead for Thor: Ragnarok
Cate Blanchett’s Hela is the rage-filled goddess of Death and the new powerful adversary that Thor must face in Taika Waititi’s Thor Ragnarok. In her very first appearance she destroys Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, by crushing it with her bare hand. Hela’s power, which stems from Asgard itself, makes her seem virtually unstoppable.
However, the film version of Hela has a different parentage from both her counterpart in the comics and from the original Norse goddess, Hel. These earlier versions were the daughter of Loki, while Hela in the film is the daughter of Odin, making her the older sister of Thor and the adopted sister of Loki.
In Norse mythology, Hel is a giantess and the goddess of Death. She is the daughter of Loki and the giantess Angrboda, and she rules over Hel, a realm that shares her name. She is often imagined as half-blue and half-white, or half living and half decayed. When the god Baldur was killed by Loki, Hel said she would only release him from the underworld if every living thing wept for him. One giantess (who may have been Loki himself in disguise) did not weep for Baldur, and so Hel refused to release him.
Because Hel was the daughter of Loki, she is also the sister of the giant wolf Fenrir; in contrast, in the film, Fenrir is Hel’s mount and (presumably) not her sibling. Despite the fact that Hel seems rather hostile to the other Norse gods, she didn’t have any dreams of domination beyond her own realm, and she was not a major antagonist in many stories in the way that her father, Loki, was.
In the comics, Hela rules over Hel and the larger icy region of Niflheim, one of the Nine Realms, and as in Norse mythology she is the daughter of Loki. The left half of her body is decaying, so she uses a magic cloak to hide this deformity, and the rest of her usual costume was pretty faithfully reproduced in Waititi’s movie (antlers and all). Unlike the Norse goddess, Marvel’s Hela did desire to expand her dominion, which meant that she would often become an antagonist against Thor and other protectors of Asgard.
Thor: Ragnarok made a conscious choice to change Hela’s parentage from her comic counterpart, and that choice greatly affected her role and motivations in the film. Thor is surprised to learn about Hela’s existence from his father; she is the sister he never knew he had. Odin warns Thor that Hela is incredibly powerful, and that Odin imprisoned her after she grew dangerous. As Odin’s power wanes, Hela grows stronger and moments after Odin dies and fades to dust Hela appears and orders Loki and Thor to kneel before her.
But Hela’s backstory as Odin’s daughter is not simply to distance her from Loki. As the eldest daughter of Odin, Hela fought alongside her father to conquer the Nine Realms. Her desire for power mirrored Odin’s own hunger. She was Odin’s weapon, and when he could no longer control her, he imprisoned her and erased her from Asgard’s history. It’s an interesting added dynamic that Hela actually is the true heir to the throne, not a malicious usurper. Her anger from being imprisoned and her desire to rule over the Nine Realms seems to have been planted in her by her imperialistic upbringing as much as it comes from some sort of innate antagonism.
Hela’s new backstory brings the history of Odin and Asgard into question; what once seemed like an idyllic paradise is now an empire that was built on the conquest of other lands. Thor is left to grapple with these revelations, and the secret past of his homeland, as he becomes the leader of the people of Asgard.
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