“Thor: Ragnarok” is an irreverent, very funny romp that has some sly things to say about the legacies of colonialism and a reminder of how underused Chris Hemsworth is as a comedic actor. But two of its nicest surprises are in the characters of Hela and Valkyrie and their performances by Cate Blanchett and Tessa Thompson. Hela and Valkyrie are unusual for Marvel and blockbuster movies in general. Both are messy, complicated figures not neatly fitting into the box of villain or potential love interest. And it’s worth wishing more big films, and Marvel itself, would keeping exploring outside worn patterns with female characters in epic adventure stories.
In “Ragnarok,” Hela is Odin’s (Anthony Hopkins) oldest child. And it was her, not her brothers Thor (Chris Hemsworth) or Loki (Tom Hiddleston), by Odin’s side as they conquered the various realms that made their kingdom Asgard’s fortune. Hela was literally painted out of history when Odin chose to live a more palatable story of a benevolent warrior king. Odin and several other characters say Hela’s bloodlust grew too great and that is why she was banished. But there’s always a faint note of self serving denial every time that’s said. As though the speaker is trying to avoid crediting the violence, and the woman who wrought it, for bringing them their present wealth and power. And it neatly solves Marvel’s persistent villain problem of antagonists with vague, nebulous “it’s in the script” intentions and plans. Hela has returned to claim what she rightfully considers her birthright. Her anger at being erased from history smarts at so many stories of actual, complicated, even terrible women being erased from history. And her wish to conquer Asgard and then resume her campaigns of endless wars feels borne out of the character rather than setting up the next movie. Blanchett is delicious in the role. Her clipped delivery and gestures suggesting an alternate universe where Katharine Hepburn played Emperor Ming. Blanchett is clearly having a ball playing the baddie and the fun is infectious. She raises Hela out of the humorless villain problem that has plagued other Marvel movies like “Guardians of the Galaxy,” which managed to waste Lee Pace as the glowering, blue painted Ronan the Accuser. Hela is wicked and wickedly funny and having a worthy foil gives the film energy.
And Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie is an example of why diverse casting is your friend. The trope of the soldier who lost all their companions and is now drinking the pain away is nothing new. But to see that part played by a woman, a woman of color no less makes it leap off the script page. When she first appears she is a mess, literally falling down drunk. Valkyrie is the survivor or a group of elite female fighters that were slaughtered by Hela. She’s measuring out her days between drinks on a backwater planet that’s half garbage dump and half pleasure dome and gladiatorial ring. She pays for booze by bringing fighters to the owner of the whole operation the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldbum). She brings him Thor after he’s defeated by an initial battle with Hela. And Thor begins to chip away at her self imposed exile and loathing to pick back up her mantle of the Valkyrie and help him defeat Hela. Thompson is marvelous, snarky one minute, tender the next. Thompson is not looking to be a “Strong Female Character” but a broken hearted warrior escaping a past too painful in self destructive behavior. It’s one of the film’s highlights when she walks out of crashed ship in her old Valkyrie garb, with fireworks shooting from the ship behind her. It’s an unabashed pulp image that easily could have come from Jack Kirby’s drawing board.
“Ragnarok’s” humor and its inclination to not flinch from feeling or bright colors is why it has become an unsurprising hit. But its virtues are tied up most strongly in Hela and Valkyrie. And it would be nice if, going forward, blockbusters realized how much is to be gained by letting women in them be as full of contradictions, flaws, and life as they are.