Spoilers for Thor: Ragnarok ahead. Cate Blanchett's latest performance just might make you want to root for a killer. As Hela, the villain in Thor: Ragnarok, Blanchett defeats a hoard of hundreds, all well-meaning Asgardian warriors, in one of her first scenes. The men are protecting Thor's home after Hela banishes him and takes the throne, but they don't last long. The scene is violent, quick, and entirely devastating, with one final brave warrior standing up to this ruthless villain only to be viciously impaled on a spike she conjures from the ether. And yet, in that awful, violent moment, I somehow kind of wanted to be Hela. Worse, I was actually rooting for her and her wave of destruction. And I'm fairly certain I'm not alone.
For all the years of super villains in the realms of nerdom (Magneto, The Joker, The Green Goblin, Lex Luthor, Kylo Ren, and of course, the one and only Darth Vader), there's yet to be a female super villain who feels as exciting as Hela. In the X-Men films, Mystique winds up being a more sexuality-laden sidekick than anything else (despite Jennifer Lawrence's best efforts in Days of Future Past), much like Margot Robbie's insultingly batty Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad. Catwoman hasn't fared well onscreen since Michelle Pfeiffer played her in Batman Returns, and even that classic iteration ended up being something of a lovesick stereotype rather than a badass. Then there's Marion Cotillard's Talia Al Ghul in The Dark Knight Rises, who was nowhere near the dastardly villain we'd all hoped would close out Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. Sure, Guardians of the Galaxy Vo. 1 & 2 have Nebula, but she's a homesick kitten compared to Hela.
Sure, female villains existed before. But were they ever the sole threat to the hero and everyone he holds dear? Did they ever control the situation through their own might and power the way so many male supervillains have? Talia has her henchman Bane do most of the menacing in The Dark Knight Rises; Mystique, Catwoman, and Harley are sidekicks in every sense of the word; and Nebula is a secondary conflict reserved mostly for Zoe Saldana's Gamora, rather than the entire crew. Hela, on the other hand, is so powerful, that were she not imprisoned by her own father's magic, she would have been running the entire world since before Thor could walk. She owns everything she touches, and while she does get herself a few henchmen, not once does she sit back and let them do the fighting — they're simply the chilling amuse-bouche to her devilish main course.
For years, nerdy women of the world have been subsisting on fumes in a desert of so-so female villains, so it's no wonder that seeing Blanchett's Hela take center stage in the best Thor movie (and one of the best Marvel movies) in the franchise has some of us rooting for the wrong team.
But still, it's an odd feeling to sit through two hours of a film centered on the entirely lovable — and newly knee-slappingly hilarious — Thor, and actively root for his most vicious, terrifying, and capable foe yet. And what makes her even better is the fact that the film gives Hela time to find common ground with her audience, to tell her story, and to deepen her character.
We find that she's not just a badass villain with seemingly limitless power — she's a warrior who was trained by her father to be ruthless, to win him a throne, only to be cast aside and banished once he was ready to put down the weapons and pretend life was idyllic and tranquil again. In many ways, in fact, Hela is a lot like the gold standard of Villains You Accidentally Root For: Darth Vader.
Like Vader, she seems invincible and her mystical, mysterious power seems to have no limit. She also has a sympathetic backstory, and the potential for redemption and reconciliation with her family — since we don't actually see Hela die at the end of Ragnarok, her familial connections to our hero may drive some hope that she might return and perhaps even have a change of heart, a la Vader choosing Luke over the Emperor in Return of The Jedi.
Then there's the scene in which Hela takes down the Asgardian rebels in Ragnarok, which feels incredibly similar to the adrenaline rush inspired by the final scene of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, in which we see Darth Vader wield his red, menacing lightsaber and take down a band of rebel soldiers. Only this time, as a woman, I was able to see myself in Hela. It is new and terrifying to feel that level of kinship with a devilish evildoer, but simultaneously incredibly addicting. Despite years of loving superheroes and sci-fi blockbusters, I found Ragnarok's villain to be the first one that delivered this sensation — and it's clear that it's because until now, I couldn't see much of myself in the most enthralling villains. But Blanchett & Hela have changed all that.
The concept of identifying with a terrible villain, however, isn't new to most men in these fandoms. Psychology expert Travis Langley attempted to fully explain in a 2012 WIRED article about why we love supervillains. Langley points to thought leaders like Ivan Pavlov, who "would say we can learn to associate supervillains with other things we value – like entertainment, strength, freedom or the heroes themselves" and Sigmund Freud who saw "human nature as inherently antisocial, biologically driven by the undisciplined id's pleasure principle to get what we want when we want it – born to be bad but held back by society." I never quite understood this sensation until now. Essentially, relating to a villain like Hela and rooting for her is actually quite natural — it just hasn't been this natural for women until now.
It might seem small or silly, to want to relate to a villain the way so many men do with characters like The Joker or Darth Vader — after all, we have folks like Wonder Woman now, right? What do we need evildoers for? Well, when speaking to Bustle about Wonder Woman back in June, behavioral scientist and author of the relationship blog You're Just a Dumbass, Clarissa Silva offered an explanation as to why women succeeding in fight scenes feels so damn good, to the point that some women were crying during those scenes. It might just offer some insight into the villain issue as well.
"Women are historically objectified or subjugated, the portrayal of a woman in an empowering role is a subversion of that historical role," said Silva. "For some women, it addresses the larger question 'if women were to hold this position of power what would the world look like?' It’s affirming to them, it validates their intuition."
In a way, Hela offers some dark twisted fantasy. What if women, as a historically downtrodden group, let caution to the wind and expressed their true anger and emotions without restraint the way Hela does in Ragnarok? What if we shirked decorum and let every little dark inclination we're supposed to hold inside out? Wouldn't it look something like Hela in our wildest, darkest dreams?
And while, in reality, expressing ourselves the way Hela does is certainly not an option, when you enter a theater for a few hours of fantasy, isn't it intensely powerful for just one moment, to know what that might look like?