For anyone who fucked with Lord of the Rings in the aughts—or, frankly, saw Carol when they were supposed to—you’ve known: Cate Blanchett is a boss. And while it’s pretty inexcusable that it’s taken Marvel this long (that is, almost a decade) to get a female villain into an MCU flick, we knew it was basically a guarantee they’d do it right with Blanchett leading Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok as Hela, the Goddess of Death. But the result wasn’t just a fun, slickly dressed villain. During Hela’s first moments on screen, she manages to outshine the titular star with the kind of presence and power the MCU has never seen before.
Blanchett isn’t just groundbreaking casting; Hela is a groundbreaking villain. An interdimensional goddess of death who’s so powerful she can smash Thor’s hammer into pieces without breaking a sweat is a villain that’d make any actor worth their salt salivate. But in the MCU, Hela is even more of a rarity: not only is she nearly all-powerful, but she’s got a clear motivation, and a compelling backstory, making her one of the first villains in the universe to sidestep the many, many pitfalls most Marvel villians fall prey to. She’s not buried under 10 pounds of makeup, she gets plenty of screen time to establish her relationship not just to Asgard but to the godly family within it, and while a goddess of death is less relatable than say, a Loki, she’s actually able to go toe-to-toe with a literal god in downright brutal combat. Sure, she spends a less than optimal amount of time away from her protagonists while continuing her reign of terror in Asgard, but Waititi also makes sure to craft Hela’s backstory in a way that’s inextricably tied to Thor, as well as establishing a crucial connection between her and Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson).
“Thanos has done very little to give us reason to fear him. I’m gonna need him to get up off his intergalactic ass before we give him a higher ranking .”
Of course, it’s impossible to broach the idea of “Best MCU Villain Of All Time” without talking about Loki, the beloved trickster god with a rabid fan base. And while I’m willing to concede that he’s had his moments, it’s Loki’s poor planning (his world domination plot in Avengers repeatedly gets called out as being stupid as hell) and emotional vulnerability that turns him into a character that’s pretty impossible to classify as a villain at all. Sure, he’ll be back to his self-centered ways to help service another Thor plot down the line as long as his dysfunctional relationship with his brother stays compelling, but in Ragnarok, not only is he completely unable to compete with Thor for the fate of Asgard in any meaningful way, he also seems unwilling to. Hell, Thor and Valkyrie keep him tied up while the pair talk shit about him to his face—and he still turns around to aid them when the going gets tough. It’s not that Loki lacks depth or consistency, but it’s pretty undeniable that in Thor: Ragnarok, he’s largely abandoned his evil reputation. Even Michael Keaton’s Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming, for all his intricacies, is ultimately a villain who never kills a single person on purpose. Luckily, Hela’s got plenty of bite to go along with her bark.
The real MCU baddie potentially posing a threat to Hela’s rightful villainous throne is, of course, Thanos. He’s the only villain we’ve seen yet who could even begin to contend with her impressive swath of powers, and clearly the head honchos at Marvel view Thanos as the ultimate force of darkness in their cinematic universe. But that doesn’t mean he’s not divisive: some people fuck with his all-powerful, mysterious schtick (he’s currently sitting pretty at #2 on our Marvel villains ranking), but the reality is that Thanos has done very little to give us reason to fear him. Sure, there was some speechifying from Nebula in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 that made clear Thanos was a bad, bad dude: but I’m gonna need this guy to get up off his intergalactic ass before we give him any ranking higher than a villain we’ve actually gotten to see do their thing.
Sure, Hela’s not perfect: she monologues with the best of them and employs an army of the dead, a brainless force almost too similar to the kind Loki yielded way back in the very first Avengers. But for a (presumably) one-shot villain, I’ve yet to see a Marvel big bad who commands the screen in a more threatening, black-hearted way while also managing to have an interesting emotional arc and genuine sense of humor. “[Hela’s] the most interesting villain Marvel’s ever had,” Waititi told Collider on the set of Ragnarok. “She’s not two-dimensional. She’s layered. She’s troubled. She’s really funny… Thor has never fought anyone tougher than this lady.”
He’s not wrong. A character who can literally impale a protesting villager in the town square, then dramatically fling relics in a Weapons Vault with movie-star flair? Get you a villain who can do both. Perhaps it’s the timing: it’s uniquely compelling right now to see a female villain fighting for her rightful throne largely because she’s tired of watching men fuck it up; who’s angered by watching men in power obscure their dark pasts. But even so, you’d be hard-pressed to find another villain in the MCU who manages to feel as actually imposing and oddly playful as Hela. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take Marvel another decade to give us another incredibly compelling baddie.