Thor: Ragnarok overcomes a lot of Marvel’s traditional problems – predictable three-act structure, bland quips and visuals – and turns its tics into triumphs – for example, crafting the inevitable and not unwelcome CGI slugfest into something raucous, gritty and beautifully stylised. Think back to the glorious moment where Thor leaps onto the Bifrost bridge, thunder slashing the sky around him, Immigrant Song screeching a battle cry, and you have a perfect example of how Taika Waititi pushed the comic book template to its inevitable excesses, while embracing everything weird and wonderful about the hero he was gifted.
But despite all its successes, one area where Ragnarok is swallowed by the same pitfalls as its Marvel siblings is with its villain.
The list of required skills for a Marvel villain is short and repetitive: chew scenery, rattle off ego-stroking speeches like a less deluded Donald Trump, and slaughter the background extras. If there’s one person you’d think that would solve that problem, it’s Cate Blanchett, in black lycra and cursed reindeer horns, as the goddamn Goddess of Death.
Her entrance is about as promising as entrances get. She steps out of a portal, looking like the frontwoman every Goth band dreams of, and within seconds she’s shattered Thor’s apparently unbreakable hammer, Mjolnir.
It’s an iconic moment, and it’s the best she’s going to get. From there, Hela, Goddess of Death, is relegated to Asgard and left to terrorise anonymous villagers with Karl Urban as Skurge the executioner. Blanchett is terrific in the role, and instantly the most iconic looking villain in the MCU, but the script really short-changes her full-blooded performance.
It’s particularly bad luck for Blanchett that her role comes straight after two of the strongest Marvel villains in recent times: Michael Keaton as Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Kurt Russell as Ego in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Both succeeded because they were given the screen time and dramatic space to exist as characters rather than just obstacles for the heroes to destroy.
Keaton had a solid motive – to make some money out of the chaos superheroes have brought to his city – and if he was a slightly lame opponent in the end, he at least got a handful of killer scenes opposite Tom Holland – you know the ones we’re talking about.
Ego’s motives were on the slightly more, ahem, egotistical end of the spectrum and his plans for galaxy domination were full-on comic book indulgence. That’s no bad thing if it suits the tone of the film though, and Ego was at least given the majority of the film as one of the “good guys” to earn our attention as a character.
As the none-more-black Goddess of Death, Blanchett is partly a victim of the film’s quirky tone, with Jeff Goldblum’s benevolent villain, The Grandmaster, arguably leaving more of a mark on your memory. Cate Blanchett was given carte blanche to steal the show, but there’s only so much even an actress as good as her can do with a few flimsy scenes.