With the release of Thor: Ragnarok, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is breaking new ground in terms of villainy. Though it is about to be a whole decade old, and though Ragnarok is the 16th film in the franchise, the MCU has never before featured a lead villain who’s also a woman. Sure, there have been fleeting glimpses of women with nefarious agendas before now – such as Brandt in Iron Man 3, for example, or Nebula in Guardians Of The Galaxy (before Gamora won her over in Vol 2.) – but every MCU film to date has had our heroes battling the embodiments of overly ambitious masculinity as the lead villains.
From 2008’s Iron Man, to 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, we’ve seen film after film with literal bad guys prompting the action. Obadiah Stane, Abomination, Ivan Vanko, Justin Hammer, Loki, Thanos, Red Skull, Aldrich Killian, Malekith, The Winter Soldier, Crossbones, Ronan The Accuser, Ultron, Darren Cross, Helmut Zemo, Kaecilius, Dormammu, Ego, and The Vulture – each man as driven to cause chaos and destruction as the next. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, as it stands thus far, would seem to have us believe that women are simply not capable of such villainy – that they have no interest in power, other than the ‘good kind,’ which is bestowed upon them by male heroes, such as Pepper Potts being promoted to CEO of Stark Industries.
But, we know that this is nonsensical, and that is why Thor: Ragnarok is such a welcome and refreshing change. There are plenty of female villains to be found in the Marvel comic books source material, and plenty that can be added to the juggernaut film franchise. The question is, why’s it taken so long?
Why Have Lead Female Villains Been Absent?
The closest we’ve come to a lead female villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe before Thor: Ragnarok was in Iron Man 3, where early drafts of the story reportedly had the character of Maya Hansen (played by Rebecca Hall) as the primary threat. This was altered though, specifically as a result of corporate pressure – as detailed by director Shane Black to Uproxx.
“All I’ll say is this, on the record: There was an early draft of Iron Man 3 where we had an inkling of a problem. Which is that we had a female character who was the villain in the draft. We had finished the script and we were given a no-holds-barred memo saying that cannot stand and we’ve changed our minds because, after consulting, we’ve decided that toy won’t sell as well if it’s a female. So, we had to change the entire script because of toy making. Now, that’s not [producer, Kevin] Feige. That’s Marvel corporate, but now you don’t have that problem anymore.
Ike Perlmutter [former CEO of Marvel Entertainment] is gone.
“Yeah, Ike’s gone. But New York called and said, “That’s money out of our bank.” In the earlier draft, the woman was essentially Killian – and they didn’t want a female Killian, they wanted a male Killian. I liked the idea, like Remington Steele, you think it’s the man but at the end, the woman has been running the whole show. They just said, “no way.””
This almost certainly explains why it took a decade for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to include a lead villain who’s also a woman. The only reason we’re aware of these particular behind-the-scenes political machinations is because Iron Man 3 was directed and co-written by the famously candid Shane Black. Indeed, Marvel toy production has often been a bone of contention in relation to past MCU films – specifically regarding the scarcity of Black Widow merchandise in comparison to her fellow Avengers.
Why Is Marvel Breaking This New Ground Now?
Shane Black would apparently suggest that the re-structuring of Marvel Studios and its relationship with Disney is perhaps a major factor in the sudden breaking of new ground in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While the Walt Disney Company acquired Marvel in December 2009, Marvel Entertainment CEO Ike Perlmutter remained in post, overseeing Marvel Studios and its output until September 2015 – at which point Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige began reporting directly to Disney Chairman, Alan Horn. It’s therefore notable that Marvel’s scheduled movie projects into post-2015 production that have far greater emphasis on female characters – such as Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, Ant-Man And The Wasp and Captain Marvel.
But, while Black Panther, Ant-Man And The Wasp and Captain Marvel all feature stories with female heroes, it’s Thor: Ragnarok that breaks the deadlock on female villainy. It also doesn’t go unnoticed that this sudden change of approach occurs in a film co-written by Eric Pearson, who wrote four of the five Marvel One-Shot films – one of which evolved into the female-led TV show Agent Carter, for which he also wrote a number of episodes.
It’s further noteworthy that the first female villain in the MCU comes within the first Marvel movie to be directed by Taika Waititi. The rest of the films in the franchise, to date, have been directed by white men. So, the groundbreaking use of a female villain in Thor: Ragnarok comes from the first feature-length script co-written by the man who helped launch the first female-led Marvel TV show, and the first MCU movie to be directed by a person of colour.
But, the inclusion of Hela, Goddess Of Death, in Thor: Ragnarok is important for more than just the fact that she’s a female villain. In the comic book source material, Hela’s a significant character within the Thor series – often appearing as his nemesis. The fact that she’s arrived at this particular point in the MCU, though – at the end of Phase Three, in plot threads leading into Avengers: Infinity War – has given rise to an interesting fan theory.
Ten years in, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is now renowned for taking a large amount of dramatic license with its source material. This is, in some ways, necessary – as a frame-for-frame adaptation of a comic book would contain no surprises for a cinema audience. This approach has led to a film franchise that has specifically marginalized otherwise relevant female characters, though.
For example, if faithful adaptations were made, we would have met The Wasp a decade ago, as it was she that helped create the Avengers team, and indeed named it. For Hela, this re-imagining of characterization and relationship could swing the other way, though.
Spoilers for Ragnarok will follow…
In the comic books, Thanos is enamoured of the Mistress Of Death, who’s the actual embodiment of the end of life. The Mistress Of Death is not the same as Hela, Goddess Of Death, but the MCU has changed characters before to fit a more streamlined narrative. Hela having been unveiled in the franchise in one of two films that lead directly into Avengers: Infinity War – in which Thanos unleashes great power – could suggest that, in this version of the Marvel Universe, Hela is a romantic interest for The Mad Titan.
It could be that it’s Thor’s clash with Hela on Asgard that draws the attention of Thanos in the first place. We know that the God of Thunder is on his radar thanks to the mid-credits scene at the end of Thor: Ragnarok, and Hela being the cause of that would give her greater significance in the franchise as it moves forward.
It’s entirely in keeping with Marvel’s approach to female characters in the MCU to have the first leading female villain appear at a given point specifically to serve a narrative purpose that revolves around male characters. This has been the way in which every significant female hero has been introduced, after all.
Black Widow was undercover as a Stark employee, to help Iron Man find his way to S.H.I.E.L.D; Scarlet Witch arrived with her brother, being held captive by male Hydra leaders; Agent Carter helped Captain America in his first missions; Sharon Carter helped Captain America in his later missions; Hope van Dyne helped Ant-Man become Ant-Man. If Hela is indeed the reason that Thanos has zeroed in on Thor and his group at the end of Thor: Ragnarok, then she’s a functional plot device, like her heroic counterparts – albeit one with multi-film potential.
The ending of Thor: Ragnarok makes the future unclear for Hela, though, and it’s equally possible that it’s Loki that has drawn the attention of Thanos – given that the God Of Mischief was tasked with retrieving items from Odin’s vault. If Loki is in possession of an Infinity Stone, then that would also explain the Mad Titan’s sudden arrival. In that case, Hela was purely a glorious female villain who escaped the bonds of imprisonment, took umbrage at having been erased from history by a patriarchal society, and sought to have her revenge.
That’s a far more poetic way to involve the first leading female villain in the MCU.
What Other Leading Female Villains Could We See In The Future?
What we’re seeing with the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a period of transition. Not only are we reaching the end of Phase Three, but we’re also seeing the films that have resulted from changes in the corporate structure of the company as a whole. The proof, then, of how these changes will really play out into the future, will be whether we see the studio take full advantage of the range of female villains available in the source material. Indeed, every hero has them.
Captain America has fought Black Mamba, Madame Hydra and Superia, for example. Black Widow has battled Russian assassin Iron Maiden and Asian assassin Black Lotus. Hawkeye has clashed with an explosives expert named Bombshell, and a projectiles expert named Javelynn. Spider-Man has had showdowns with Knockout and Scorpia. Iron Man has fought Justine Hammer as the Crimson Cowl, and robotics expert Madame Masque. Doctor Strange has deflected the energy manipulations of both Ecstasy and Umar. Hulk has smashed Harpy and Mercy. Black Panther has gone up against former Dora Milaje, Malice. Ant-Man has battled Blacklash, Bulldozer, and Frenzy. The Guardians Of The Galaxy team has faced off with Mindscan, and Rancor.
Of course, in terms of which characters are able to appear in the MCU, we have to consider the always contentious issue of rights. For example, while Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures came to an agreement that allowed for the production and distribution of Spider-Man: Homecoming, this does not mean all character rights within the sphere of the Spider-Man comic books are available for use in the MCU. However, Marvel does own the rights to characters within the sphere of the majority of the Avengers team – which provides many opportunities for the inclusion of more leading female villains.
It’s not yet clear whether they’ll be taking this opportunity, though. We know that the villain of Black Panther will be Erik Killmonger. The villain of Avengers: Infinity War will be Thanos. The upcoming Ant-Man And The Wasp will feature a character named Ghost, played by Hannah John-Kamen – and the character of Ghost in Marvel is a villainous one, so this may be the next example of female villainy in the MCU. All eyes then fall on Captain Marvel – which is written and co-directed by women, and is the first female-led movie in the franchise.
Although the titular hero has faced numerous female villains in the comic book source material – including Dr. Minerva, Thundra, Una-Rogg, and Namorita – it recently became apparent that actor Ben Mendelsohn was in talks to take the role of the villain in the Captain Marvel film. Presumably, he would play the leader of the Skrulls – possibly Emperor Dorrek. If this becomes a confirmed casting, then it seems that female villainy in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – such as that in Thor: Ragnarok – will remain the exception, rather than the rule, for the foreseeable future. And that would certainly be a shame.