How male reproductive anxiety plays a part in Marvel's most hilarious movie yet!
Pretty much the entire MCU has daddy issues. Excepting Cap, most of the Marvel Cinematic heroes are grappling with their shitty fathers in one way or another, and for the most part it's been a pretty decent subtextual thread tying together a lot of the stories Marvel has been telling over the last nine and a half years. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 even widened its scope to implicate patriarchal colonialism on the whole, and it certainly didn't suffer from doing so. Phases Two and Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been keen on starting some interesting social and political conversations, and Thor: Ragnarok, despite being one of the more breezy entries in terms of tone and voice, absolutely doesn't shy away from the dialogue.
Thor's movies have pretty much all involved his fraught relationship with Odin, but Ragnarok introduces a secret sister we didn't know about, and it turns out she's got beef with him, too. Hela's issues, though, are a bit different. While approval motivates a lot of Thor's actions—he just wants to know that he's worthy of that awesome thing his dad gave him—Hela could really care less. She knows exactly what she's worth. She knows this, in fact, because she was created to do exactly one thing, and she did the absolute shit out of it, so much so that it scared the bejesus out of the guy who needed her to begin with, so he locked her away forever.
Ragnarok points a finger at what amounts to Odin's colonialism, as Hela reveals that his plan for peace in the Nine Realms was really just a smokescreen for some good, old-fashioned unity through conquest. The instrument of that conquest? Hela. With a real "ends justify the means" philosophy, Odin created for himself himself a tool through which he would be able to create his legacy.
Male fear of female reproductive power is an age-old chestnut. Remember that hilarious bit about how menstruation attracts bears? In their book Women's Work, Men's Property: The Origins of Gender and Class, Stephanie Coontz and Peta Henderson explore the cultural origin points of male reproductive anxiety, noting that "large numbers of primitive societies believe menstruating women to be dangerous to men and animals," and observing that a connection has been made between this type of belief and a male "attempt to control female sexuality and reproduction." And it doesn't end there. From the Salem trials to remarks about women with "blood coming out of [their] wherever," one doesn't have to look very hard to note an underlying male fear of female authority and power (or even its mere possibility) weaving itself through history. I mean, shit — the speaker of that last quote is apparently so drastically squicked out by the female reproductive system that he can't even bring himself to refer to it by name.
Odin's actions weave this male anxiety over female creative abilities smartly into the subtext of Thor: Ragnarok. She's essentially a living weapon, but the key here is that she exists with the express purpose of creating Odin's legacy. Her destructive abilities take on an inverse nature, and are instrumental in Odin's perverted "creation" of another sort of progeny —the Nine Realms, united. He can't make what he wants, however, without Hela's abilities, and once he gets what he needs out of her, she's banished.
Weirdly sharing some thematic DNA with The Handmaid's Tale, the subtext of Ragnarok's plot depicts a male need for female creative abilities, followed by an immediate distrust and hostility towards those very same abilities once the need has been fulfilled. Hela's fury, then, is directly informed by this type of subtle subjugation.
From the character's motivational standpoint, it's an easily understandable result of being completely discarded instead of rightfully recognized and valued for her contributions to the society in which she exists. Odin uses her powers to create his legacy, makes her an instrument of his conquest, then refuses to acknowledge her contribution or the value of her abilities. (Between this, mother! and Handmaid's Tale, 2017 has been a year seemingly fascinated with reproductive gender politics.) Of course she's coming back to burn it all down the first chance she gets.
Marvel's films have long had what people like to call a "bad guy problem," and though Ragnarok suffers for being a little rushed in the plot department, Hela is a villain with surprising depth. Not only that, but her motivations are completely understandable. After all: "Repress the natural and it comes back even stronger."