My initial reaction to Helmut Zemo in Captain America: Civil War was quite similar to the reactions fans and critics have had with most Marvel cinematic villains.
“Is that it?” we all tend to wonder.
The important thing to remember is that most Baron Zemo fans enjoy the more recent incarnations of the character. In his early run, Zemo was a fairly generic “bad guy” seeking revenge against the Avengers because his father died while fighting Captain America.
It wasn’t until the 80s that the character was involved in some more intriguing story arcs, including his formation of the Thunderbolts, which was a team of villains pretending to be heroes who ultimately become heroes for real because they like it so much.
In Civil War, I didn’t see much of this Zemo being played out by the talented Daniel Brühl. True, they both have a thirst for vengeance, and both have a genius-level intellect akin to D.C.’s Lex Luthor. But the characterization was a far cry from the more enigmatic villain we know and hate to love. In Civil War, he’s muted and seemingly interchangeable.
(Plot spoilers from here on out, so if you haven’t seen Captain America: Civil War, read no further unless you don’t mind getting spoiled.)
You have to admit, though, that the villain in Civil War is also very different from most of the antagonists we’ve seen play out in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For one thing, the film doesn’t kill him off, which is a typical death wish for villains unless your name is Loki. Also, the film seems very interested in developing Zemo further, likely offering this version of Zemo as more of an origin, foregoing the rest of his arc for future films.
Take a look at some of the other heavy-hitter villains in the MCU. We see the origin of Obadiah Stain in Iron Man as he betrays Tony and dons a bigger, badder suit, only to get killed in the end. Blonsky in The Incredible Hulk also goes through the same process when he becomes the Abomination, only to get killed in the end.
Red Skull? Becomes Red Skull before the movie even starts, and then he gets killed in the end. Ronan? Uses the infinity stone to gain power and gets killed (presumably) in the end. Ultron? He’s literally born and killed in the same running time. Yellowjacket? A copy and paste of Obadiah Stain.
Don’t even get me started on the Mandarin.
But Zemo’s arc in Civil War isn’t quite as familiar. His evil turn happens entirely off-screen, and months before the movie begins. He doesn’t die by the time the credits roll. In fact, he actually wins in the end, accomplishing exactly what he set out to do. The “super soldiers” are dead. The Avengers have been split up. Their “empire,” as he calls it, has fallen.
The only thing he didn’t account for was Black Panther tagging along and preventing his suicide. The one thing he couldn’t predict was a person actually overcoming their thirst for vengeance.
For once, I’m actually intrigued by what happens next for this villain, even more so than Loki. I think my initial and frankly negative reaction was painted by a decade of getting used to Marvel’s rule book of three-act villains. Now it seems that Marvel (with some help from the Russo brothers and their dream team of screenwriters) is trying something new with its bad guys. They’re treating them like they would their protagonists.
The heroes of the MCU are arguably why we love these movies so much, faults and all. We love, know, and understand these characters. And I’m all for Marvel slowing down with stories for their villains, who should be just as important. Why does Zemo need to have a beginning, middle, and deadly end within the course of a movie that is already stuffed to the brim with major plot points? Why should he be any of the characters we already know doing battle in the scene depicted below?
That means, of course, that we can’t get the full picture of Zemo until we see how the events of Civil War change him. Will he become what he hates the most (someone with a suit) in order to stop the Avengers once and for all? Or will he move on and become something more of an anti-anti-hero, possibly leading the Thunderbolts in his own movie?
I’d be fine with either or even both, and seeing these movies from the big picture one day, it could certainly be one of the best things we got out of Civil War, beyond a few stellar action scenes and a spot-on Peter Parker.
Did you like Zemo in Captain America: Civil War? Let me know in the comments below.
I’m Jon and thanks for reading this. You can subscribe to my posts by clicking “Follow” in the right sidebar. Or just say hey on Twitter! @JonNegroni