On Second Thought, Zemo Was One of the Best Things About ‘Civil War’

civil war zemo

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.

civil war zemo

(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.

civil war zemo

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?

ciivl war zemo

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

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11 Replies to “On Second Thought, Zemo Was One of the Best Things About ‘Civil War’”

  1. Slight error, here. “General Ross in The Incredible Hulk also goes through the same process when he becomes the Abomination, only to get killed in the end”
    Ross is the Secretary of State in Captain America: Civil War.
    Emil Blonsky was Abomination in the Incredible Hulk.

  2. I loved Zemo, though he wasn’t really much like the Zemo I know from the comics. That said, I haven’t read much of that pre-80s stuff you mentioned.

    • There are so many iterations of Zemo, it’s hard to keep track anyway. But yeah, the 70s Zemo incarnations are seriously uninteresting.

  3. While I admire the choice of not killing Zemo, I didn’t particularly care for this villain at all. I’m not a fan of most hero-obsessed villains because they tend to come out of left field. The MCU has a whole has really suffered from not addressing the harmful implications of the existence of these superheroes, so it does feel sudden (however welcome, for once) to have Civil War address the matter through the shoe-horning of this vengeance-obsessed normal guy (I don’t care whatsoever about his comic book incarnation; I only care about him as a film character) and a subtle but still preventable series of misunderstandings amongst the heroes. Bruhl did his best with it, but he’s the type of actor who’s more of a blank slate that requires a well-written part for his acting to truly shine. In Civil War, he just came off as an obsessed everyman whose ploy doesn’t feel like it exists on the same wavelength as the journeys of our main heroes.

  4. For the record, I would have to admit that I appreciate Zemo as a villain. Most kinds of villains like him, thirsting for revenge, being regular people beforehand, turn out to be some kind of freaky crazy. Their psych is often tuned out, and in ways appear as if they were on some kind of drugs getting them all worked up (I apologize for lack of a better way to describe their behaviors at the moment..). Zemo seemed to be at some kind of peace to me, if anything, and it brought what I felt was a pleasant change of perspective. Often times these villains will do everything they can to destroy these heroes. In this case, Zemo had them fight against each other, but I felt it was more about proving the dangers of their power, and not so much to have them kill each other off (I mean, is that not the ‘principle’ of this movie? That even the greatest heroes CAN be dangerous to the innocent…)
    Zemo does make reference to the fact that he is aware he cannot destroy them, so he made it so they will do that themselves. However, when his back-story is revealed it seemed he only wanted to teach our heroes a lesson, and was ready to leave the world, because he was able to accomplish that. Maybe the ‘father within’ craved to give these heroes a life lesson they would not forget, especially considering what he lost: his family. After all, don’t most hero combination stories end the same way, where one is pinned against the other, but they soon realize to let go of their personal debacles and join forces to combat the true evils of the world? (or something like that…)
    Lastly, I want to point out that Zemo had not even reveled in his accomplishment, at least not from what I could acknowledge. He seemed to simply have finished his task, and so was ready to end his life. Nothing gave him more drive to live. I found this intriguing, because often times the villain gets all cocky and wants nothing more than to prove their righteousness. Zemo just up and left, whereas if other villains from other movies leave is because they are about to continue with their plans of destruction, or want to leave just to ‘witness form above’, if you will, all their evil plans coming to a close and proving absolute.

  5. There are actually theories that Red Skull is not dead. If you remember the Teseract(?) is an infinity stone , as shown in Gaurdians. So it is possible that he was transported somewhere. We’ll just have to wait and see.

    • Agreed, that’s why I said “presumably” dead. I’m definitely a big fan of these theories, assuming Weaving wants to reprise the role.

      • FYI: The Abomination did not die either. He’s in containment cell in a SHIELD/Hydra facility somewhere.

  6. I agree with everything , One thing though , Red Skull wasn’t killed at the end of the movie, he was transported to some other place by the tesseract.

  7. Yes I liked ZEMO. But for your information Jon Abomination, Red skull and Mandarin are not dead. Mandarin was not even Mandarin in the movie, Trevor Slattery was the fake Mandarin. Which is revealed in marvel one-shot films that the REAL Mandarin sends some goons to break Trevor Slattery out of his prison and was asked to meet him, the REAL Mandarin was clearly angry that he used his name. The Red Skull on the other hand is transported to another realm, that’s what we were asked to believe. Not really sure about the Abomination but I know he is not dead.

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