[Spoilers ahead for Captain America: Civil War]
I’ve stated in the past that Marvel has a villain problem. With the exception of Loki, the MCU’s villains tend to be one-dimensional, power-mad sociopaths who serve only to function as a perfunctory antagonist on the hero’s journey. There’s nothing memorable or sympathetic about bad guys like Malekith or Darren Cross or even a vaunted villain like Ultron. At best, you get someone like Red Skull who, thanks to the performance and the genre, works as a B-movie baddie.
But when it comes to villains with surprising levels of depth, again, outside of Loki, they’ve come up short. That is until Captain America: Civil War’s Col. Helmut Zemo. Zemo, a little known villain from the comics, has ended up being perhaps the most formidable adversary the Avengers have ever faced, and they’ve never even really faced him. He ripped the Avengers apart and he did it without a single Infinity Stone or even a superpower.
Zemo is a fascinating villain for several reasons. The first is that he doesn’t want to rule the world. His line about wanting to topple an empire is almost too misleading, because he doesn’t have his sights set on the world or nations. His enemy is the Avengers and once he completes his mission, that’s the end for him. They’re not a bridge to something larger. It’s a pure mission of revenge, and it’s revenge motivated by guilt and anger, which ties into the larger themes of the movie.
We see through Captain America, Iron Man, and Black Panther three men who are each consumed by guilt in their own way. Captain America feels guilty over not being able to protect Bucky; Tony Stark feels guilty over not making peace with his parents before they died; and T’Challa feels guilty over being unable to rescue his father. This guilt leads to destructive action, and it gives these heroes something in common with the antagonist—Zemo feels guilty for not being able to save his family, and turns that guilt into a mission of vengeance.
While Marvel villains have had personal stakes before, it’s never been played as softly or as quietly as Zemo. All you really get is a voicemail and a brief monologue, but that’s all we need. It’s addition by subtraction, and with Daniel Bruhl’s tremendous performance, Zemo is almost a sympathetic character. Even when he’s torturing the former Hydra agent, he’s doing it because he doesn’t want to bomb the UN meeting. He doesn’t go for the most destructive path first. And he doesn’t want to activate the Russian super soldiers. He doesn’t want to bring more pain into the world at large, but he wants to hold the Avengers accountable for Sokovia.
Captain America: Civil War wisely plays against our expectations. It leads us to believe that Zemo is just another weak villain who’s questing after a MacGuffin that will give him the power to rule the world. It uses the weaknesses of past Marvel plots to give us a sense of false security. When Zemo reveals his true goal—to tear the Avengers apart by showing Tony that the Winter Soldier murdered his parents and that Steve knew—it’s genuinely startling. In a way, the stakes are lowered—now it’s just a fight between three guys rather than the world at risk—and yet that makes it so much more powerful and intimate. We’re invested on the character level, which is where the film has kept us for its run time.
And what really knocks Zemo out of the park is that he wins! When Everett Ross is trying taunt Zemo and make him believe that he lost, Zemo just responds, “Did I?” He got exactly what he wanted short of ending his own life, and now the Avengers are broken to where it will probably take a threat like Thanos to bring them back together. That’s incredibly ballsy, and it’s smart to keep him alive rather than just be one-and-done, which has been a problem of Marvel movies past.
I hope we’re not finished with Zemo. He’s a fascinating figure who has show himself to be more than a formidable adversary for our beloved superheroes. This is what the Marvel Cinematic Universe needs: villains who can put its heroes to the test, and do it for more than one movie. Presumably, we haven’t seen the last of Zemo, and I hope that we get to see more of his fierce intellect, unnerving patience, and cruel experience that ripped Earth’s mightiest heroes apart.