I love a good villain origin story and I really love a good nuanced “villain” that speaks a lot of truth and toes that uncomfortable anti-hero line. These are characters that make us, as the audience, think because in most situations they’re fueled by extreme grief and loss.
If your family was gunned down in front of you, would you become Batman or The Punisher? The Punisher is one of my favorite comic book characters and, in the heat of the moment, all of his violent actions feel completely justified, but at a distance — do acts of violence correct other acts of violence? No. Of course not. But in superhero stories, where deaths are weighted on an uneven scale, these rational antagonists make for the most fascinating characters.
Villains who are evil for the sake of being evil have their time and place, but the villains who we can see ourselves in are, by far, more fascinating and I wish people were more willing to embrace the duality that comes with a good nuanced anti-hero.
The problem, of course, is when the material chooses to bait and switch us with these characters. They introduce characters who have motives that make sense, who are trying to fix something that we would also be incentivized by, and then they have them blow up a building and murder a bunch of innocents. Just to drive home how very-bad-and-evil this character is.
Now, we’re three paragraphs into this villain lover’s delight and I have somehow yet to mention the center of my most recent hyperfixation. It’s Helmut Zemo, as played by Daniel Brühl. One of my two favorite traumatized Sokovians.
While Captain America: Civil War, WandaVision, and to an extent, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier discuss and allude to the tragedy of Sokovia, I do not actually feel like it’s been given the attention it truly deserves. An entire country was wiped off the map and the Avengers went home. Sure, the Sokovian Accords exist but, please tell me how a piece of legislation does anything to mitigate the trauma endured by the people left to rebuild their lives.
Spoiler Alert: It does nothing for them. The impact of the Sokovian Accords centers entirely around the Avengers and how they react to it and it does nothing for Sokvia or those directly harmed by the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron.
The Accords are just a piece of legislation that allows 117 countries to feel like they have control over the Avengers. I’m squarely Team Captain on this and I have been since 2016. The Accords are a slap on the wrist and a tool for the world powers to appear more powerful. It doesn’t even change the way that the Avengers operate after the fact. They still inadvertently hurt people. All the time.
Wanda, I love you and I know that it wasn’t entirely intentional, but you still manipulated an entire town of people and played with their minds. Again, it’s the weight attributed to the actions of the heroes versus the actions of the antiheroes and villains.
All of this is to say, I think that Helmut Zemo is one of the best antiheroes presented in the present day, non-Netflix, Marvel Universe. Yes, there are numerous casualties in his pursuit to rid the world of Super Soldiers and superheroes, but the heroes’ hands are far from clean.
When you go to the official Marvel.com page for Captain America: Civil War they don’t even list Helmut Zemo as a character in the film, despite him being the linchpin of the entire plot. Clint Barton is featured in the site’s line-up and he doesn’t appear on screen until the 1 hour 22 minutes mark, in a movie that’s two and a half hours long. Zemo literally appears within the first twenty-five minutes. The movie has been out for five years, it’s not a secret.
Occasionally I make the mistake of going on Tumblr in pursuit of GIFs. It was a big mistake shortly after Zemo made his return on The Falcon and The Winter Soldier. I saw people graphically describing how they wanted to watch him “blow his brains out,” which was obviously a reference to a scene that I do not see mentioned nearly enough. Those worrisome Tumblr posts are half of the reason why this article is being penned.
When T’Challa finally finds Zemo, Zemo is seconds away from committing suicide, with his gun in hand. He listens to his wife’s voicemail one last time before deleting it, with one clear intention in mind. I’ve seen plenty of people unsympathetically approach this scene, brushing it off as an “easy way out” of paying for the consequences of his actions. To me, it reads like survivor’s guilt.
“My father lived outside the city. I thought we would be safe there. My son was excited. He could see the Iron Man from the car window. I told my wife, ‘Don't worry. They're fighting in the city. We're miles from harm.' When the dust cleared and the screaming stopped it took me two days until I found their bodies. My father, still holding my wife and son in his arms. And the Avengers? They went home. I knew I couldn't kill them. More powerful men than me have tried. But if I could get them to kill each other.” — Helmut Zemo
Zemo had promised his family that they would be safe, but ultimately they died and he survived. It’s this survivor’s guilt and vengeance that propels a year’s long effort to learn about and destroy the Avengers from within. Now that he has succeeded, his work is finished and the weight of his loss finally catches up to him.
Arguably, one of the most egregious actions committed by Zemo in Civil War was his attack on the United Nations, which led to the death of King T’Chaka. King T’Chaka’s death is, of course, used to motivate T’Challa’s character growth and ultimately propels him into the thick of his own plot in Black Panther. But it also allows for a dual examination of grief and it leads to a poignant scene in the final act.
After we learn that Zemo lost, not just his country, but his father, wife, and son in the destruction of Sokovia, he expresses remorse for what happened to King T’Chaka: “I'm sorry about your father. He seemed a good man. With a dutiful son.” I am sure there are audiences that are unwilling to accept this apology, but ultimately this scene feels like it is attempting to contextualize how both men have reacted to the loss of their father.
Which is a sentiment that is underlined by T’Challa retracting his claws and reckoning with his own grief: “Vengeance has consumed you. It's consuming them. I am done letting it consume me. Justice will come soon enough.”
It’s then that Zemo tries to follow through with his suicidal ideation, but T’Challa stops the bullet and saves his life because: “The living are not done with you, yet.”
Eight years later, Bucky Barnes finds himself in need of Zemo’s knowledge about the super-soldier serum. Which means breaking him out of prison. While the escape is noteworthy, I want to touch on the dialogue leading up to the prison break.
First, Zemo makes a quip about his time in prison: “At least you were not conscious for most of your imprisonment.” If he wasn’t caught up in the Snap, this implies that he’s had nearly eight years of imprisonment to think about his actions in Civil War and to dwell on his losses.
He also very quickly makes his own amends with Bucky, “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry. It was never personal. You were simply a means to a necessary end.” He is willing to accept his actions, which makes him a sympathetic “villain.” If he was entirely unrepentant, he wouldn’t be forthright with apologies.
Bucky is also far more willing to trust Zemo than fandom spaces seem willing to believe: “He is crazy, but he still has a code.” And we see shortly after this scene, the code that he lives by. He is divergent from his comic book origins.
“But I realized something when I met [Steve]. The danger with people like him, America's Super Soldiers, is that we put them on pedestals. They become symbols. Icons. And then we start to forget about their flaws. From there, cities fly, innocent people die. Movements are formed, wars are fought. You remember that, right? As a young soldier sent to Germany to stop a mad icon. Do we want to live in a world full of people like the Red Skull?” — Helmut Zemo
This is very on-the-nose dialogue, but it makes sense. Within the MCU, America does put its heroes on a pedestal. Captain America operates without impunity throughout the world. We see the dangers of this with John Walker, who thinks he can act without jurisdiction in any country he’s in.
The uneven handling of the Flag-Smashers is a topic for another article, but in terms of how they ultimately acted exactly how Zemo anticipated they would, speaks volumes. They could have proven that Super Soldiers do not become obsessed with violence, cult followings, and ego trips, but they didn’t.
Zemo, and all the people of Sokovia and other places caught in the fray of the Avengers, understand the cost of superheroes.
When they arrive in Riga, Zemo makes a comment about the Sokovian memorial which eventually connects to the scene in the following episode where Bucky and the Dora Milaje apprehend him. He was never really running, he knew he wasn’t going to be on the lam for good. But he wanted to pay his respects to his country and he told Bucky exactly where to find him.
“I heard what became of Sokovia. Cannibalized by its neighbors before the land was even cleared of rubble. Erased from the map. I don't suppose any of you bothered visiting the memorial? Of course not. Why would you?” — Helmut Zemo
I found the fact that neither Bucky nor Sam reacted to this comment off-putting. There are plenty of dialogue issues throughout The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, which is an entirely different conversation, but to have them not respond at all just continues to underline how the Avengers choose to ignore their past mistakes.
I think that most of us expected Zemo to betray Sam and Bucky over the course of his arc, and yet, he didn’t. He had ample opportunity to escape on the cargo freighter, but instead, he fought off the bounty hunters, found them a sweet ride, and pulled up for Sam and Bucky. Again, in Riga, he behaved like he intended to withhold the Turkish Delight information from Sam and Bucky, yet he provided them with the information that ultimately led them to Karli.
Did he have ulterior motives? Absolutely. After all, he had no intention of leaving his work unfinished.
A lot of people mischaracterized Zemo’s alleged hesitation when he locates the super-serum in “The Whole World is Watching.” Which confuses me, considering the fact that all of his dialogue and actions leading up to this moment are to actively stop and destroy Super Soldiers. He could’ve had his own Super Soldier army in Siberia, but no — he killed all of the Super Soldiers while they remained in stasis.
Even in the episode prior, he killed Dr. Nagel to prevent others from using that research to create Super Soldiers. Anyone should be able to recognize the danger of an organization like the CIA — or Hydra — creating an army of Super Soldiers. So of course, naturally, when he finally locates the remaining vials there is some elation.
This is a man who has seen firsthand the kind of devastation wrought by Super Soldiers and wants no part in its continuation. We see, again and again, that his motives are to see the Flag-Smashers killed because of what they are.
It was never about Bucky. Bucky was just the Winter Soldier that happened to have killed Tony Stark’s parents and was the key to the mission report Zemo needed to sow seeds of discord and locate the facility in Siberia. He had ample opportunity to kill Bucky in Captain America: Civil War and he didn’t take those opportunities.
Which leads me to the final scene that Zemo shared with Bucky in The Falcon and The Winter Soldier: “I thought you'd be here sooner. Don't worry. I've decided I'm not going to kill you.”
Let’s unpack the first part of that. Like I said earlier, Zemo mentioned the memorial because that was where he planned to go if he did flee from their custody. He clearly anticipated that Bucky would follow him, which makes me wonder how long he stood there waiting. A couple of hours? A day?
But the final part of that line is the most intriguing because both men should want to kill one another. In the episode prior, when Zemo tries to convince Sam to kill Karli and her acolytes, Sam pushes back on Zemo’s rhetoric and he doesn’t answer.
“If that's how you feel, what about Bucky? Blood isn’t always the solution.” — Sam Wilson
Perhaps, where Bucky is concerned, Zemo sees him as more than just a Super Soldier. Especially now that he has worked and fought alongside him. This scene is doubly fascinating with the knowledge that Bucky came there to prove that he was also not interested in killing Zemo. They both have seen that blood isn’t the solution for this situation, since we do know that Zemo’s butler (aka Murder Alfred) ultimately kills the Flag-Smashers.
Zemo also seems very willing to accept his death at Bucky’s hand, one because in his dying moments he would have the satisfaction of knowing that Bucky is the murderous Super Soldier he is believed to be and two, because he likely sees it as a fitting death to be killed in his homeland in front of the Sokovian memorial. I doubt all of the sentiments found in his scene with T’Challa have passed after eight years alone with his own thoughts in prison.
Zemo is not a villain. Zemo is just a man that has been pushed past the limit and chooses to make really bad choices for how he processes his grief and guilt. Without characters like him, there wouldn’t be a story. We need characters who are driven by circumstances to make morally dubious decisions that ultimately impact the heroes.
In writing, anti-heroes and morally grey characters are far easier to write than the good guys because they have clear-cut motivations, drives, and emotional connections. This is also why they are the most compelling characters to watch on screen. Ultimately we root for them to be better people, but we understand why they are driven to make the choices they make.
Zemo is driven by the grief of losing everything because of the Avengers, he is motivated to eradicate the Winter Soldier program and anyone who uses the super-serum, and his emotional connections are to his family.
The beauty of fiction is that we can love a character like Bucky or Steve, while agreeing that the points made by Zemo made about Super Soldiers make sense, all the while agreeing with the core ethos of the Flag-Smashers. Nuance goes a long way for creating well-rounded characters and, in particular, the characters that oppose and challenge our heroes.
What’s so fascinating about the way that they utilized Zemo in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is that Sam sits completely outside of the confines of Zemo’s issues with Super Soldiers and the Avengers in general. Sam didn’t hesitate to say no when asked if he would take the serum, Sam isn’t Captain America for the accolades or to be placed on a pedestal, and he actively tries to limit the casualties in conflict.
While we’re here, this needs to be said as well. Despite the character’s somewhat inconsistent comic book origins, the Helmut Zemo on our screens today is not a Nazi. In the MCU he is actively against Hydra, the Red Skull, and any group that promotes supremacy — a fact which is delivered through his own dialogue. Anyone saying otherwise needs to reconsider how they view German actors who have previously been cast as Nazis in completely separate projects. Throwing that phrase around to undermine people’s discussions about characters like Zemo undermines the real-world gravity of actual real-life Nazis.
“The very concept of a Super Soldier will always trouble people. It's that warped aspiration that led to Nazis, to Ultron, the Avengers. The desire to become a superhuman cannot be separated from supremacist ideals. Anyone with that serum is inherently on that path.” — Helmut Zemo
Long story short, let us love the “bad guys” like Zemo, Killmonger, Frank Castle, and Magneto in peace, please. It’s not our fault that they have really compelling motivations to engage with and explore.