“An empire toppled by its enemies can rise again. But one which crumbles from within? That’s dead… forever.”
In 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, audiences were sold on the prospect of watching their beloved heroes fight each-other and having to pick sides – with both teams having a collection of favorite heroes and actors being at odds. Whether you were #TeamTony or #TeamCap, the film delivered on those prospects by showing an interesting and complicated ideological battle between Steve Rogers & Tony Stark as they dealt with the Sokovia Accords & the complicated fate of one James Buchanan Barnes.
When we talk about Civil War, it’s usually these core points that are revisited – the arguments of who was right? Was it Tony or was it Steve? And after Avengers: Endgame, do these points actually matter anymore? But what we quite frankly, don’t spend much time on is the character of Helmut Zemo and how his character directly helped shape the MCU throughout Phase 3 and beyond.
With characters like Thanos, Loki, and Killmonger being rightfully prominent in ‘Top Villain Lists’ for the MCU, I’m here to make a case why we should give much more kudos to Baron Zemo as one of the Avengers’ best adversaries.
His Modus Operandi
In 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, audiences watched as The Avengers fought Ultron in the fictional European country Sokovia with wide-ranging consequences. The country had its capital city destroyed and there were 177 deaths as a result of the battle, including the deaths of Baron Zemo’s father, wife, and young son.
Losing your family all in one devastating event is extremely traumatic, but also realizing that some of that responsibility could be arguably placed at the Avengers’ door (having created Ultron in the first place) you can understand why Zemo went out of his way to get revenge.
Does that make his murderous rampage at the UN or his killing of Joe Russo’s cameo therapist acceptable? Obviously not, but most villains do believe that they are the hero of their own story and in this case – it’s hard to argue with some of the arguments that Zemo brings up.
For the heroes of the story, namely Steve, there’s a big moral dilemma about signing up to the Sokovia Accords and the story rightly presents these pros/cons arguments through the opposing teams. But it’s easy to see why average citizens in the MCU may have similar thoughts to Zemo with regards to these super-powered individuals ‘getting away with creating damage/causing harm, even if by mistake like with what happened with Wanda Maximoff in Lagos.
However, Zemo’s revenge isn’t about killing those he finds responsible for the deaths of his family. He knows that ultimately The Avengers is fundamentally a family unit themselves and that eroding that core trust between themselves and the public is instrumental to their demise. It’s not until he sees his work truly unfold that he feels comfortable enough to remove himself from the chessboard by ending his own life.
His Plan Actually Works
Ultimately, what makes Zemo stand out as an underrated villain is the fact that his plan ACTUALLY works. By the end of Captain America: Civil War, the Avengers are pretty much over, the friendship between Steve and Tony is damaged, Steve is no longer Captain America & his friends are on the run – worldwide.
Some might make the argument that because of Avengers: Endgame, the destruction of the Avengers is ‘undone’ and that this somehow diminishes Zemo’s work but that’s not the case. Yes, Steve and Tony make amends and the latter gets to resolve some of his parental issues by finding closure with his father in an alternate timeline. But, those two years’ worth of breakup prevented the Avengers from being completely united from the beginning and could have altered the outcome of Thanos’ first arrival on Earth.
With all their resources combined and that added level of trust, how much damage and death could have been avoided? Particularly when you think of the Battle of Wakanda, the emotional toll from 5 years of The Blip & everything that comes with that, and even the sacrifices that resulted from Endgame – would Natasha and Tony still be alive?
All of that stems from one core defining moment in the MCU – and that’s Baron Zemo’s plan working. Even some of the best villains in the series like Loki never end up winning, or at least not on this scale. Thanos is definitely in Zemo’s category, but would he have been able to face up to the Avengers had it not been for Zemo’s long-term damage?
If only there was an animated show on Disney+ that could potentially delve into these What If? scenarios…
Despite trying to take his own life at the end of Civil War, Zemo is saved by Black Panther who says: “the living are not done with you, yet”. While this is a full-circle moment for T’Challa’s role in the movie, as he learns that justice doesn’t equate with revenge, it also acted as a gateway for future stories. One of the biggest issues with the MCU was the fact they kept killing off villains, who could potentially have more to add in the future.
But the sign of a really great villain is one who is allowed to flourish even more in other appearances, which is what will happen with Helmut Zemo in the current Disney+ show Falcon and The Winter Soldier. Not only does the audience get to see more out of this fascinating villain, but it also completes some of the missing pieces from the character’s use in Civil War.
Namely, his comic-accurate costume makes its appearance in the show and looks perfect! Maybe one of the reasons the character has been such a sleeper villain for so long was that he needed that bright costume from the books to help him stand out even further.
Ultimately, Baron Zemo is a complex and fascinating villain whose impact has had and may have far-reaching consequences for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While he’s not always a name you might list off immediately when naming your favorite villains, he’s absolutely one of the most underrated in the MCU.