One common criticism of Marvel movies is one-note villains, which is entirely correct. Many villains come across as evil knockoffs of their heroic counterparts. Captain America fights super soldiers — but bad! Doctor Strange battles evil wizards, and Iron Man goes toe to toe with various technologically powered people. But Baron Zemo proves himself to be one of the few exceptions.
Zemo’s first appearance in Captain America: Civil War set a new standard for villains in the MCU. He wasn’t a villain seeking power or wealth or seeking mankind’s demise. He had more tangible goals than simple domination. Moreover, Zemo had genuine motivations and relatable ideologies as well as a unique skill set that made him the perfect villain to battle the Avengers.
Zemo’s vendetta against the Avengers comes from a very personal place. He lost his family during the battle at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron. A calamity that the Avengers prevented — but only after they had created it. Zemo is one of the first villains inspired by the Avengers. Not as a knockoff but a product of their heroics.
It also gives him a defined ideology examined in The Falcon & The Winter Soldier. He hates super soldiers, considering all but Steve Rogers to be radicalized supremacists. It’s easy to see this extending to superheroes as a whole. As Zemo tells T’Challa at the end of Civil War, the Avengers got to go home while Sokovia reeled from their actions. Zemo’s story might look like a simple revenge plot but has more depth because of how his trauma comes from the Avenger’s actions.
Zemo is more like the audience than many characters in the MCU. He might be wealthier than the average viewer and smarter but compared to Tony Stark it’s nothing. Zemo is an average person in a world of titans. The Avengers created Zemo, and he represents the consequence of their actions. Zemo’s very presence in the MCU makes us question our heroes and whether they are just.
Is Zemo Right?
Zemo’s means are brutal acts of terrorism and manipulation that rock the world in Civil War. But does that invalidate his ends? Zemo’s goal of bringing consequence to the most powerful men and women in the world isn’t just compelling. It’s a story we’ve seen before. It would be easy to see Zemo as the hero in this story and that’s what makes him so compelling.
Phase Four of the MCU takes the concepts of heroics established in the Infinity War Saga and challenges them with Wandavision and TFATWS, making it a perfect point to reintroduce Zemo as a face to those questions. Zemo is not alone in this as John Walker proves Zemo right.
TFATWS introduced the dark side of heroics by giving the title and shield of Captain America to a soldier who lacked Steve’s sense of justice and morality, leading to a public execution and an international incident. Walker proves Zemo’s ideology as the super soldier serum enhances his worst qualities, making him more savage and violent than before. Walker has nuance himself, but in this context, Walker validates Zemo’s views.
The Unique Victor
Zemo’s uniqueness also helps him stand out from the MCU’s villains. The “knockoff villains” from before often make the hero fight a villain with powers like their own. This would often make fights come down to who had the better magical weapon or could punch harder. Zemo lacks the inhuman powers of those he fought and acknowledges this himself at the end of Civil War.
Zemo’s strengths come from his understanding of people and his foresight. Zemo’s careful manipulation of the Avengers and their weaknesses, as well as the political climate surrounding the Sokovia Accords, allowed him to fight those with more power and win. At the end of Civil War, Zemo had met his goal. The Avengers may not have killed each other, but they had torn themselves apart. The Avengers were no more.
The scene in Civil War where Steve hurls his shield at Zemo behind the bulletproof glass exemplifies this idea. Zemo isn’t the kind of villain one fights with brute strength. In some ways, he is a counter to Steve himself. An indomitable will that follows Zemo’s morality rather than another’s, only backed by intelligence rather than strength.
The Dora Milaje took Zemo to the Raft. Given the floating prison’s history of escapees, Zemo will likely return in the future. which is a relief. Zemo’s not your average villain. He’s nuanced and dangerous with unique skills that make him one of the most interesting characters in the MCU.