One of the common criticisms of the #MCU is that it just doesn't have a good track record when it comes to handling its villains. Part of this is undoubtedly that Marvel tends to kill off their supervillains after their first outing — it's pretty rare for a bad guy to survive long enough to appear in multiple films (Tom Hiddleston's Loki being the most notable exception).
Another exception is Arnim Zola, who was played by Toby Jones in Captain America: The First Avenger and voiced by André Sogliuzzo in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. A key Nazi scientist, as he neared death Zola transferred his mind into a computer system — and played a key part in The Winter Soldier, where his 'brain' was apparently destroyed in a missile strike.
I say apparently, because it turns out the character almost made a return in 2015's Ant-Man!
Take A Look!
Artist Josh Nizzi has just gone public with some very surprising concept art for Ant-Man, and it featured the return of Arnim Zola. It seems that an early script planned for Zola to make an appearance — likely not as the major villain, but probably accompanying the Hydra agents who sought out the secret of the Pym Particles. As you can see, various designs were tried out — some featuring holograms, others computer screens carried by android bodies. Some of those androids were pretty incredible!
It actually makes sense that Zola could have survived. After all, in Winter Soldier we're told he uploaded his mind into a computer system as far back as 1972; the computer installation found by Captain America and Black Widow is clearly intended to be his 'brain.'
Zola remained a highly active — and crucial — member of Hydra, and was personally responsible for creating the algorithm that was behind Project Insight. This algorithm would identify any potential threats to Hydra's new world order, and S.H.I.E.L.D.'s helicarriers would eliminate them with ruthless efficiency.
If Zola remained active, then, there's no reason he couldn't have taken advantage of changes in technology to copy his files to another — far smaller — computer system. It makes sense that, in the aftermath of Avengers: Age of Ultron, he would have attempted to duplicate Tony Stark's work and create a new android body to house his digital consciousness.
The Comic Book Inspiration
As you can see, Josh Nizzi's design is pretty faithful to the comics. In the original #Marvel comics, Zola was a brilliant biochemist during World War II who was drawn into the Red Skull's supersoldier experiments. In order to survive the end of the war, he uploaded his mind into a sophisticated computer system, which he has since transferred through a succession of android bodies.
The most interesting thing about all this, though, is the fact that Zola could still return. The concept art proves that Marvel toyed with the idea of resurrecting this dangerous threat, and that could easily be done at any time. It's frankly rather surprising that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. hasn't already done so, but perhaps Marvel Entertainment was told the movies were still considering using the character.
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It's always fascinating to get a glimpse of the direction a film could have taken. In this case, though, it shows us that Marvel Studios toyed with resurrecting a key supervillain, one who they could actually bring back at any time they want. The mechanism is still there, and always will be; a digital being can always be copied, and — in the aftermath of Avengers: Age of Ultron — android bodies are now part and parcel of the MCU.
Do you want Marvel to bring back Zola?
Poll image: Josh Nizzi / Marvel Studios