As the underlying tensions in the MCU reach their fever pitch, the stage is set for an explosive battle in [Captain America: Civil War](tag:994409). But it's not just heroes fighting heroes, as Cap also has a plethora of villains to contend with too, from Crossbones to General Ross. At the center of it all is Zemo, Cap's longtime adversary from the comic books.
[ Warning: minor spoilers ahead.]
This character has been conspicuously absent from the trailers and marketing, showing up only briefly to look over his shoulder in one of the TV spots. Yet despite (or maybe because of) his apparent unimportance, in Zemo Marvel may have created their best villain yet.
The Villain Problem
Marvel are known for many things: their exciting and fun plots, the lovable heroes, and the grand overarching story. Yet, their villains often feel a tad lackluster. In Marvel's defense, it's difficult to make a madly-cackling, larger-than-life comic book villain truly menacing. Ultron lacked motivation; none of the most recent spate of movie antagonists felt like a real threat; and Thanos is just kinda hanging out in space until 2018.
Of course, there have been good villains — Loki is delightful whenever appears to stir things up, and the Netflix TV show villains are in a league of their own. But there's something unnervingly human about Zemo that makes him frighteningly relatable. His power isn't shouted from the rooftops like Loki, or viciously seized like Kingpin. In many ways, Zemo is most similar to Kilgrave, manipulating everything from the shadows. But while Kilgrave is undoubtably evil, it's very easy to understand Zemo's actions.
Master Of Manipulation
Civil War is a fantastically well put together film. The plot is intricate but not convoluted, keeping the audience guessing. And naturally, Zemo's true mission and motives are shrouded until the perfect moment of revelation.
In a beautiful feat of dramatic irony, it turns out that the characters are just as distracted as we are by the giant, explosive, superhero vs. superhero fight. The real conflict is far more ideological and emotional, as the pieces that were lined up in The First Avenger and The Winter Soldier finally fall into place.
And although Zemo, unexpectedly, ties together Age Of Ultron with the main story of Civil War, the key to his plan is one Bucky Barnes, who can't seem to stop falling into the role of a villain's pawn. In one of the film's most vicious scenes, Zemo becomes a truly terrifying puppet master, and we discover just how much Bucky is struggling to retain (or maybe regain) his sense of self.
So what makes Zemo Marvel's best villain yet? Ultimately it's not his role as the master manipulator, nor the fact that were we put in his place there's a chance we might act the same way. No, what makes Zemo the best villain is the fact that he actually succeeds in his mission.
Outplaying The Avengers
You don't need to know Zemo's plan, or why despite appearances he succeeded at the end of the film, but suffice it to say, this is the first time we see the Avengers completely outplayed by their key antagonist. There's a fantastic moment at Civil War's conclusion, after a quietly tragic scene where Zemo is at his most human, when we're left questioning who really won.
The status quo of this world is in tatters, with friendships tested and broken, and the repercussions of the Sokovia Accords will be felt in all corners of the MCU. Our one consolation is that the villain has been vanquished except — in his final scene Zemo softly smiles and dares us to believe he didn't actually succeed in his mission.
And honestly, that's the most frightening thing any Marvel villain has ever done.