With Captain America: Civil War proving to be a tremendous win for Marvel Studios, I'm running through the secondary characters and looking at how their characters arcs worked. It's time to turn my eyes to the main villain of the film - Zemo!
Who is Zemo?
In the comics, Baron Zemo is one of Captain America's main villains. The original Baron Zemo was created by none other than Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and retconned into Cap's World War II escapades. He was a Nazi scientist who crossed paths with Cap several times, but their bitter rivalry was ended when Cap was frozen in ice. Decades later, Cap returned, and a furious Zemo stepped out of the shadows in which he had lived in order to get revenge. He ultimately died when he caused an avalanche.
The most well-known Baron Zemo, though, is his son Helmut Zemo - a ruthless criminal mastermind who inherited his father's evil legacy. This Zemo took to wearing the trademark mask after his face was badly scarred, and, like his father, blamed all his troubles on Cap. The two have crossed swords many times since, with Zemo founding the 'Masters of Evil', a deadly group of super-villains.
Perhaps Zemo's greatest contribution to the Marvel Universe was in the 1990s. With the Avengers believed dead, Zemo and his Masters of Evil pretended to be a new superhero team - the Thunderbolts!
So what's the MCU Zemo like?
In reality, this character is ZINO - Zemo In Name Only. The Zemo of Captain America: Civil War is a Sokovian whose family died in the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron. He's launched a bitter crusade to destroy the Avengers, taking advantage of the Sokovia Accords and the Winter Soldier to tear the Avengers apart.
How well does this play out?
It's an interesting conceit, but to be honest the Zemo of Captain America: Civil War - played by Daniel Brühl - isn't really a super-villain at all. He's simply a normal man who has found himself unable to deal with a world of gods and monsters, and who has turned evil as a result. Because the character isn't truly a super-villain, I suspect a lot of fans will be disappointed with this portrayal. That said, given the movie is already packed with so many super-powered characters, this version makes more sense.
The Zemo of Civil War is a tactical genius, and the subtlety with which he's manipulated events is fascinating. Unfortunately, his plans rely a little bit too much on luck and coincidence; most notably, there was no guarantee that Iron Man would be on hand for his final strategy.
Zemo embodies the themes of the film. On the one hand, his evil is a direct consequence of the actions of the heroes - had Tony Stark never created Ultron, Zemo would not have turned villain. On the other hand, his motive of revenge is one that fits thematically with the film as a whole. That motive is used to create some very clever scenes with Iron Man and Black Panther; for the former, Zemo's understanding of revenge means he can easily manipulate Stark, while the latter learns to reject revenge as he sees what it has made of Zemo.
Ironically enough, I can't help contrasting Zemo with another villain Marvel Studios redesigned dramatically - the Mandarin. Having learned from the fan backlash to the Mandarin, Marvel have kept Zemo's presence to an absolute minimum in marketing. The main focus of the movie is the so-called 'Civil War', and Zemo is merely a catalyst for it.
Here's the sad truth, though: there was simply no reason to make this character the MCU version of Baron Zemo. The character bears no relation to the comic version, while there won't be a single fan who chooses to see Civil War because Zemo's in it. Baron Zemo could quite easily have been left for possible future use in the MCU. So all in all, however much I think Brühl creates a fascinating character, he just shouldn't have been Baron Zemo. To my mind, the only way to redeem this would be if Marvel headed in the direction of a Thunderbolts film, with Brühl reprising his role. Unfortunately, I'm yet to be convinced that this is at all likely.