Marvel is commonly criticised for having major problems with their villains, and [Captain America: Civil War](tag:994409)'s Zemo is already getting a lot of criticism. Interestingly enough though, I think there's a case for arguing Zemo isn't really the villain of the film.
Warning: SPOILERS FOLLOW!
The real enemy?
Let's take a look.
The theme of revenge all starts with Crossbones. Frank Grillo's character returns after Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and he's dramatically changed. In his first appearance he was in the Triskelion when a burning helicarrier hit it. He evidently wriggled out of any criminal charges associated with being a Hydra member and old Hydra connections transformed him into a deadly cyborg warrior.
We're told that Crossbones has been on a terrorist rampage for six months. His motivation? That becomes clear when he clashes with Captain America and declares his goal is to get payback because Cap "dropped a building" on him.
Crossbones's motivation is revenge. He's willing to die for revenge, and he doesn't care who else suffers, as long as he gets his way. So, the tragedy in Lagos, which leads to the imposition of the Sokovia Accords, is an act of revenge.
Daniel Brühl's Zemo is a fascinating villain, albeit drastically different to the character from the comics. This Zemo was a high-level Sokovian soldier, trained to be the best of the best. But he lost his family in the battle over Sokovia — not because they were in danger, but because the bright lights and thrilling costumes of the Avengers attracted his son like a moth to a flame. Drawn by a desire to see Captain America and the Avengers, Zemo's son and wife headed into the Sokovian city. Their choice cost them their lives.
As Black Panther observes, revenge has consumed him. Zemo now has only one thing to live for: the destruction of the Avengers, no matter the cost. His sole purpose for living is revenge. With that desire fulfilled, his life is spent.
The reality is that Zemo is no supervillain. He's a ruthlessly smart man who's gotten caught up in a world of gods and monsters and he lashes out in rage as he's swallowed up by hate.
Now this will be a controversial one! The film climaxes with Tony Stark learning Bucky's shocking secret, and everything else fades in importance. Friendship? That's meaningless. The fact Bucky was a brainwashed victim? Meaningless. All that matters is what the Winter Soldier did, and Tony Stark's desire for revenge.
The other battles in Captain America: Civil War were spectacular, principled, and almost comedic in tone. With the exception of one disturbing kill-shot from Vision, there was no real sense of risk. But here, there's no humor, only rage fueled by a desire for revenge.
As the Punisher told Daredevil though, once Tony Stark crosses that line — once he becomes a murderer — he'll never be the same again. Captain America stands before Stark and his revenge, and in so doing saves his friend from himself. I don't expect Stark to "get" that anytime soon, though; his last bitter words to Steve show the depths of his rage. Revenge has consumed him.
Then we come to one of our new heroes, who shows another path. Black Panther loses his father, and — driven by a desire for revenge — he pursues Winter Soldier relentlessly. Given the level of secrecy Wakanda is shrouded in, the fact their living legend even winds up arrested under the Accords is startling. Revenge costs Black Panther his secrecy. The fact he doesn't exactly seem sanctioned under the Accords, when Wakanda was a major force pushing for them, suggests he's also caused a diplomatic nightmare!
But at the film's end, Black Panther learns who truly killed his father. He again seeks revenge, but then watches as he sees what revenge has done to Zemo and Iron Man both. He chooses another path. Not forgiveness — no, rather than revenge, he chooses justice.
Where the villains of the film are consumed by revenge, and where Iron Man falls to revenge, Black Panther rejects it. In that moment, he becomes one of the most important heroes of Captain America: Civil War.
So there you have it! A subtle theme running throughout the film that I consider to be the true villain. Captain America: Civil War shows the consequence when a desire for revenge is left unchecked in powerful men, and there's a tremendous cost. It's a nice, subtle touch. In my view, it turns the film on its head; if you look at each individual character, you might see the so-called villain problem as still continuing. But if revenge is the villain of this film, then Captain America: Civil War becomes far more satisfying. I think this film shows a studio well on its way to addressing its "villain problem"!