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Zemo Is One of the Best MCU Villains and I’m Thrilled He’s Coming Back

Daniel Brühl as Helmut Zemo in Falcon & The Winter Soldier

After months of rumors, it was confirmed at San Diego Comic Con that Daniel Brühl’s character from Captain America: Civil War, Helmut Zemo, would be joining the Marvel Studios Falcon & The Winter Soldier Disney+ series. This is a brilliant addition to the show. Zemo is one of the MCU’s better villains, and his presence augurs excellent things to come.

I was excited when Marvel first named Daniel Brühl as Zemo way back in 2015. The German-Spanish actor is one of my favorites, always delivering insightful, deeply-felt performances (please watch The Alienist miniseries if you have not). Then Brühl’s Zemo turned out to be far more nuanced and interesting than I expected in Civil War, a movie that was not particularly given over to nuance.

While Civil War is full of explosions and motorcycle chases and Steve Rogers’ biceps vs. a helicopter and bombastic declarations and airport battles, there is Zemo working quietly to manipulate in the background. Though he does terrible things, his motivations stem from personal tragedy, and it’s hard not to sympathize with him to some extent. I love this sort of multidimensional villain.

The MCU smartly diverted Brühl’s Zemo away from the comics origins of Baron Zemo, son of [other Baron] Heinreich Zemo, a WWII-era HYDRA leader and Cap foe. With HYDRA already the villainous force in The First Avenger and The Winter Soldier, it’s nice to take a break from Nazis, and thankfully MCU!Zemo was reborn as something else entirely.

In Civil War, he’s a Sokovian special forces colonel whose family died as a result of the Avengers/Ultron battle in Age of Ultron. Blaming the Avengers for the loss of his family, but knowing that he could not defeat them himself, Zemo sets about ripping the group apart down the fault line of Bucky Barnes. He does an excellent job on this front, leading to the haunting exchange he has with Agent Everett Ross when he’s imprisoned at the end of Civil War:

Ross: So how does it feel, to spend all that time, all that effort, only to see it fail so spectacularly?

Zemo: [half-smiling] Did it?

And indeed, the factionalization that Zemo brought about in Civil War has a profound effect on the Avengers and most of their character development going forward. Thanos arguably might not have gotten his hands on all the Infinity Stones if the team hadn’t been fractured, some of its members going underground. Zemo did real and lasting damage to the world of The Avengers.

What I especially appreciated about Zemo was that he was the perfect meta-villain for Civil War. He’s the only one who is fully in control of the situation and knows what’s really going on the whole time, and in a movie where so many people’s choices hinge on revenge, and on avenging a past wrong on the perpetrator, the fact that he has the same motivation himself makes him an excellent fit. He’s an even darker mirror to T’Challa and Tony’s pain, showing the awful acts that can result when grief and revenge overcome all reason.

Zemo’s tragic backstory is the stuff of many a superhero and villain. Yet it’s played with subtle poignancy throughout the film, with Zemo listening to the last loving voicemail his wife left for him over and over again, before he deletes it at movie’s end when he’s preparing to die by suicide after his plan, for the most part, succeeds. That’s another thing about Zemo: he was never into villainy for the attention or to reap any worldly rewards or because of a sadistic nature. While he is a scarily capable killing machine—he did run a covert Sokovian kill squad—he doesn’t employ violence for violence’s sake, nor seem to enjoy it, killing only those he deems necessary for his plans to succeed. He even apologizes to T’Challa for causing his father’s death.

As brilliantly embodied by Brühl, Zemo can seem dangerously unhinged one moment, and crushed under his grief the next. He’s an uneven villain who may not even be able to predict his own actions or the choices that he’ll make when it comes down to the wire. All of this makes Zemo a far more interesting and menacing antagonist, and an exciting one to bring back for an expanded role. He’s perfect for Falcon & The Winter Soldier because of his direct personal connection to the characters and their entangled history, and because he is so very human.

If Zemo is the mastermind that Sam and Bucky have to take on, we can expect all manner of psychological twists and turns alongside physical threats. And if the show stays true to Zemo’s established characterization, we may even find ourselves understanding where he’s coming from on occasion.

It also looks like he’ll be picking up a new look that’s a nod to Marvel comics fans.

As Screen Rant reported of the Comic Con reveal:

The villain reveal happened partway through the panel for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, with Zemo suddenly hacking into the Hall H display and appearing in a video – first without the mask, and sporting a beard. “I simply wanted to say hello to some old friends,” Zemo says in the teaser, before ominously adding: “Gentlemen, I’ll be seeing you very soon.” The teaser ends with Zemo putting on the purple mask.

Falcon actor Anthony Mackie was unphased by the return of the Avengers’ old enemy, retorting, “Beat you once, we can beat you twice.”

On Instagram, Bruhl himself showed us an image of a masked Zemo. He also Instagrammed an issue of Captain America and Falcon that features the Phoenix, a Zemo alias, on the cover. Could this be a clue as to what Zemo’s been up to since The Snap?

No matter what name he’s using now, I can’t wait to see Zemo back in action. We’re promised Falcon & The Winter Soldier in fall of 2020, which can’t come soon enough. It’s hard for me to imagine that the other Disney+ series will find bad(ish) guys as relevant to the canon and as masterfully played as Brühl’s. Who else would you want to see given a second chance at villainy?

(images: Marvel Studios, Marvel Comics)

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Kaila is a lifelong New Yorker. She's written for io9, Gizmodo, New York Magazine, The Awl, Wired, Cosmopolitan, and once published a Harlequin novel you'll never find.