The MCU likes to play fast and loose with its villains. From total reinventions to visual overhauls, the last ten years have been a testing ground for Marvel Studios to really push their source material to its absolute limits–and sometimes far beyond–in service of making a compelling film that stands alone for fans who haven’t buried themselves in the last six decades of published comics history. Most of the time, that works perfectly fine–Marvels’ reinventions have given us some truly fascinating bad guy takes, from Hela, recreated to be Thor’s long lost sister, to Vulture, pivoted from hand-wringing evildoer to complicated, down on his luck father.
Other times, the major changes can leave something to be desired. This was, unfortunately, the case with Captain America: Civil War’s Helmut Zemo–expertly played by Daniel Brühl, but almost entirely unrecognizable when stood next to his comic book counterpart. Live-action Zemo was a vengeful Sokovian soldier whose vendetta was less specific to any one Avenger personally, and more just a scattershot across the entire superhero community. He worked in the story, sure, but in terms of memorable onscreen villains, he didn’t really register, especially not in the shadow of the movie’s real conflict, the knock-down-drag-out brawl between Captain America and Iron Man.
But luckily, as we learned through the news out of San Diego Comic-Con and the new Disney+ streaming service are giving us a second pass at Zemo complete with a new look, care of the Falcon & The Winter Soldier miniseries, which means we might actually get to see a live-action translation of one of the greatest hero-villain rivalries in comics history.
The Real Zemo Story
Like oh so many parts of the Captain America pantheon, Zemo’s story actually begins back in World War II–sort of, at least. The Zemo family was an invention of the 1960s, swooping into the mix after Steve Rogers had been revived for the modern Marvel era, but the introduction included a little fancy footwork to retroactively place them throughout history. Heinrich Zemo, Helmut’s father, was eventually revealed to be one of Cap’s greatest foes throughout the war, and the villain responsible for the exploding plane trap that killed Bucky Barnes and sent Steve Rogers into the Atlantic ocean where he was frozen for years.
Once he was revived, Steve didn’t take too kindly to the fact that Heinrich had killed his sidekick, and he set out for revenge. During a confrontation, Heinrich fired a laser gun which Steve deflected with his shield, hitting the terrain behind Heinrich and triggering an avalanche which killed him. This was the late ’60s and the whole “no killing” rule for superheroes hadn’t really set in yet, so Steve was mostly just excited about this development, believing justice to have finally been served.
Fast forward several years for the surprise reveal that Heinrich had a son, Helmut, who popped up to blame Captain America for the death of his father, and you’ve got a recipe for a serious grudge match.
For years, that was essentially the most important thing to know about Helmut. He blamed Captain America for his father’s death and he’d do basically anything to try and get his revenge–even if it ultimately meant driving himself more and more insane. Through the years, Zemo ping-ponged around from raving lunatic to begrudging anti-hero and leader of “reformed” villain teams like the Thunderbolts–but, regardless of where he fell on the morality spectrum, he never really rose past b- or c-list side character.
At least, until Bucky Barnes came back.
The rivalry to end all rivalries
Bucky Barnes’ surprise resurrection as The Winter Soldier was not something fans saw coming. In fact, there used to be a cliche shared among readers that the only permanent superhero deaths were Jason Todd, Bucky Barnes, and Uncle Ben.
Obviously, only one of those things is still true today–but the sentiment was very much still alive when Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting launched into their early 2000s story arc revolving around the surprise reveal that not only had Bucky Barnes survived the plane explosion trap set by Heinrich Zemo back in the ’40s, he’d been brainwashed and used by the Soviet spy cell known as The Red Room for the past six-odd decades as an assassin.
Naturally, this revelation had a pretty major effect on Steve, but it also wound up getting back to poor Helmut, who, as a traditionally less-than-stable chaotic element in the Marvel Universe, did not handle the news very well. Unlike the MCU’s version of events, Steve was killed shortly after the Winter Soldier revelation, leaving a magically recovered Bucky (all his memories were returned thanks to Steve wishing on the Tesseract–don’t worry too much about it) to take over as Captain America in the meantime.
At first, this was a relatively secret development–no one really know Bucky Barnes had come back from the dead, and even fewer knew that he had picked up the shield–but the villains were the first to key into the fact that something was definitely strange. You know, like when they suddenly found themselves fighting a Captain America who had no qualms about stabbing them with trench knives.
When word got to Zemo, things took a sharp turn for his mental state. All those feelings about his father’s legacy and death at the hands of Steve Rogers all those years ago came roaring back with newly honed focus. Bucky Barnes was alive. Heinrich’s death trap had been a failure. The Zemo legacy had been tarnished. But what’s more, there was the fact that Bucky Barnes had been forgiven by his teammates and friends, despite his actions as the brainwashed Winter Soldier. He was embraced by the superhero community and the public, something that Helmut himself had never accomplished despite his years of on-again-off-again anti-heroism and team leadership.
This combination of major revelations was enough to drive Zemo right off the edge with his crosshairs firmly trained on Bucky; the spark in the powder keg of one of Marvel’s greatest and most under-appreciated grudge matches.
Zemo took a new approach when he set out to ruin Bucky Barnes. There were no big villain monologues or threats of world destruction. Instead, he opted for the personal route–he didn’t need Bucky dead, at least not yet; he needed him thoroughly destroyed in every way that could matter. This process involved a months-long conspiracy where Zemo strategically gaslit, mind-controlled, or otherwise manipulated Bucky into dangerous public situations while strategically leaking sealed documents that linked Bucky back to the Winter Soldier’s crimes.
Public opinion of the new Captain America took an almost immediate turn for the worst. While Zemo himself continued to physically and mentally torture Bucky–even forcing him to re-live his own death in real-time–the US government began moving to try the Winter Soldier for war crimes and treason, of which he was found guilty and sent to Russia to be imprisoned in a gulag–at least, for a little while. There was a whole Fight Club situation involving genetically modified bears and a murderer’s row of vintage villains. It was awesome. But naturally, it was also temporary.
Zemo and Bucky’s burning resentment, however, was anything but.
In recent years, their hatred for one another has manifested in a few unusual ways. For a time, Bucky took over as leader of the Thunderbolts, a team that Zemo himself used to command (unsurprisingly, Zemo wasn’t too enthusiastic about this sudden change in management). Around the same time, Steve Rogers’ history was cosmically re-written (after he was resurrected, of course) to the point where he believed that he and Helmut, rather than he and Bucky, had been friends and partners through the 1940s. This gave Helmut yet another opportunity to really stick it to Bucky and force him to go through the whole plane-death-trap scenario yet again–you know, just for good measure. The whole plan really revolved around hitting Bucky as close to home as possible, because world domination and evil plans are completely secondary to Zemo’s burning need to just completely screw this guy over as hard as possible.
That’s really biggest and most important takeaway from Bucky and Helmut’s constant conflicts: They’re always deeply, deeply personal. These are two characters who hate each other not because of their ideals or their respective moral codes–there’s no real “I’m right and you’re wrong” hero/villain back-and-forth, and they don’t have a Batman-and-the-Joker “we’re two sides of the same coin” thing going on. They just hate each other.
And with any luck, we’ll finally start to see that hatred start to come to the surface in the Disney+ TV show. After all, not only is Zemo getting a more comics-inspired look, he has plenty of reason following Civil War to resent everything Bucky stands for. After all, Zemo’s grand plan to dismantle the Avengers not only failed, it brought his ace-in-the-hole, the brainwashed assassin, even further into the fold.