***Light Civil War Spoilers Ahead***
With the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Disney has created a superpowered snowball and pushed it down big-ass mountain of money. By now, you’d think it would have gone off course just a little bit. Instead, it’s gotten bigger and better (and richer) with Captain America: Civil War. Now there are so many superheroes in this universe that a simple poster shares an uncanny resemblance to a Where’s Wally? image.
There is also a huge number of villains with punched-in faces who have co-starred in the movies leading up to Civil War. But a heap of them suck, proving to be so bland and forgettable that their very names are difficult to remember. This includes that evil elf thingy from Thor: The Dark World…
That over-dramatic blue guy from Guardians of the Galaxy…
And holy crap, that’s right, Sam Rockwell was in one of these.
It’s fair to say the MCU hasn’t exactly aced it across the board with their range of baddies. But there are enough quality villains in this universe, and when asked to pick the best, I imagine the most popular answer is everyone’s favourite quim-with-a-quip Loki.
He’s got a lot going on for him, too. His powers of deception make him an annoyance to fight while his charismatic arrogance makes him an annoyance on every other occasion. The reasons for his evil-doing are intriguingly complicated and often clash with how he feels about his foster-brother Thor. But his sense of entitlement is a nurtured weed that is too strong, one that sees him reign destruction in The Avengers.
Loki isn’t just a great villain; his on-screen presence and emotional complexities make him a great character all-round. But he isn’t the greatest villain in the MCU – those villains are in Captain America.
I’m not talking about Red Skull in The First Avenger – that guy’s just a badly sunburnt Hitler. I’m also not talking about Bucky in The Winter Soldier – he was little more than a rook with a grunty arm. No, the best villains in the MCU are Hydra and Helmut Zemo.
While the likes of Loki and Ultron are devastating one-man forces, Hydra is far more – it is an idea. As villains come and go over the years, Hydra’s ideals have lasted decades. As the name implies, killing one leader (e.g. Red Skull) only breeds more to take his place, and that force is felt throughout the entire Captain America trilogy.
In The Winter Soldier, Hydra was the poisonous seed that grew inside of S.H.I.E.L.D., shredding the agency up from the core to the skin. Even though their grand plan was foiled, there was no way Cap could discus smash all the Hydra members on Earth. Not only does this make Hydra seemingly omnipotent, it makes it feel close to immortal. And that’s unsettling.
With Civil War, we have Helmut Zemo played by Daniel Brühl. At a glance, it doesn’t seem like there’s much to the guy: he doesn’t have a power, he doesn’t have a goofy costume, he doesn’t even appear on the posters. He just seems like an ordinary person.
But that’s exactly what makes him great – him being an ordinary person.
Collateral damage plays a heavy role in the conflict surrounding Civil War. Hundreds of ordinary people have lost their lives in the wars the Avengers have contributed in. Many who have lost loved ones place blame on the heroes, and the purity of that hatred took form in Zemo.
He, too, had lost loved ones during the Age of Ultron conflict in Sokovia. As a tactical genius, Zemo turns to terrorism and covert manipulation to tear the Avengers from the inside out – similar to how Hydra took down S.H.I.E.L.D. in The Winter Soldier. And yet, he seems so ordinary, as if he was plucked out of the hundreds of other ordinary people still in mourning.
It may appear unlikely that a mega-genius of this sort would just so happen to be affected by the Avengers’ wars. But when death tolls of this nature grow so high, that 1 of 100 chance (figuratively speaking) comes close to becoming a real possibility in this universe. That’s the tragic beauty of Zemo’s existence: he was born from the Avengers’ violence. You can thoroughly argue that such collateral is unavoidable, but the cost of human life should never be ignored, and the consequences of those actions refuse to be ignored. Zemo is that reminder in its harshest form.
The constant battle Steve Rogers fights in the Captain America trilogy is not one of strength – it’s of ideals. Zemo isn’t just a one-man army; he is the personification of the belief that the Avengers are a public menace. He shares that idea with thousands, and it isn’t going away. That’s what made Hydra a great villain, and that’s what makes Zemo a great villain.