Marvel villains have been a mixed bag. Sometimes we get antagonists with comprehensible goals achieved through reprehensible means like Thanos and Ultron. Then there are times we get remarkably human foes like Killmonger, Loki and the former Winter Soldier, Bucky Barnes.Then, there are those just love being bad for the sake of being bad like Red Skull, the Abomination from The Incredible Hulk and Dr Strange’s nemesis Dormammu. The rest well…they’re kinda forgettable. I’ve got RM20 here saying you probably can’t tell me the bad guys from Thor: The Dark World right off the top of your head.
It was Malekith the Dark Elf, in case you were wondering. When it comes to picking the best big bad in the MCU, people tend to sway between the likes of Loki and Thanos, perhaps even Killmonger. One name however that is never mentioned among any of those names is a man of sheer focus and will. Yes, a man. Not a god or an alien or even a superhuman. A mortal man forged from the fires of hate and driven by a will that will not be denied. In my humble opinion, this man is the most complex and interesting nemesis to have fought the Avengers. HE IS ULYSSES KLAW (baby don’t hurt me no more)!
Just kidding…it’s Helmut Zemo from Civil War.
I know some of you are probably bagging on this choice because you think I’m being a hipster. But allow me to convince you why Helmut Zemo is a top-tier terror to the world of the MCU. You might just change your mind by the end of this. So open up that Marvel wikia tab and get your Civil War DVD ready because we’re talking about the most underrated villain in the MCU.
A History of Hate
The best of kind of villains are the ones with the most sympathetic of causes and frankly Zemo has every right to hate the Avengers. He lost his family during the Battle of Sokovia in Age of Ultron when Tony’s rogue AI, Ultron attempted to launch the city from orbit to wipe out humanity. Before that, he was part of an elite military intelligence group in Sokovia known as Scorpion. But then he settled down and started a family, only to have it ripped away from him by the “heroes”. Driven by vengeance and hatred for the Avengers, Helmut swore that he would bring down the Avengers. First and foremost, the film frames Zemo as a terrorist and a common archetype of terrorism is the displaced soldier. It’s eerily similar to the kind we see in real life. He is a man without a family and more importantly without a country or a home.
Frankly I agree with Zemo for the most part. It’s clear to draw parallels between US intervention and radicalized insurgents fighting against them with the Avengers and Zemo. In fact, it can be eerily close to home for many people. Unlike Killmonger or Loki, he isn’t a chided power-hungry child looking to settle the score. He’s far more terrifying than that. He is a textbook nemesis, an agent of one’s downfall. He cares for little more than to see a superpower humbled, beaten and broken. He has nothing to lose and is hellbent on making Stark pay for the crimes he’s committed against Sokovia and that’s what makes him so compelling.
Throughout the film, I was rooting for him to win. The polarity that the film presents between Team Cap and Team Iron Man is a brilliant facade of what Civil War is actually about: the casualty of war. The reason why people are inclined to argue ideology between both sides is precisely because the problem that the film addresses, the Avenger’s hubris. Captain America, for all intents and purposes, is a foreign interventionist imposing his own vigilante style justice onto the world. Tony is a former proponent of the military industrial complex who now sides with big government on heavily regulating the Avengers. Regardless of who you choose, Cap and Tony embody some of the worst ideals of American might. Zemo is the human face behind the drone strikes. The ones you don’t see on the news when Fox talks about the War Against Terror. He sees the toxic political situation the Avengers imposed onto the world and poisoned them with it.
He Won Before Thanos
A whole two years before Avengers: Infinity War, the Avengers were beaten so technically, the honour of being first belongs to Helmut Zemo. In fact, one could argue that the only reason Thanos even manage to defeat the Avengers is that Zemo paved the way for it. Think about it, Thanos had initially tried invading Earth through Loki and the Chitauri in The Avengers and had his force utterly decimated. Imagined if Thanos had to face a united Avengers with Black Panther and Doctor Strange on the team. They probably would have stood a significantly better chance of defeating the Mad Titan with all of them attacking at once. They’d still have Ant-Man who could have just snuck his head and I don’t know render him a mental invalid. They could have mustered the forces of Wakanda and even other Earth nations in their war against the Thanos. But no, they were scattered and broken. Distrustful of one another because of Zemo.
He did something, not even that glorified Californian Grape could do. He destroyed them from the inside, he stole HYDRA intel to manipulate Bucky into turning on Cap and murdered the King of Wakanda. Turning him into an international threat and knowing that his best friend would be there to be in his corner. He knew that Tony couldn’t have merely let this go. He knew that eventually the two of them would battle against each other. Admittedly, the two did resolve their issues long enough to focus on bringing Zemo to justice. Even that, the Sokovian had foreseen and planned accordingly. The greatest blow he dealt was when he revealed to Tony that Bucky was the one who murdered his parents. The final nail in the coffin that sealed their fate.
“An empire toppled by its enemies can rise again but one that crumbles from within…that’s dead. Forever.”, and how they fell. Furthermore, he’s the perfect way to close the final chapter of the Captain America trilogy. The films have always dealt with displaced soldiers and the gravity of war. The first film discussed the nobility of war through the eyes of a wide-eyed and idealist Steve Rogers. The second was the scars of war through the forgotten soldier, Bucky Barnes. Civil War saw the consequences of foreign intervention through a lone wolf terrorist, Zemo. A brilliant final foe to a close out a solid trilogy.
It is a downright travesty that Helmut Zemo hasn’t gotten the same love as some of Marvel’s other villains. He might not exactly be the strongest or most powerful opponent but his insidious methods, single-minded will and all too relatable pathos make him a memorable nemesis. I do understand why he may have flown under the radar for many. Civil War was marketed as “Team Cap vs Team Stark” and the film delivered on its promise. That being said, I highly recommend going back and watching it again but this time, keep Zemo’s presence and perspective in mind. It only enriches the superhero strife and who knows, you may just end up cheering for Team Zemo. So what do you guys think? Are there any other underrated villains that don’t get the recognition they deserve? Be sure to let us know!