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[This story contains spoilers for Falcon and the Winter Soldier episode three.]
He’s back! The man who single-handedly destroyed the Avengers, and set in motion events that sent ripples across all of Earth and the larger cosmos, Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), has returned to the fold. The former Sokovian leader of covert kill squad, EKO Scorpion, steals the show in the third episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and makes clear that he has unfinished work when it comes to the world’s superpowered beings. And he’s had five years to plot.
While the third episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, “Power Broker,” directed by Kari Skogland, and written by the mastermind behind the John Wick franchise, Derek Kolstad, sees Zemo teaming up with Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), and Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), it’s clear he has his own agenda. This is Zemo we’re talking about after all. He’s not only one of the most significant adversaries in the MCU, but one of the most notable reoccurring villains in Marvel Comics. It stands to reason that as much as The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is about the evolution of Sam and Bucky, it’s also about the evolution of Zemo, and what he’ll become next. So, what’s Zemo’s endgame?
Audiences learn that not only is Zemo actually a Baron, but he has strong ties to Madripoor, an island safe-haven for the criminal underworld. Both revelations, along with his spiffy new outfit and mask, push Zemo closer to his comic book counterpart. But Zemo nee Baron Zemo, has never been a traditional villain in the MCU. He sees himself as a righteous man, and unlike so many villains who have the same outlook, Baron Zemo actually has a point. Unchecked, the Avengers can be dangerous, doing as much harm as good. Beyond the creation of Ultron and destruction of Sokovia that kicked off Baron Zemo’s mission, their inability to come together led to Thanos’ victory and the five years that followed. So as the world stands on the cusp of bringing together a new team of Avengers, as established in Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019), which takes place two months after The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Baron Zemo isn’t entirely out of pocket for being concerned about what this could mean for a world still reeling from the Avengers’ prior missteps.
As Baron Zemo points out to Sam and Bucky, the existence of a new Super-Soldier serum only exacerbates his concerns. The new serum, created by Wilfred Nagel (another nod to Truth: Red, White & Black) and built off of samples taken from Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly), may have unrevealed side effects. As often as the Super-Soldier is tied to the legacy of Captain America, it’s key to note that the same attempt at creating the formula drove Nazi lieutenant general Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) into further madness and created an even more powerful monster. Baron Zemo is right to be concerned about the rise of another Red Skull, and the abuses of power that could follow when people start seeing super-powered beings only as symbols of might equalling right, rather than individuals with human flaws. Baron Zemo’s fear of another Red Skull is far cry from his depiction in the comics in which Helmut Zemo, the son of a Nazi scientist and ’40s Captain America villain, Heinrich Zemo, has often found himself allied with Red Skull and his ambitions for world domination.
Baron Zemo definitely can’t be trusted, and he’s not a “good guy,” but he’s not without his merits, even beyond his killer dance moves and appreciation for Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man. There is a fun dynamic between Baron Zemo, Sam, and Bucky, that even though it will inevitably end badly, further humanizes the villain. Is it possible that Baron Zemo, who has never been a traditional villain in the MCU, will emerge as a non-traditional hero by the series end? He must realize at some point during the series that destroying the world’s super-powers is an impossible mission. It’s as impossible as the Flag-Smashers returning the world to its pre-Blip state, as impossible as John Walker remaining Captain America, as impossible as Bucky making amends for all the actions he had no control over, and as impossible as Sam Wilson being able to emerge as the same kind of Captain America Steve Rogers was. But within these impossibilities, an aspect the entire series is built around, there is room to shift plans and expectations.
Baron Zemo emerging as a hero isn’t a novel idea. In 1997, Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagley shocked readers when it was revealed that the new superhero team, the Thunderbolts, who replaced the Avengers during their disappearance, were actually the super-villain group, The Masters of Evil in disguise. Baron Zemo led the team under the guise of Citizen V. While his original intentions were evil, Baron Zemo eventually discovered that pretending to be a hero awakened something altruistic within him, ultimately leading him to sacrifice his life for the world (though he would later return to life and his former evil ways). Baron Zemo in the MCU wouldn’t have to climb nearly as high as he did in the comics to relish in heroism, but of course he wouldn’t simply join the team he fought so hard to destroy.
Perhaps in entering the ranks of superheroes, and forming his own team, Thunderbolts, he can keep an eye on the Avengers, ensure another Red Skull doesn’t rise, and another that Sokovia incident doesn’t happen. Perhaps he can do the world’s avenging better than the Avengers. As for which former Avengers-adversaries would make up Baron Zemo’s team, that’s a whole other conversation, though Goliath (Laurence Fishburne), and Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) feel like no-brainers. The Avengers have faced Baron Zemo as an adversary, but facing him as competition when it comes to the best means of saving the world and standing as Earth’s mightiest heroes would be a challenge unlike any they’ve experienced before.
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