Marvel’s latest hit series The Falcon and The Winter Soldier came and went like a hurricane of wish fulfillment, bestowing upon fans an action-packed, emotional, and flat out incredible 6-part story that finally put a much-deserved spotlight on Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes. The series also saw the return of quite a few familiar faces, alongside the addition of some talented newcomers, but one comeback stood out starkly amongst the rest: Daniel Brühl’s Helmut Zemo.
Back in 2016, Brühl made his entrance into the MCU in Captain America: Civil War. For those familiar with the dark, lengthy history of Helmut Zemo born on the pages of Marvel Comics, Brühl’s character turned out to be an abrupt divergence from the masked villain. Though his actions were still reprehensible and not necessarily justified, audiences could understand what led him down that path. The MCU’s Helmut Zemo, born in Sokovia, was originally a Colonel with the Sokovian Armed Forces and a commander of Sokovia’s secret elite paramilitary death squad EKO Scorpion. When Sokovia was destroyed in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Zemo tragically lost his family as well. Fueled by rage and despair, he then went on to orchestrate the disastrous events that tore the Avengers apart in Captain America: Civil War.
Throughout the course of the film, Zemo stole the Winter Soldier book from Vasily Karpov, framed Bucky Barnes for the bombing that killed King T’Chaka during the signing of the Sokovia Accords, disguised himself as a psychiatrist to reactivate the Winter Soldier, and killed the five remaining Winter Soldiers in cryostasis chambers in Siberia. And finally, his ultimate act in cementing a permanent wedge between the Avengers was to then reveal the video footage from December 16, 1991, in which the Winter Soldier murdered Howard and Maria Stark.
“An empire toppled by its enemies can rise again. But one which crumbles from within? That’s dead … forever.”
As Tony Stark and Steve Rogers (assisted by Bucky Barnes) went head to head, Zemo excused himself from the chaos. Satisfied that he had completed his final mission after listening to the voicemail from his wife one last time, Zemo placed a gun under his chin with the intent to commit suicide, but T’Challa ultimately stopped him, because the living weren’t done with him yet. Instead, he was arrested for his crimes and sentenced to solitary confinement in a prison in Berlin, Germany.
In a franchise full of larger-than-life heroes and villains, Brühl’s Zemo was a breath of fresh air in Civil War. Fans spent much of the film attempting to discern who exactly this man was and what his ultimate endgame would be, only to have the narrative subvert all expectations in its final act. Zemo was not a mustache-twirling supervillain with a devious plan to control his own army of Winter Soldiers; he was just a soldier, a son, a father, and a husband who let his despair and his ravenous appetite for revenge consume him. His actions made him a villain nonetheless, as he left a trail of bodies and tragedy in his wake. But whereas a typical textbook villain’s trajectory involves a pursuit of power, Zemo only wanted to rip power away from those who he felt should not have it, and he was prepared to end his life upon completing that task.
After Zemo’s final scene in Civil War, he seemingly fell off the map of the MCU … until The Falcon and The Winter Soldier. Early on in the series, Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes found themselves facing a massive issue: the Flag Smashers had obtained a new batch of the Super Soldier serum. They deduced that their best option, though undesirable, was to seek out the one man who knows all of HYDRA’s secrets and could therefore be the key to tracking down the source of the serum. A visit to the prison, where Zemo had spent the last seven to eight years, turned into a jailbreak (much to Sam’s dismay). And so Brühl joined Mackie and Stan’s characters on their adventures for the next couple of episodes, forming a surprising trio that ended up being nothing short of iconic.
Whereas Civil War set the stage for a compelling character, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier took Zemo’s potential, combined with Brühl’s impeccable acting talents, and let him flourish. Most notably, the series finally carried over Zemo’s Baron title from the comics, as he explained to Sam and Bucky that his family was royalty before Sokovia was destroyed. As a result of this new tidbit of information, the Zemo seen in the series was no longer just a sneaky undercover mercenary seeking retribution. Instead, we saw the man that he likely was before his world was flipped upside down, beyond his identity as a soldier and no longer entirely drowning in debilitating hatred and grief. Donning a smart outfit topped off with a fabulous coat, this Zemo was still a cool and collected cunning genius, but he was also far swankier and carried himself with an added air of importance.
Brühl’s delivery of Zemo’s snappy and blunt-yet-homorous quips and commentary put Zemo front and center in his scenes, and his dance moves in Madripoor were an absolute showstopper. After it was revealed that Brühl had improvised the dancing, which was apparently even longer in the original footage, fans banded together and convinced Marvel to release the Zemo Cut (which is essentially just Brühl vibing and trying his hardest not to laugh at himself). Though it was only worn briefly, Zemo was even given the opportunity to don a purple mask reminiscent of the comics. In a series full of heavy social commentary, shocking scenes, and emotional moments, the character of Baron Zemo was an ingenious addition to really help balance it all out.
“I ended the Winter Soldier program once before. I have no intention to leave my work unfinished.”
Zemo was far more fleshed out and humanized with ample character development in the series, but he still remained true to his ideals and beliefs about the problematic existence of superheroes and Super Soldiers. Though his stances can sometimes be a tough pill to swallow, especially when we watch as viewers who are loyal to the MCU’s superheroes, he’s not necessarily wrong in his concerns about the dangers of people wielding too much power. His impartial mindset on this matter is a necessary piece of his identity, and it was important that he maintain this for the series so as not to undermine his previous actions. And despite the potential leverage and power that he could have gained by stealing the Super Soldier serum vials that Karli dropped, he didn’t hesitate to destroy them immediately.
However, when posed with the issue of Steve Rogers, he agreed that the man was an outlier. And further to that, after working alongside him on their mission, Zemo eventually admitted to Bucky that he had decided he had no intentions to kill him, either. Zemo’s ability to consciously acknowledge that there are exceptions to his steadfast rules was the icing on the cake to his character development, further spiraling him into the realm of a very complex character brushed with shades of gray.
Zemo’s final moments of his short-lived freedom were a great touch, as it was revealed that the El Chapo move that he pulled while Sam, Bucky, Lemar, Walker, and the Dora Milaje were fighting was not the result of another devious plan. Instead, likely accepting that it wasn’t in the cards for him to continuing casually sipping cherry blossom tea and eating biscuits while lounging in a bathrobe for the rest of his days (and aware that his next sentence may not be imprisonment, but rather death), he took advantage of having one last opportunity to pay his respects and say goodbye to his family and his country at the Sokovia memorial.
Leading up to The Falcon and The Winter Soldier finale, all signs pointed to the potential introduction of the Thunderbolts, a team from the comics that we expect Zemo will either lead or be heavily involved with in some capacity. Although nothing was confirmed, there’s definitely still hope. An incredibly talented actor in his own right, Brühl is more than capable of leading in his own Marvel series or film. It would be very surprising for this to be the end of Marvel’s relationship with the actor, especially considering the overwhelmingly positive reaction that his return in the series elicited amongst fans. And honestly, we really deserve to see what other marvelous outfits the Baron is hiding in his closet.
In the meantime, as we hope for more news in the future, those that enjoyed Brühl’s portrayal of Helmut Zemo should take note that his acting talents extend beyond the MCU as well. Make sure to check out our spotlight series piece Beyond Baron Zemo: Exploring the Work of Daniel Brühl for an introduction to his filmography.