Captain America: Civil War – Who is Zemo?

Who is the villain of Captain America: Civil War? We look at the history of Zemo, one of Cap's greatest foes.

Unless you have been living under a mound of Vibranium, you probably know that Captain America: Civil War is here. A ton of Marvel heroes appear in this long awaited third installment of the Captain America franchise with every Avenger not named Thor or Hulk will be battling it out in this blockbuster film event.

But let’s not forget the villainy set to make this Civil War even hotter. Joining the returning Crossbones will be Baron Zemo, one of the greatest villains Captain America has ever faced. Despite the fact that Marvel has been mum on the villain’s involvement in the film, Zemo, who will be played by Daniel Brühl, will no doubt have a huge impact on the Marvel Universe.

Because that’s what Zemo does, he changes things.

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Since the character’s debut in the early issues of Avengers, Baron Zemo (well, both of ’em) has altered the very fabric of the Marvel Universe again and again. Baron Zemo might play second fiddle to the Red Skull in the Captain America legacy of evil, but no villain has had a more lasting impact on Cap’s history than the not so good Barons. Don’t believe us? Well, take a look at the long and vile history of a family of evil and join us, if you dare, as we present the history of the men named Zemo.

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That Time Baron Zemo Glued a Mask to His Face

It may sound funny, but the evil career of the Baron Zemo began when the Nazi mastermind accidently permanently glued his iconic mask to his face. And no wise ass, his real name wasn’t Elmer Zemo- it was Heinrich!

You see Baron Heinrich Zemo was one of Hitler’s lead scientists (nerdy note- he was a retconned villain- Zemo never actually appeared in Marvel’s Golden Age). The elder Zemo first appeared in The Avengers #6 (July 1964) and was created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. He was Hitler’s lead scientist and invented horrific weaponry for the Third Reich. The Allies knew that Zemo was one of Hitler’s greatest assets so the scientist took to wearing a signature pink hood to remain anonymous.

At this time, Zemo invented Adhesive X, a powerful glue that was impossible to break. Now, one would think rockets or advanced firearms would have been more useful to the Nazis, but hey, super glue is good too. When Cap and Bucky show up to stop Zemo from unleashing Adhesive X on the world, the two heroes prevent a sticky situation (had to go there). During the struggle, Cap’s shield strikes a vat of the super glue which splashes in Zemo’s mask clad face, permanently adhering the mask to his Nazi puss. It really isn’t easy to glue a mask to your face, but there you go.

It was revealed later that this accident drove Zemo mad which caused him to become incredibly abusive towards his wife and son. More on that in a bit.

A Day that Will Live in Infamy

In the waning days of WWII, sensing that the War would be lost, Hitler dispatched Zemo to steal an experimental British robot plane. The whole thing was designed to lure Captain America into a trap so old glue face could take out the Reich’s greatest enemy once and for all. And indeed, Cap and Bucky fell into the trap. Zemo captured Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes and tied them to the plane which was rigged to explode. Rogers was able to slip from his bonds, but he fell into the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean while Bucky was seemingly killed in the explosion.

So in one mission, Baron Heinrich Zemo caused Steve Rogers to be frozen in ice and he seemingly caused the death of Bucky as well, two of the most pivotal moments in Cap’s history. Not bad for a goose stepper who once was taken down by glue. Of course years later, Cap was revived by the Avengers, and it was at this time Cap ran afoul of Zemo once again.

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A Master of Evil

After Captain America was lost, Zemo and his family fled to South America after Hitler and the Nazis fell. There, he continued to be abusive to his wife and son because he was a bitter old Nazi dick with a piece of pink cloth glued to his face.

When Captain America returned so did Zemo, and in doing so, he changed the Marvel Universe once again. In order to make sure Captain America stayed dead this time, Zemo united the first Masters of Evil. The Masters are arguably the greatest gathering of villains in Marvel history and Zemo was the mastermind of the original team. 

The first Masters of Evil consisted of the original villainous Black Knight, the Melter, and Radioactive Man. They were soon joined by the Enchantress and the Executioner, two Asgardian powerhouses and if Marvel Studios doesn’t make a Masters of Evil movie, I’ll eat my collection of Foom.

Anyway, Zemo further added to the Marvel Universe when he created the future Avenger known as Wonder Man. You see, the mad scientist used ionic rays to transform Simon Williams into Wonder Man (Avengers #9) and sent Williams to infiltrate the Avengers and destroy them from within. But Williams turned on Zemo and sacrificed his life to save the team. Of course, Wonder Man would return and become one of the most powerful and popular Avengers of all time.

So let’s see, the first Zemo froze Cap, killed Bucky, united the Masters of Evil, and created Wonder Man. That’s quite a resume.

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Zemo’s Fall

After the Wonder Man incident, Zemo kidnapped Cap’s ally Rick Jones to lure the hero to his South American fortress. There, Zemo and the Masters of Evil were waiting and ambushed Cap (Avengers #15). During the battle, Cap used his shield to deflect the sun into Zemo’s eyes. Zemo fired his pistol blindly, striking a mountain and causing a rockslide. Zemo was killed instantly showing the world and comicdom assembled that even though he had changed the Marvel Universe a number of times, Zemo’s weaknesses were glue and bright lights.

This was the end of a major chapter of Steve Rogers’ life because with Zemo dead, Bucky was finally avenged. Marvel’s legion of fans and Captain America both thought the evil of Zemo was now over, but they didn’t know about a child that Heinrich Zemo so horribly abused for years. And like his father, Zemo junior would soon bring about seismic changes to the Marvel Universe.

Like Father Like Son

Baron Helmut Zemo first appeared in Captain America #168 (December 1973) and was created by Tony Isabella and Sal Buscema. When Helmut burst upon the scene, he used the costumed identity of the Phoenix (no, he didn’t cosplay as a space god mutant redhead, this was pre-jean Grey). Helmut was indeed his father’s son. Helmut, a brilliant engineer, believed strongly in Hitler’s ideal of a master race. So yeah, the second Zemo was a xenophobic (Zemophobic?) douche, too.

As Phoenix, Zemo tried to replicate his father’s experiments with Adhesive X, because that worked out so well the first time. During his first battle with Captain America, the Phoenix fell into a vat of Adhesive X (guardrails people, guardrails!). Cap believed that the Phoenix was dead, but the villain would return years later in a more familiar guise.

Baron Helmut Zemo, Master of Evil

In Captain America #275-278 (1982-1983) by the great creative team of J.M DeMatteis and Mike Zeck, Captain America takes on the unholy alliance of Arnim Zola, Vermin, Primus, and a man calling himself Baron Zemo. This new Zemo was clad in the familiar pink hood and regal raiment of the original Baron, and was clearly in control of the alliance of evil.

Over the course of these awesome issues, fans learned that Zemo survived his unfortunate fall into the glue vat but his face had been destroyed. Now Zemo looked like a half melted candle, and seriously, how does two generations of villainy end up mutilated by glue? For all future generations of the Zemo clan- stay out of the crafts aisle, ‘kay?

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All kidding aside, Zemo was Phoenix no more. Instead, he now followed in the footsteps of his father- and a legacy of evil was reborn. Soon, Zemo would become Captain America’s most persistent foe and almost succeed in doing what no other villain ever did before. Not Doctor Doom, not Magneto, not the Mandarin, and not his father. Soon, Baron Helmut Zero would get a hair’s breadth away from utterly destroying the Avengers.

Siege

In Avengers #273-277 (1986-1987), writer Roger Stern and artist John Buscema unleashed Zemo’s greatest triumph on an unsuspecting Avengers and an unsuspecting fandom. As we covered, the elder Baron Zemo founded the Masters of Evil. Other villainous masterminds took the reins of the group from time to time, but it was a Zemo that started it all. The line ups may have been impressive, but all the myriad Masters of Evil teams all went down in defeat to Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. That winning streak ended when Helmut Zemo assembled a team consisting of Black Out, Absorbing Man, Titania, Mr. Hyde, the Wrecking Crew, the Fixer, Moonstone, Screaming Mimi, and the villainous Goliath, and together, this cadre of evil utterly eradicated the Avengers.

First, they laid siege to Avengers Mansion and then they did the unthinkable – Zemo’s Masters of Evil crippled both Hercules and the Avengers’ loyal butler Edwin Jarvis. Fandom was aghast as the Masters tore in to the helpless Jarvis and beat the fan favorite so badly that he was almost unrecognizable when the villains were done.

Hercules got the same treatment and the Avengers were shattered. The Avengers were pretty darn powerful at the time, but they fell like dominos against Zemo’s assembled team. A new team of Avengers had to form to defeat the Masters, but the damage was done, Zemo had struck the greatest blow against the Avengers in the team’s history.

Under Siege, as this storyline came to be called, remains a beloved classic as the Avengers were pushed well past the breaking point. And it was all because of Baron Zemo’s strategic brilliance, a brilliance that would soon hatch another unforgettable scheme involving many of these same Masters of Evil.

Like Lightning

Baron Zemo would return a few times to bedevil Captain America, mostly in Cap’s own book, but it was in a much more unexpected place that a Zemo once again made history. In 1997, Marvel did a thing called Heroes Reborn. Now, for those of you not in the know (lucky), Marvel thought it would be a good idea to shunt off many of its characters to a pocket universe. That’s an article for another time, but we’ll just say that with the Avengers, Fantastic Four, Iron Man, and Captain America gone, there was a huge heroic void in the Marvel Universe proper. To fill that void, Marvel created the Thunderbolts, a team of new heroes that were quite colorful.

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Fans scratched their heads at this new team, as the squad was also kind of generic. You had generic patriotic leader guy in Citizen V, generic armored guy in MACH-1, generic super lady in Meteorite, generic plucky teenager in Songbird, generic big guy in Atlas, and generic team genius in Techno. The team was vibrant-looking but uninspired which was surprising considering the caliber of the creative team that presented Thunderbolts #1. Writer Kurt Busiek and artist Mark Bagley promised to give fans a band of heroes that no one had ever seen before, a band of heroes designed to take the place of the Avengers and the FF, but things seemed by the numbers…until the Thunderbolts unmasked. On the last page of Thunderbolts #1, Citizen V stood revealed as none other than Baron Zemo, and the T-Bolts- his Masters of Evil.

Fandom exploded and Thunderbolts became an instant hit.

What followed was a long running series that explored the ideals of heroism as the Thunderbolts went from villains disguised as heroes to actual heroes. Zemo’s father played a subtle role in the book as it was revealed that the Golden Age Citizen V was murdered by the elder Zemo in WWII and Helmut adopted the name to pay homage to one of his father’s greatest victories. But soon, Zemo also began to see things differently and began to see the appeal of heroism. The Thunderbolts was indeed a superhero team like no other, and it all sprang from the always twisted and imaginative mind of Baron Zemo.

A History of Evil

Before we get to the Zemo of today, allow us to point out Thunderbolts Presents: Zemo – Born Better (2007). Written by Fabian Nicieza and drawn by Tom Grummett,this series is a riveting time travel story that explores the Zemo family history. This tale begins in medieval Germany and stretches to the modern day, recounting the brilliance and madness of the Zemo clan over the centuries. It makes for a brilliant companion piece to Thunderbolts and could probably be found in many 50 cent bins at conventions.

Standoff

We end things with the just completed Avengers Standoff by Nick Spencer and Mark Bagley. In this crossover that bounced between the Avengers family of titles and Sam Wilson: Captain America, SHIELD created a Wayward Pines like town to imprison brainwashed super villains. It was an idyllic place that catered to the incarceration and numbed happiness of the world’s greatest evil doers. Or it was, until a group of villains broke SHIELD’s control and rioted. And of course, it was Baron Zemo who first shattered SHIELD’s illusion and rebelled.

During the standoff, Zemo got the band back together and reunited the Thunderbolts and like he once did against the Avengers, Zemo almost shattered SHIELD as the twisted mind manipulation was revealed to the world. Zemo and the Thunderbolts escaped and the T-Bolts will join with the Winter Soldier in a new Thunderbolts title. So the legacy of Zemo has come full circle in many ways, as the team he formed is now being led by the hero who was once believed to have been killed by Zemo’s father.

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As for Baron Zemo himself, Helmut is still at large, plotting and scheming to change the Marvel Universe once again.