The Falcon and the Winter Soldier sees the return of an iconic comic book baddie, who made his live-action debut in an earlier MCU blockbuster.
BAFTA nominee Daniel Brühl plays Helmut Zemo, a former Sokovian military officer whose devious scheming caused a rift in the Avengers that ultimately led to the devastating events of Civil War.
A key player in Sam and Bucky’s streaming spin-off, the character was notably absent from the first episode of the Disney Plus series – but from episode three he’s around to cause no shortage of trouble for our heroes, all while sporting with a new costume that pays homage to his traditional comic book appearance.
Read on for everything you need to know about Zemo in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier: Who is Helmut Zemo?
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Zemo once served in the Sokovian military as part of an elite commando unit but his life was forever changed following the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron.
The film’s climactic final act saw Ultron turn Sokovia into a comet with the capacity to destroy all life on Earth and while the Avengers thwarted his evil plan, the country was left in ruins and many people died.
Zemo’s beloved family were among those who lost their lives and this led him to develop an extreme hatred for superheroes, beginning a plot to destroy the Avengers.
This is quite different to his comic book origin, where Helmut Zemo is the latest in a long line of Barons, whose father had been a senior scientist in the Nazi regime.
Helmut came to adopt those fascist views himself and has often teamed up with other vile foes such as the Red Skull, with many of his schemes targeted at Captain America and his allies.
However, episode three has brought Zemo closer to his comic-book history, revealing that in the MCU he’s also a Baron – albeit not a fascist – with a lot of personal wealth and family possessions that give him lots of resources to help his schemes.
Captain America: Civil War recap
As previously mentioned, Helmut Zemo made his MCU debut in Captain America: Civil War, where he devised a scheme intended to break-up the Avengers.
By torturing former Soviet generals, he was able to get information about Bucky Barnes (aka the Winter Soldier), including the codewords used to brainwash him and the details of one particularly fateful mission that had been kept top secret.
Zemo also framed Bucky for a devastating attack on the UN which left many people dead, including the king of Wakanda, T’Chaka, which set the stage for 2018’s Black Panther solo film.
This drove a huge wedge between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, with the former refusing to believe his wartime pal was capable of such an atrocity, while the latter became determined to apprehend him.
The final stage of Zemo’s plan saw him lure the two heroes to a remote military base in Russia, where he dropped a bombshell that apparently destroyed any chance of reconciliation: decades earlier, Bucky had assassinated Tony’s parents.
Importantly, the Winter Soldier lacked any free will at the time, but that wasn’t enough to quell Tony’s boiling fury and he began a brutal brawl with both Cap and Bucky.
It was a close fight but ultimately Iron Man was defeated, with Steve and Bucky going into hiding soon after, marking the official break-up of the Avengers team.
Viewing his work as complete, Zemo attempted to take his own life but was stopped by T’Challa (aka Black Panther) and placed under arrest – with our last shot of him being in a maximum security institution.
CIA agent Everett Ross told him that he had lost, but a smug and satisfied Zemo argued that he had achieved exactly what he set out to do: destroy the Avengers.
Why does Baron Zemo wear a purple mask?
When Zemo was announced to be making his live-action debut in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, some fans were disappointed to hear that he would not be sporting his trademark purple mask.
The headgear is a distinctive part of his visual identity in the comic books and has been since his debut, so its introduction in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is a welcome piece of fan service.
In the comic books, Helmut’s father, Nazi scientist Heinrich, first wore the purple mask as a way of hiding his identity as he worked on immoral experiments.
However, during a fight with Captain America, he was exposed to a substance called Adhesive X, which permanently attached the mask to his face and thus removed his ability to eat normally, driving him even further into insanity.
They say like father, like son and that certainly is the case here.
Helmut Zemo did not initially wear a purple mask like his father, but in a later run-in with Captain America he fell into a vat of boiling Adhesive X, which left his face severely scarred and deformed.
As a result, in the vast majority of his subsequent appearances, Helmut also donned the mask to obscure his grievous injuries.
Of course, extremely powerful super glue has not been a major plot device in the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far, so it’s likely that Daniel Brühl’s incarnation will have different motivations altogether. Maybe he just likes it!
Read our latest The Falcon and the Winter Soldier review, or discover more about The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s cast and characters, including our background breakdowns for John Walker, Sharon Carter, Bucky’s sister, Patriot and the villainous Power Broker.
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