Why Captain America: Civil War Needed Helmut Zemo

Going through reviews for Captain America: Civil War, I saw that the most frequent criticism revolves around Helmut Zemo’s character. Most critics thought that he was unnecessary, that the Civil War story would progress the way that it did even without Zemo. I disagree completely, and here’s my argument why.

By the way – this article is spoiler heavy because I’ll talk about the details of Zemo’s involvement in Civil War. So if you haven’t seen the film, you might not want to continue.

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Spoiler alert! Go watch Civil War first if you don’t want spoilers!

First of all, let me make this clear: Daniel Bruhl’s Helmut Zemo had very little in common with the comic book incarnation of Zemo. I acknowledge that it could have been anyone in Zemo’s role and it would have worked – that character didn’t need to be named Helmut Zemo. But the movie still needed someone to hatch that scheme.

Before talking about Zemo’s plan and its impact on the film, we have to first take a look at his motivations. Helmut Zemo is part of an elite squad of Sokovia’s military who lost his family during the events of Age of Ultron. Blaming the Avengers for the deaths of his family, Zemo wanted revenge. I don’t have his exact quote (I’ve yet to watch the film a second time) but I remember him mentioning something along the lines of getting the Avengers to “kill each other”. This is a very important factor to consider because Zemo wasn’t simply aiming to disband the Avengers.

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The man with the plan, Colonel Helmut Zemo.

The process in which Zemo wanted to enact that revenge is by using Captain America’s ties with the Winter Soldier/Bucky to set him against Iron Man, cutting off the head (or in this instance, heads) of the snake, so to speak. Zemo’s plan may seem a bit overly complicated, first framing Bucky for an explosion at a U.N. Summit, then triggering his programming and setting him loose in a U.N. building, concluding with luring Captain America and Iron Man to an abandoned base in Russia where the Winter Soldier was held.

The first reason why I think Helmut Zemo was necessary in the film is because of the running theme of vengeance that it has. Aside from Zemo, there were two other characters whose actions were motivated by vengence: T’Challa and Tony Stark. T’Challa would not have taken on the mantle of the Black Panther if his father’s murder did not happen. What reason would there be for Black Panther to exist in this film if he wasn’t seeking revenge against Bucky? Would he have involved himself personally in the conflicts just to get the Avengers to sign the Sokovia Accords? Would he chase after the unregistered heroes simply because they weren’t complying with rules set forth by the United Nations?


Zemo’s schemes gave Black Panther a reason to be in Civil War.

The theme of vengeance was also very important in Black Panther’s character development. He was hell bent on killing Bucky throughout the film, but when he realized that his father was simply collateral damage from another person’s revenge plot, he was able to rise above the desire to take revenge. This is key to closing Black Panther’s story arc.

The other character with vengeance on his mind in the film is of course, Iron Man/Tony Stark. Very late in the film, Zemo reveals that Bucky was responsible in the murder of Tony Stark’s parents and that sets the latter off. This is what drove the final wedge between Steve Rogers and Stark because Rogers hid the fact that he knew Bucky was the one who did the deed.

tony and injured rhodey

Even Rhodey’s injury wasn’t enough to make the conflict truly personal for Tony Stark.

Some may argue that it was already personal for Tony Stark even before he found out about Bucky’s involvement in the death of his parents, but it wasn’t. He already knew that Rhodey would likely be paralyzed after the Avengers battle at the airport, but he knew that it was an accident and did not blame Rhodey’s injury on any of the heroes. In fact, Stark reconciled briefly with Rogers once he saw what General Ross did with the rogue Avengers in custody. This is what separates the film from the comic book version of Civil War – despite having a different take on the proceedings, Stark saw enough of Steve Rogers’ perspective and acted against U.N. supervision at the end of the film.

Most people who say that Zemo was unnecessary keep pointing out that the heroes, the Avengers, would have fought each other eventually because of their different ideologies and I’m not arguing against that. But Captain America: Civil War is not just about getting the Avengers to fight each other – this film also has to move Captain America’s story forward. And that story ended with Captain America and Falcon searching for Bucky/The Winter Soldier. This film wasn’t called Avengers: Civil War or simply Civil War because of that reason.

Captain America didn’t just stand up for what he believed in, he stood up for Bucky Barnes.

More than just conflicting ideologies, Captain America’s actions in this film were all done in the defense of his friend, Bucky. He was defending Bucky from Black Panther (who wanted nothing but to kill him), from the United Nations (whom Captain America did not trust especially since they have orders to kill on sight), and finally from Tony Stark himself who was also blinded by rage after he found out that Bucky murdered his parents.


Zemo’s revenge plot gave Bucky’s storyline closure.

Now one can say that Bucky did not need to be framed. Let’s entertain this thought for a bit. If Bucky truly was the one behind the bombing at Vienna (where the United Nations finalized the Sokovia Accords), Cap would have looked foolish in trying to defend him. Bucky needed to be innocent of whatever crimes were perpetuated in this film, not only to show that Cap’s instincts were correct but also to show that Bucky truly is a hero now.

And that’s why Captain America: Civil War needed Helmut Zemo. In my opinion, Captain America: Civil War wouldn’t have had the same emotional impact that it had if it were simply about two groups of superheroes fighting against each other because of their different ideologies. While the objective of changing the landscape would have still happened with the Avengers disbanding, we would not have achieved the same character developments that we did with Black Panther, Iron Man, Captain America, and Bucky had it not been for Zemo.

Have you seen Captain America: Civil War? What did you think about Helmut Zemo? Share your thoughts with us by leaving a comment or two below!

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