German cutie Daniel Brühl will be playing supervillain Helmut Zemo in next year’s hotly anticipated Marvel offering Captain America: Civil War. Don’t have any clue who that character is? You’re not crazy or ignorant — he’s pretty obscure outside of comics circles. Here are six core facts about this Teutonic terrorist’s schtick (with, of course, the caveat that Marvel might change any and all of it for his cinematic incarnation).
He’s part of a Nazi-affiliated dynasty.
Zemo usually goes by the moniker “Baron Zemo,” and that title isn’t just for show. Indeed, the Baron Zemo who currently runs around causing trouble in Marvel comics is the second supervillain to go by that title. You see, the Zemos are long-standing German nobility, and Helmut’s father, Heinrich, was a big-deal Nazi during World War II. During that period, Papa Zemo was a sinister inventor who built stuff like death rays and weaponized adhesives. When Zemo the Elder died in exile, decades after the end of the war, his son Helmut (that’s the one Brühl is playing) took up the mantle. Much like Marvel’s more famous Germanic supervillain Dr. Doom, Helmut Zemo has a deep sense of noble privilege and thinks Zemos are inherently superior to all non-Zemos. (Indeed, it’s possible that Marvel Studios wants to set up Zemo as their own version of Dr. Doom, since 20th Century Fox owns the rights to the Dr. Doom character owing to a complicated licensing situation.) Most likely, the cinematic Zemo will be affiliated with HYDRA, the Nazi splinter group that constantly bedevils Earth’s mightiest heroes.
He’s deformed, and it’s his own fault.
Zemo usually wears this weird purple hood with eye-holes and a jaunty little crown. Why? Well, if he took the hood off, everyone would constantly vomit while looking at him. The hood was something his dad used to wear (first to maintain anonymity, then — no kidding — because it accidentally got stuck to his face), but Helmut started wearing it after he fell into a vat of his own chemicals during a fight with Cap. Subsequently, his face has been scarred and deformed. As you might expect, he blames Captain America for his ugly mug.
He’s a smarty-pants, but he knows his way around a sword.
Supervillains exist on a spectrum between brutishness and braininess, and Baron Zemo errs more toward the brainy end. He’s firmly in the “condescending megalomaniac” tradition that includes guys like Lex Luthor and Red Skull, and he’s often depicted as a hyperintelligent scientist and inventor. However, writers and artists also love putting him in hand-to-hand combat scenes where he gets to use a rad sword. But in general, he’s more of a thinker than a fighter.
He’s very undermine-y.
Honestly, there’s very little about Zemo’s core concept that’s revolutionary, but one thing that makes him stick out is how writers have tended to make his worldview kinda passive-aggressive. Two of Helmut’s most famous stories have been ones in which he tried to prove that superheroes are hypocrites and that the public are a bunch of sheeple. In the late 1990s, there was a successful series called Thunderbolts, in which Zemo pretended to be a long-forgotten hero named Citizen V and recruited a bunch of villains to put on disguises and pretend to be superheroes. The public ate it up, only belatedly finding out they had been swindled, and it was a way for Zemo to simultaneously execute plans for world domination and demonstrate that the public are a bunch of idiots for blindly loving superheroes. Recently, there was a decent story line where Zemo took control of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s worldwide espionage network mainly to prove to the world that S.H.I.E.L.D. monitoring had become too invasive. So yeah, he’s really into making everyone feel bad about themselves.
He’s mainly a Captain America foe, though he has often branched out.
In Marvel’s comics, the elder Zemo, Heinrich, was most famous for being the Nazi who seemingly killed Captain America. Of course, Cap was merely dumped into the ocean, where he froze into suspended animation until he was revived decades later — and after he was revived, he went after the aging Heinrich alongside the Avengers. Heinrich died during the fight (he accidentally caused a rockslide that crushed his withered Nazi body), and Helmut holds Cap responsible for his daddy’s demise. Subsequently, Zemo’s mostly gone after Cap individually and during Cap’s stints with the Avengers, but he has dabbled in battling Spider-Man and a handful of other Marvel staples. In short: casting him in a Captain America movie was a natural choice, and probably an inevitable one.
He’s occasionally a team player.
Papa Zemo formed a team of baddies called the Masters of Evil (which, of course, raises questions about how they kept morale up — how do you convince yourself you’re doing the right thing with a membership card that says “Evil” on it?), and Helmut later re-formed it. He’s worked with HYDRA and some other secret villain societies at other points. But his strongest affiliation is with the aforementioned Thunderbolts, his beloved experiment in villainous masquerading. And who knows: Maybe Captain America: Civil War will include some trickery in which Zemo and a version of the Thunderbolts deceive the public for sinister gain? It could certainly fit with the whole “the superhero community is tearing itself apart” theme that Civil War will be built on. But maybe they’ll just have him be a solo operator and part-time fashion designer for his own line of bespoke purple hoods.