The villainous Baron Zemo has long been one of Captain America’s greatest villains. It’s no wonder he was used in Captain America: Civil War, and the upcoming The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. But MCU Zemo, played by Daniel Brühl, is quite different from his comics counterpart. In fact, in the comics, Captain America fought not one but two men named Baron Zemo. Both of whom caused him great pain over the years. Let’s take a deep dive into the comics history of the Zemos, two of Marvel’s most complicated bad guys.
The History of Heinrich, the Original Baron Zemo
Baron Zemo was one of Cap’s greatest villains during World War II… although, he didn’t actually appear in a single Captain America story published in the ‘40s. He was actually one of comics’ first big retcons. Jack Kirby and Stan Lee introduce him in Avengers #4 in 1964, the same issue that brought Captain America from the Word War II era to present day. That issue explains how Zemo was responsible for the death of Cap’s sidekick and best friend Bucky Barnes in 1944, not to mention for Steve Rogers spending 20 years in suspended animation.
Heinrich Zemo was a Nazi scientist from a long line of German noblemen dating back to the 15th century. He was in fact the twelfth nobleman to use the title of Baron Zemo. The scientific genius and expert fighter took to wearing a purple hood, to supposedly keep his true face secret. (Granted, he went by his real name to the general public. So not sure who he was trying to fool with that mask.)
Zemo invented a powerful non-dissolvable adhesive for Hitler’s army, with the corny sounding name “Adhesive X.” (This had nothing to do with the X-Men.) The hope was that this would be the key to defeating the Allies. In any event, when Cap stormed Zemo’s secret lab, the American hero destroyed vats of Adhesive X. Some of it spilled onto Zemo, permanently bonding his mask to his face. We’re not sure how he eats now, but maybe it’s best not to ask too many questions here.
After World War II, Zemo went into hiding in Argentina, as Nazis tend to do. He abandoned his wife and young son and heir, Helmut Zemo, in Germany. (But we’ll get to him later.) While in South America, Zemo enslaved a local tribe and declares himself king. All the while he tried to find a way to remove that pesky mask. He was content to rule there until Cap became unfrozen, after which all he wanted was revenge on his longtime nemesis. This began a targeted campaign against Cap and his newfound friends, the Avengers.
With several other Marvel villains, Zemo formed an anti-Avengers group called the Masters of Evil. These guys stuck around in one iteration or another for decades… but not Zemo. In Avengers #15, an avalanche of falling rocks killed Zemo. We can tell you, Captain America didn’t shed one single tear over it. (Before his death, Zemo and his minions managed a few memorable dastardly deeds. In one instance, they gave playboy Simon Williams his Wonder Man powers in an effort to infiltrate the Avengers.)
Zemo Jr. Takes Over
The villainous career of Baron Zemo was relatively short-lived in the comics; but his son Helmut Zemo ultimately had a much longer tenure in the Marvel Universe. He first appeared in 1973’s Captain America #168 as “the Phoenix.” (No, not THAT Phoenix.) Here, he attempted to get revenge on Captain America for the death of dear old dad. This was the same dad who had abandoned him and his mother decades earlier, but one supposes he blamed Cap for that too.
History repeats itself, and Zemo Jr. also fell into a vat of the corrosive Adhesive X just like his father. But he wasn’t wearing his mask at the time, so it didn’t stick to his face forever. The acid did disfigure his face, giving it the appearance of molten wax. So he took to wearing the infamous purple mask to cover his visage. When he remerged as a villain years later, he uses his inherited title: Baron Zemo.
Helmut Zemo started a new version of the Masters of Evil, and came pretty close to causing real harm to the Avengers many times. He destroyed Avengers Mansion and nearly killed several members. He tried to resurrect his father, but that went badly. (We’re talking shuffling zombies here.) All of this caused bouts of insanity for Helmut, as he lost his grip on reality several times. But his ultimate plan would play out in the ‘90s, leading to one of Marvel’s most memorable superhero teams. (No, not supervillain teams!)
Citizen V and the Thunderbolts
It was during the late ’90s that Helmut Zemo attempted to pull off his greatest scheme. After the Onslaught event, the Avengers and the Fantastic Four vanished into an alternate dimension. With Earth’s mightiest gone, a new group of superheroes became its new defenders. They were called the Thunderbolts, and appeared to be brand new heroes to the general public. They were led by the mysteriously masked hero Citizen V. But at the end of Thunderbolts #1, Citizen V revealed himself to be Zemo; his team was really the Masters of Evil. Their diabolical plan was to pose as heroes, gain the public’s trust, and then take over the world.
The former bad guys, however, liked being heroes. Ultimately, they rebeled against Zemo and became real deal good guys, thwarting his plans. In the years following his Thunderbolts failure, Zemo was killed and transferred his mind into a new body (or two), left Hydra, and made life hell for Sam Wilson during his time as Captain America. He gained the power of the Moonstones, which allowed him actual superpowers like energy manipulation, super strength, flight, the ability to create spatial warps, and more. And he’s still around, causing strife for the heroes of the Marvel Universe.
The MCU version of Helmut Zemo is essentially a totally different character. He’s not a Baron, nor the son of an evil scientist. He’s a former Sokovian operative who loses his family in the events of Age of Ultron. He doesn’t even have his signature purple mask from the comics… yet. The only thing the two Zemos have in common in their need for vengeance against the Avengers. But just as WandaVision worked classic comics elements into MCU canon, maybe the comics history of Helmut Zemo will sneak into the The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. In other words, keep an eye out for Adhesive X. You just never know.
Featured Image: Marvel Comics