Captain America: Civil War is a film that keeps you guessing right up until the very end. Guessing, or trying to guess, just what it is that the film’s primary villain, Helmut Zemo, is doing. Coming into the film with a relatively strong background in the comics, I expected him to be working behind the scenes and secretly yanking everyone’s chain, but I was nonetheless puzzled by the various twists and turns his plot took. He was eerily menacing and coldly, skin-crawlingly diabolical throughout, but his motivations only became more of a question mark as the story progressed. What did he want? What exactly was he doing?
When it turned out that what he wanted was to Destroy The Avengers™ and what he was doing was exacting a very personal revenge, I wasn’t entirely satisfied at first.
The revenge narrative goes back a long way(1)—and not just in the world of literature but in the Marvel Cinematic Universe itself. Roughly half of all MCU releases have had plots that were, or were in part, founded on a character’s need for revenge, and roughly half of those have been specifically about getting revenge on the Stark family(2). When you crunch the numbers, it becomes clear that revenge is a huge factor in the events that transpire in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As a matter of fact, it’s so much of a factor that the trope has almost become boring.
There are two things about the revenge narrative of Civil War that elevate it above the other examples that proliferate in the MCU. The first is that Helmut Zemo is a very different sort of antagonist than those who have gone before him. The second is the function his character plays in the film’s exploration of vengeance as a philosophical concept.
In his precise and methodical pursuit of a vengeance that is grounded in a rigidly controlled rationality, Helmut Zemo stands out from the typical gallery of MCU villains. His carefully risk-averse quest for revenge stands in stark contrast to the revenge that is sought at the beginning of the film by Crossbones—a character who at first seems to be nothing more than a red herring but who in fact serves to establish the film’s primary theme—and later by T’Challa and Tony Stark. Beyond this, however, is the atypicality of Zemo’s ultimate goal. More suicide bomber than mad, maligned genius (a quality he shares in common with Crossbones), Zemo is the ultimate narrative con. He is the distorted reflection in a house of mirrors. Watching him, the audience is led to assume—just as the heroes do—that he must be some kind of evil mastermind with a grandiose plan of world takeover. He is not, though. In the end, he is nothing more than a broken and solitary man, hoping against hope that he can even the score before he dies. Unlike such villains as Loki, Killian, Fennhoff, and Ultron, Zemo never expects to outlive his revenge, and he never expects to profit from it. That conclusion to his story lends him a kind of pathos that very few supervillians ever attain, the moment at the end of all his schemes when your heart almost breaks for him.
In addition to this, Helmut Zemo also functions in the film as an emblem of revenge as concept, and he is joined in that role by two other characters—Tony Stark and T’Challa, each of whom have their feet set on the the path to revenge as a result of Zemo’s actions. By framing these characters as mirror images of one another, as parallel examples of vengeance-seekers at different stages of the journey, the film becomes a deconstruction of the revenge narrative as a trope rather than another retread of the revenge narrative as unvarnished plot device. This deconstruction is elegantly executed and—in my opinion—largely successful. As I noted in my previous essay, when you strip all the other moving parts away Civil War is fundamentally a story about the way the ceaseless pursuit of revenge destroys lives through its neverending cycle of retribution upon retribution upon retribution. Within this framework, each of these three men represent different stages of the vengeance arc, allowing us to see it in its totality and evaluate its merits.
Zemo, having carried out his plan to destroy the Avengers for their role in the death of his family, is at the end of the journey. He has already made the choices that have damned him and has little chance of redemption. Tony, on the other hand, having only just begun an attempt to seek retribution for the deaths of his family—and seen it spectacularly fail—is at the beginning of the journey.(3) The choices that will damn him still lie ahead, for the moment unchosen. Unlike Zemo and Tony, whose revenge arcs are seen only as fragments of beginning and end, T’Challa moves through the entire arc—from start to finish—over the course of the film. And T’Challa does not merely move through his own quest for vengeance, he witnesses the end and the beginning of the other men’s quests. This vantage point allows him to see, and the audience through him, the deadly toll that vengeance takes as it leads inexorably to more and greater vengeance. Zemo’s family was lost in Ultron’s quest for vengeance; T’Challa’s father was lost in Zemo’s quest for vengeance. Seeing this, T’Challa is faced with a striking realization. Had he succeeded in killing the wrong man, what retribution would have followed in the wake? And if he kills the right one, what retribution will then follow? And over and above all that, what would the successful completion of his quest for vengeance make him into? What has it made Zemo into? What might it make Tony into?
These questions are perhaps the most pressing queries posed by the film. They dominate the narrative, easily overshadowing the debate on oversight that is raised by the conflict over the Sokovia Accords. In a film franchise that has been overly reliant on revenge as plot device, Civil War manages to unpack the very concept of vengeance and its ethical implications, asking the viewer to consider the cost in a way relatively few Marvel movies truly have. It’s a tour de force that I wouldn’t have thought possible given the ubiquity of the trope in contemporary media. That said, however, the MCU needs to come up with a different narrative device asap. After all, pain in the ass or not, there’s only so many times the audience is going to tolerate watching someone go after Tony Stark (or any of his compatriots) for the sins of the past.
1) Early examples of the revenge narrative include the ancient Greek tragedies Agamemnon by Aeschylus (ca. 525-455 BCE) and Medea by Euripides (ca. 480-406 BCE), as well as a host of Elizabethan revenge plays—among them Hamlet and Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare (1564-1616 CE). It remains a popular literary motif and has been the plot of numerous contemporary films, like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Kill Bill, and John Wick. ⇧
2) In Iron Man 2, Anton Vanko attempts to get revenge on Tony Stark; in both Thor and The Avengers, Loki attempts to get revenge on Thor; in Iron Man 3, Aldrich Killian attempts to get revenge on Tony (again); in Thor 2, Malekith attempts to get revenge on Asgard (this one is a bit more diffuse and debatable as to whether it counts as straight revenge); in Guardians of the Galaxy, Ronan attempts to get revenge on Zandar; in Age of Ultron, Ultron and the Maximoffs attempt to get revenge on Tony (yet again, poor Tony); in the first season of Agent Carter, Joseph Fennhoff attempts to get revenge on Howard Stark; in the second season of Daredevil, Frank Castle attempts to get revenge on the people who murdered his family. That’s a lot of revenge. ⇧
3) Given his mental illness, Tony’s situation is a little more complicated than a standard quest for revenge, although he shares an interesting parallel with Zemo in that both of their desires for revenge are amplified by their anger at themselves. I will address the issue of mental health in part three of this essay series. ⇧