What, Exactly, Was Zemo's Big Plan in 'Captain America: Civil War'?
By this time, you’ve probably seen Captain America: Civil War. If not: The titular (heh) conflict between Iron Man and Captain America is resolved when Thanos comes down from his celestial armchair and turns everyone into hedgehogs. BOOM, SPOILERED.
I’ve spoken to a lot of people about this movie (OK, like five people), and the real Civil War seems to be this. Zemo’s plot to take down the Avengers: Overstuffed, clunky, plot hole-ridden bag of dumb, or nah?
Let’s break it down.
Warning: All the spoilers in the world.
Daniel Brühl plays Zemo, an ex-member of Sokovia’s special forces who’s lugging around a massive chip on his shoulder due to the death of his wife and child during Avengers: Age of Ultron, for which he blames the Avengers. Personally, I really liked that Zemo’s motivation is the relatively clean ‘n’ simple “wants vengeance for dead family members,” as opposed to Ultron’s way convoluted “wants to take over the world by remaking humanity something something evolution something something butterflies.”
“Clean ‘n’ simple,” however, is not something you can say about where Zemo goes from there.
Zemo figures out, via the HYDRA files that Black Widow leaked onto the web at the end of Winter Soldier, that something involving the Winter Soldier went down on a certain date in 1991. Figuring that, whatever it is, he can use it to tear apart the Avengers—his ultimate end goal—he goes after Bucky’s “Winter Soldier”-era handler, who refuses to tell him anything. Zemo tells the handler that, never mind, he can get what he needs by decrypting the HYDRA files, even though it will take longer.
It doesn’t appear that he does that, though, because next thing we know he’s framing Bucky for an act of terrorism so very, very bad that it means he’s bound to get captured. (I don’t know why Zemo assumes a superassassin trained to live in the shadows would get discovered so easily, even with the whole world looking for him, but hey, a lot of Zemo’s plan hinges on things just so happening to turn out the way he wants them. He’s the luckiest super villain alive.) Zemo kills and impersonates the UN psychiatrist tasked with interviewing Bucky, using the opportunity to activate the Buckster’s funky fresh Winter Soldier side using codewords he stole from the handler.
The Winter Soldier breaks loose, but not before Zemo asks him A) about what happened on that date in ‘91 and B) about a secret HYDRA facility in BugFuck McColdsville. The whole situation exacerbates tension between Captain America and Iron Man, who are already on not-great terms because of the Sokovia Accords, which is a situation Zemo had nada to do with. He just latched on.
Bucky tells Cap that Zemo’s plot must be to release a group of five super-super soldiers with the potential to topple any government. Superheroes throw punches, and Cap and Bucky (Black Panther in pursuit) go to the aforementioned abandoned HYDRA facility. They’re followed by Iron Man, who by this point just so happens to have figured out that Bucky didn’t blow up the UN after all. Everybody gets to the HYDRA base, where they discover that the super-soldiers have been shot in the head: they were just a red herring. The real reveal is that, on that day in 1991, Bucky killed Tony’s parents. Tony goes apeshit and tries to kill Bucky (again with Zemo being lucky: Iron Man’s an impulsive prima donna, but his logic does occasionally prevail, and he knows full well Bucky had no choice in the matter), Cap intervenes, and a whole buncha superpeople almost kill each other.
OK. Here’s my deal: I get Zemo coattailing on the Sokovia Accords, and I get him using Bucky to drive Captain America and Iron Man apart. But, in a movie that’s already overstuffed—if not to Ultron levels—we spend a good half an hour on this secret-HYDRA-facility-and-secret-super-soldiers subplot that goes nowhere. Why did they need to be there? Riley, with whom I had an extensive conversation about this, pointed out that the tape HYDRA kept of the Starks’ murder (Why did HYDRA keep a tape? Why was there a security camera in the middle of the forest anyway?) may have been held in the base, so Zemo needed to go there to physically get it. And Zemo might have had an interest in making the final showdown take place in a relatively isolated area. Which… OK. Fine. They didn’t say any of that in the movie, but I’ll give the Russos benefit of the doubt that I would not give, say, Zack Snyder re: Lex Luthor’s even more convoluted make-superheroes-punch-each-other plot in Batman v Superman.
But what worked about Avengers and Winter Soldier is that, sure, there were a lot of elements (moreso with The Avengers, where Joss Whedon had to bring the whole team together for the first time), but the story itself was relatively simple and streamlined. Civil War, though on balance I really liked it, had a plot that’s more of a plodding, grinding mess. This is a goddamned Hollywood actioner that follows fairly basic emotional beats. The plot shouldn’t be so complicated, with so many moving parts, that it bands together so tenuously. There is so much stuff in Civil War that could have been cut out without affecting the story in any way. I loved Tom Holland as Spider-Man, too, but there was no reason at all for him to be there. Ditto Martin Freeman. It’s just set-up for Homecoming and Black Panther.
And Sharon Carter. My God. Poor, poor Emily VanCamp. If you’re going to put in a romance subplot, Russos, I’m going to need either some chemistry or more than 30 seconds of build-up. It felt like it was there just for the sake of it being there, and not because it had any bearing on plot or character development or anything. That’s how a lot of Zemo’s plot felt to me. It was there because, well, we want to get Cap and Iron Man to a place that’ll look cool for their final fight? Because big-budget Hollywood blockbusters aren’t allowed to clock in at under two hours anymore? I guess?
I’m not ready to throw in the towel on the MCU yet. This is not one of those articles. And, again, on balance I found Civil War very enjoyable. That airport fight scene was amazing, Bucky Barnes broke my heart, and I’m looking forward to Black Panther like crazy. But I don’t like the way we’re pointing, here. There’s too much stuffing. Too much “well, we have to put this in as set-up for a future movies.” Russos. You still have the two Infinity War movies. Please. For the love of God. Stop Ultronning.
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