There has been some talk from haters (by that I mean delightful colleagues of mine who actually love things) that Zemo’s plan in Captain America: Civil War was full of holes, convoluted, and clearly was still futzing around on Facebook when it told us that it was on the way to meet us for dinner. But I am here to say nay to that. Not only do I think that Zemo’s plan makes perfect sense, I actually think that at least as far as the movies are concerned, Zemo has the best, most effective plan in any Marvel movie so far. Considering his peers are gods, robots, Abominations, and The Dude, that’s no small feat.
To me, it feels like all of the things that seem complicated or overstuffed within his plan are simply smoke and mirrors, bells and whistles that he’s stuck out there in order to keep the Avengers guessing and confused. His actual plan is really quite simple, provided you think prosthetic faces and torturing someone in their own utility sink is simple. In his very first scene, he declared: “I have experience and patience. A man can do anything if he has those.” He’s talking about his dissection of the HYDRA files, but he is absolutely talking about his complete plan as well.
His experience we get in exposition, he was the head of a death squad in a state caught in a long running destructive war. If there’s one thing he knows, it is how to study his enemy, look for their weaknesses, learn how to turn their strengths about them, learn everything he can about what makes then tick, the color of their eyes. He knows the night one of their parents died and realizes that it coincides with a highly classified exercise executed under the Winter Soldier program. His patience is such that he hasn’t emerged as a player on the scene until this movie, because up until just now he has never seen his moment to strike.
Now, I’m going to break down his plan step by step as I see it, but just to concede one point, the camera that films the death of the Starks at the hand of Bucky Barnes is at best a questionable plot hole. In debating this with some of the other writers, Bryan has made the point that it is way too convenient that he just happened to catch Howard and Maria at the exact point where that camera was. I disagree on that point, I don’t think there was any randomness to the place where the murder happens, he was waiting in that spot for them. This murder happened at a time where SHIELD, an organization that Howard was leading, was highly compromised by HYDRA and they knew where he would be and when. My personal belief on the camera thing is that HYDRA knew where the camera was, and planned the death to happen there so they could observe the Winter Solider in the field, and I have my reasons why Bucky shoots the camera, but because the movie is missing that little bit of exposition, possibly edited for time, it is a plot hole. All we know for certain is that the footage from that murder doesn’t end up in SHIELD’s archives, and does end up in the Winter Solider facilities.
Zemo knows Tony’s parents died that night and knows there was a Winter Soldier mission. But he has no evidence, so he can’t simply go to Stark and be like “Yo, this is messed up what that Captain guy’s friend did, huh?” and have Stark be like “Whaaaaaaaaa?” He needs visceral proof. There’s only two people left alive who might have a definite key to that. The first one won’t give it to him, and drowns, and the second guy has seemingly vanished from the earth even with a distinctly metal arm. Cool.
Let’s assume that the Sokovia Accords didn’t suddenly just happen because Wanda made that dude go boom at the start of Civil War. If Earth-199999 is anything like our Earth (1218), where we’ve been stuck talking about where I’m allowed to pee for months now, the impending U.N. vote on what to do with all these pesky superheroes would be all over the news cycles. Zemo knows there’s going to be a good moment to strike for this and he waits patiently for it.
So he knows Cap’s weakness is Bucky. He also knows he needs Bucky to answer the question for him that the guy he tortured wouldn’t. He predicts that if he makes a manhunt for Bucky, that Cap won’t go along with it and that’ll cause tension for the Avengers. So that is step one.
Step two is actually so simple it was actually already part of another MCU movie, The Avengers. Loki let himself get captured so that he could get inside the Helicarrier and unleash the Hulk. Zemo gets Bucky captured so he can guarantee a sit down with him, get the information he needs, and then unleash his version of the Hulk in order to provide a distraction so he can escape. But he also leaves a perfect red herring for Captain America: the other Winter Soldiers. A scary big bad that Bucky knows all about and is frightened of. Captain’s whole thing is wanting to act without need of oversight, and Zemo knows this; he knows Cap won’t want to stop and talk things out with Ross and Tony, he’ll want to get there before it is too late.
The majority of the movie’s second act actually proceeds pretty much directly as part of step two. The superhero fight at the airport is just the events that Zemo set into motion when he unleashes the Winter Soldier following through to their logical end. Then when things are at their most tense, when the Avengers have been spotted beating the crap out of each other and everything is going according to plan, he executes phase three. Leaving the dead body for the hotel lady to find, so that Tony will get baited by the hook as well. It was a breadcrumb shaped like an interrogator. Now all he has to do is sit in his bunker and wait.
I think of Zemo’s plan as a well orchestrated game of chess. He waited for his opportunity and he pushed his opponents ever so slightly toward the outcome he wanted, based on what he knew about them. And he played his game perfectly. And what I love about it all is that Zemo is a human. He has no special super powers aside from his intellect and his training. He’s never been visited by Thanos, he’s got no interest in Infinity Stones. In a film series where my biggest frustration is the weight of all the other movies you have to watch in order to follow any of the plot, all Zemo wants to do is turn the Avengers against each other in the worst way.
And he wins. The only thing he doesn’t succeed in doing is killing himself, which all things considered is still a fairly successful outcome. Since there’s two more Avengers movies coming along, technically his victory is only temporary, but it still happened. The world doesn’t trust the Avengers anymore, Captain America is a wanted fugitive and Iron Man has almost literally had his heart crushed in his own chest.
Not a bad day’s work for a simple death merchant from Sokovia.