Art by Marko Djurdjevic
Son of Nazi Officer Baron Heinrich Zemo, Helmut Zemo was raised to believe in the Nazi ideology of his father. After Heinrich was accidentally killed in battle with the Avengers, Helmut took on the identity of the Phoenix and attacked Captain America. During the fight, he fell into a vat of chemicals that disfigured his face. Years later, he rose again working with the scientist Arnim Zola. He took on his father’s title and mask, becoming the 13th Baron Zemo!
His first scheme involved kidnapping a childhood friend of Steve Rogers’ named Arnold Roth as a means of luring the hero into a trap. He allied with fellow rogue Primus in addition to Arnim Zola and created an army of monstrous mutates to challenge the Sentinel of Liberty. Captain America was able to overcome the creatures and save his friend.
Helmut Zemo next cooperated with the Red Skull and his daughter Sinthea Schmidt, the latter of whom using the identity of Mother Superior. They once again took friends of Steve Rogers, this time Arnold Roth and David Cox, the latter of whom was brainwashed to fight Captain America. Zemo eventually turned on Mother Superior but was defeated by her telepathic capabilities.
The next notable ploy by Helmut Zemo was reuniting the Masters of Evil. With this team, he managed to overtake the Avengers Mansion and hold Edwin Jarvis, butler to Tony Stark, hostage. Though they were eventually defeated, this feat stood among one of the most harrowing assaults upon the Avengers.
Zemo met a woman named Heike, whom he married and took to Castle Zemo. The two, whom at the time still subscribed to Nazi ideology, kidnapped a number of children to consider for their own version of the Hitler Youth. They kept 25 of the kids, whom they adopted. The children were brainwashed and inducted into Nazism. Captain America and his then-ally Diamondback discovered the scheme and defeated the Zemos. Heike was never seen again, and the two presumably split up.
After the disappearance of the Avengers, Fantastic Four, and X-Men after defeating the creature, Onslaught, Baron Zemo organized his Masters of Evil once more. This time, he gave them alternate identities and organized the super hero team, the Thunderbolts, Zemo himself taking the identity of patriotic super hero, Citizen V. The initial plan was to earn the trust of the public and use the powers and information given to the Avengers to take over the world. However, a number of the members, specifically Atlas, Mach I, Songbird, and Moonstone, as well as new hero Jolt took to the idea of being super heroes. S.H.I.E.L.D learned the secret of the Thunderbolts after a time, and they exposed them to the world for who they were. Songbird, Moonstone, Jolt, Atlas, and Mach I turned on Zemo, only leaving Techno aka Fixer to side with him.
For a time, Zemo and Techno were able to use their security clearance as well as riots incited through mind-control technology to gain control of much of the world. The Fantastic Four and Avengers returned, and Zemo took control of them as well. However, his former teammates returned, freed the minds of the heroes, and Zemo was defeated. He and Techno escaped. He was later tracked down by another Citizen V, the heir to the original World War II hero, whom attempted to apprehend Zemo as well. He failed and Zemo escaped.
Zemo was next found by Scourge, a vigilante whom hunts down and kills supervillains, and was beheaded. His conscious was transferred to a computer and then, thanks to Techno, to the then-comatose body of Citizen V. He returned to his masquerade as the hero. He was granted leadership by the Commission for Superhuman Affairs over a team of super-powered agents known as the Redeemers.
The team was short-lived, as all but Zemo were killed by the immensely powerful rogue, Graviton. Zemo was forced to reunite the Thunderbolts, whom were disbanded, with former members Mach III, Songbird, Meteorite/Moonstone, and Fixer/Techno. They battled Graviton as well as an alien army using his gravitational energies as a portal. Graviton was killed, but he was able to close the portal. The V-Battalion, the allies of the man whom Zemo was impersonating, attempted to teleport Citizen V/Zemo away from the battle. This, along with resonant gravitational energies of Graviton, caused an anomaly that forced Zemo’s mind out of Citizen V and to the Tech-Pac of Fixer.
The explosion of the portal’s collapse could have killed the Thunderbolts, but Graviton sent them (with the exception of Songbird, whom was out of the blast radius) to Counter-Earth, the planet which the Avengers, Fantastic Four, and X-Men were exiled after their battle with Onslaught. Fixer and Zemo were able to find the Helmut Zemo of this Earth and place Zemo’s mind within his counterpart’s body. Helmut also found the Heinrich Zemo of this Earth and killed him.
He had plans to conquer the troubled Counter-Earth, but the remaining Thunderbolts wanted to help the world. He assisted them, interested in the potential outcomes of this venture.
A group of heroes called the Young Allies informed the Thunderbolts that a void within Counter-Earth caused by an alien spaceship was pulling it and the original article together, threatening to destroy both Earths. Zemo was ready to damn the original Earth, but the other Thunderbolts wanted to save both worlds. Zemo followed, but the deactivation of the void sent the Thunderbolts back to their original Earth.
They met up with Hawkeye and Songbird, whom had organized their own Thunderbolts team, and both teams shut down the side of the void that existed on their Earth. Hawkeye then granted Baron Zemo leadership over the Thunderbolts once more, trusting him to change. Zemo, however, had not changed. He still planned to use the Thunderbolts to achieve world domination.
He started a project known as “The Liberator,” a device designed to absorb supernatural energies from around the world. This plan was challenged by the Avengers, and the two teams did battle. Moonstone, her emotional state decaying due to the energies that gave her power, absorbed the energies of the Liberator, and both teams had to unite to stop her. Zemo took a blast from Moonstone, scarring the face of his new body. He grabbed onto the moonstones that gave Karla Sofen her powers and was teleported away.
Zemo later returned to the Thunderbolts after a period of absence. The team had disbanded and reformed once more in the interim, and he first made some moves from the shadows, causing a conflict with Baron Wolfgang von Strucker, whom had already been challenging the Thunderbolts. When he fully resurfaced, he led the team to aid Iron Man during the Superhero Civil War. The team helped round up unregistered heroes, and it was massively expanded when Zemo and Iron Man began recruiting more rogues to the cause through the use of nanite explosives.
However, a more pressing matter garnered Zemo’s attention. Wellsprings of energy were causing global disturbances, and he, with the power of the moonstones, had designs on harnessing this ability. This brought him into conflict with the extradimensional Squadron Supreme as well as the all-powerful Grandmaster. The Wellsprings began granting power to as well as driving mad much of Earth’s population. Zemo attempted to use the Thunderbolts’ new massive roster to contain the problem, and he used the alien Overmaster to keep the team in contact globally. He knew the Wellsprings needed to be sealed for the good of the world, but the Grandmaster wanted the energies for himself. Zemo eventually challenged Grandmaster to a battle of wills, both harnessing unfathomable energies. Zemo then destroyed the moonstones and removed power from both combatants. Used to the state of mortality, Zemo had the advantage and killed the Grandmaster with a luger. He was then teleported out by the discharging energies.
This led to Zemo travelling through time and experiencing portions of the lives of his ancestors. He manipulated various incidents to occur as they were historically written, leading to much self-examination. Each jump in time brought him closer to the present, and, upon the second-to-last travelling, he met his father during World War II. Hating Heinrich, Helmut attacked his father. This incident was the primary catalyst that caused Helmut to renounce the ideologies of Nazism. He was brought back to the present by a distant cousin named Volker, whom planned on killing Zemo. He talked Volker out of it and took him under his wing. However, Volker was never seen again after this.
After more time under the radar, Zemo next became active to defame the new Captain America, James Buchanan Barnes. He knew of the hero’s past as the Winter Soldier, and he knew that, if he exposed this information to the world, it would lead to Bucky’s downfall. He succeeded in doing this, and Bucky was taken into custody by America, then Russia.
He next decided to torment Hawkeye by sending the archer’s former tutor, Buck Chisholm aka Trick Shot to train Hawkeye’s brother, Barney, to become the new Trick Shot. Chisholm acquiesced, and Zemo orchestrated a bitter duel between the two Barton boys. Hawkeye won and was forced to arrest his brother. Zemo himself was not captured.
Zemo used his resources to become the ruler of Bagalia, a sort of “city of refuge” for the rogues of the world. He has set up a base of operations there and has used it as a headquarters during a number of his schemes.
Among those schemes was the harnessing of an Inhuman named Lucas. Lucas’ blood sterilizes human beings, and Zemo intended to use this to halt the breeding of those who would stand against him and create a “purer” world for himself to control. He organized a new iteration of Hydra to accomplish this goal.
This scheme was challenged by another new Captain America, this one being the former Falcon Sam Wilson. He and Nomad aka Ian Zola ultimately foiled this scheme and destroyed a bomb containing Lucas’ blood that Zemo had intent of launching. He next tried to spread the blood through infected fleas, but this was stopped as well.
He became a particularly unruly inmate at S.H.I.E.L.D’s Pleasant Hill prison facility, where a sentient Cosmic Cube named Kobik was used to brainwash the prisoners into becoming “productive” citizens. However, Fixer broke out of this control and reverted Zemo back to his original identity as well. The two staged a riot and were able to destroy Pleasant Hill. The Avengers showed up and rounded up many of the escaped rogues, but Zemo was able to escape with S.H.I.E.L.D. scientist Dr. Eric Selvig.
Zemo attempted to organize a new Masters of Evil, but this was halted by the returned Steve Rogers. In a more recent issue of Steve Rogers: Captain America, Zemo was supposedly killed. However, this seems unlikely, as Zemo has overcome death in the past. He will undoubtedly return soon with a new plan.
Baron Helmut Zemo is a driven man with vision. He has a familial past that he constantly grapples with, not knowing if he wants to live up to it or defy it. He has had complex perceptions of the world. He has many times shown a belief that he can genuinely make the world a better place. He has, for the most part, abandoned his Nazism and fascism, and he has even helped out the heroes at times.
The main thing that holds Zemo back from true greatness is his own narcissism and vindictiveness. He holds grudges against Captain America, the Avengers, Barnes, Wilson, and others. He does not take being defamed lightly, and this is what has led to many of his failures.
As an addendum, I will say more recent depictions of Zemo feel lackluster and reductive. He has been taken back to a more Nazi-like personality that feels inorganic, as Zemo had left this ideology behind for a time. To me, Zemo is more complex than that, and his hatred for his Nazi father pushes him to move away from this thinking. Rick Remender’s Captain America story with Zemo as well as Nick Spencer’s Pleasant Hill and Steve Rogers: Captain America series are the worst offenders in this regard, the latter of those making Zemo into a punchline.
Despite this and though Zemo is malicious and a megalomaniac, he is a man of great intellect and skill. He genuinely believes his rule is the best thing for the world. He is capable of cooperation and only wishes ill on those challenge him. These are the reasons why Baron Helmut Zemos is my second favorite Marvel Villain of all time.