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The Case for Supervillain Prisons

Full spoilers follow for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.


In the third episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, our heroes team with Captain America: Civil War villain Baron Zemo on a mission to Madripoor in search of information regarding the Power Broker and a fresh batch of the Super Soldier serum. Zemo is present in the rest of the season as well, but this episode made him a bit of a sensation online, with fans reacting positively to his comic-accurate costume, his anti-heroic dynamic with the leads, and even his gif-worthy dancing skills.

However, this was only possible because Zemo, unlike most comic-book movie villains, was actually put in prison at the end of his debut appearance. And this illustrates one of the most frequent frustrations of comic book adaptations: Far too often, villains die in the films they appear in.

Baron Zemo from The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.
Baron Zemo from The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.

A History of Violence

Getting to see Daniel Brühl’s Zemo evolve into a character closer to his comic counterpart while also building off of his role in a previous MCU film is par for the course with heroes, but fairly infrequent for villains, who despite the inter-connected franchise rarely have major roles in more than one installment.

This practice dates all the way back to the 1989 Batman film, where the Joker, despite being Batman’s most perennial nemesis, falls to his death at the end of the film. Not every subsequent villain in that series died, but none of them appeared in more than one film, and each movie had at least one major villain death. Instead of Gotham having a sprawling community of supervillains with their own interpersonal relationships like in the comics, each film feels very self-contained in its exploration of whichever foes have been selected for that particular installment.

This tendency spread into other comic-book movie franchises, with major villain deaths in all three Raimi Spider-Man films, all three The Dark Knight films, several of the X-Men films, and even Galactus being blasted to cosmic dust in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. There are notable exceptions, such as Joker in The Dark Knight and the Lizard in The Amazing Spider-Man being put in prison, Magneto escaping unscathed across the X-Men saga, and Doctor Doom popping up in both 2000s Fantastic Four films (before maybe drowning in the second one? RIP). But for the most part, these villains tended to only appear in one movie per series, with recurring appearances often relegated to cameos or flashbacks. With the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which promised a shared universe closer in spirit to the source material, there was an opportunity to change this, but they haven’t taken full advantage of it.

Masters of Evil

In the world of Marvel Comics, the vast majority of major supervillains are recurring characters, popping up month after month and year after year to torment the heroes, developing long-standing rivalries with them involving potentially dozens of encounters. This is made possible because of the medium, where monthly comics allow (and essentially require) such frequent reuse of characters. While film franchises typically have multiple years between installments (thus making such recycling unnecessary), the MCU is different, with several running sub-franchises all occupying the same fictional reality, and the films being released at a far faster rate than most other movie series. This would hypothetically make recurring villains a tantalizing prospect, but weirdly enough, most MCU villains have tended to be one-off characters.

What makes this odd is that the rare times they have made a main villain a recurring character, they’ve been amongst their most popular. Loki has been showing up in 10 years of MCU projects, having had the chance to flip back and forth between villainous and potentially redemptive multiple times, and is now about to headline his own Disney+ show. (He’s also a distinctly comic-booky exception to our “don’t kill” rule in that he did eventually die, but has now been resurrected, more or less, through the vagaries of time travel.)

Thanos, meanwhile, was positioned as the “final boss” of the Infinity Saga, making sporadic cameos in Guardians of the Galaxy and the Avengers films that built great anticipation for him being the main villain of both Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. Both are frequently cited as the most memorable and well-received villains of the entire MCU, so it stands to reason that if other MCU bad guys had the chance to develop across multiple films, they’d be better received as well.

Baron Zemo… Hero?

Having now been imprisoned more than once, Baron Zemo is the first MCU villain to take up the long-standing tradition of comic book villains being in and out of prison across their lives. In Falcon and Winter Soldier, he was largely recontextualized from his depiction in Civil War, with the reveal of his noble lineage and a more specific long game mission to rid the world of super soldiers, rather than his targets being localized to just the Avengers. The sense of history he has with Bucky was also used to show how far the latter has come since his time as the Winter Soldier, something that would be more difficult to pull off with a wholly new antagonist.

Hopefully, being imprisoned a second time means Marvel has plans to develop him even further in the future, with his anti-hero tendencies in the show possibly being a setup for a potential Thunderbolts movie or series. In the comics, Zemo was the leader of that team of maybe/maybe not reformed supervillains posing as superheroes. There aren’t many other characters in the Raft with him at the moment, but the fact that the supervillain prison does exist means that it could be used to introduce even more recurring foes who Zemo could team up with.

Whatever direction they end up taking the character next, Phase 4 has already started seeding longer-running antagonists, with Agatha Harkness left alive in Westview at the end of WandaVision, Sharon Carter being established as the Power Broker, and even Abomination making a long-awaited return in the upcoming She-Hulk show… not to mention John Walker/U.S. Agent, whose current allegiance is definitely up in the air. If this new trend keeps up, perhaps Marvel’s live-action division is finally ready to build a world of supervillains just as dense and diverse as the one they’ve constructed for their heroes.


Carlos Morales writes novels, articles and Mass Effect essays. You can follow his fixations on Twitter.

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