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WandaVision: Arnim Zola could be the real villain pulling the strings

Arnim Zola
(Image credit: Marvel Studios)

So the last two weeks settle it. Wanda herself is the big bad of WandaVision, right?

After Marvel purposely let viewers flirt with theories about Agatha Harkness and Mephisto and even the Grim Reaper for weeks, the Scarlet Witch's full-on heel turn along with Monica Rambeau's "It's all Wanda" declaration at the end of episode 4 seems pretty straightforward.

Episode 5 and its crazy ending didn't do much to dissuade us from the notion that it's "all Wanda." 

Suffering from post-traumatic stress, Wanda has turned her grief over the deaths of both Pietro in Avengers: Age of Ultron and Vision in Infinity War inward and manipulated reality in a doomed attempt to live out an idyllic suburban life in Westview, New Jersey, with Vision.

Well, not so fast, because this is Marvel Studios we're talking about, and if Marvel Studios is purposely signaling to viewers who the villain is in episodes four and five, right before the conclusion of the second act in episode six (of nine), that's a very good reason to keep asking questions.

Bear in mind this is the same studio that has made a habit of pulling surprises out of its hat, like the Avengers: Endgame five-year gap, 'bro Thor,' and Skrulls posing as Nick Fury and Maria Hill in Spider-Man: Far From Home. And that’s not even mentioning the way it manipulates trailers to preserve those surprises.

Not only is catching even its biggest fans and closest watchers off guard on-brand for Marvel Studios, Kevin Feige and co. are fully embracing the weekly episodic nature of its first Disney Plus show, making it very unlikely it would reveal its full hand in the middle chapters.

True to its storytelling nature, Marvel Studios almost certainly still has a major villain reveal to go in WandaVision, and the real villain may have been hiding in plain sight all along.

Here's a question for Marvel Cinematic Universe and Marvel Comics fans alike: when you think of TV screens, so important to WandaVision's thematic core - what or who do you think of?

C'mon, say it with me…

Zola.

As in Arnim Zola.

Yes, ole TV-face himself might very well be the true villain manipulating Wanda into reanimating Vision and keeping the entire town of Westview captive. And for what reason?

We'll get there in due time.

But first…

Toby Jones as Arnim Zola in Captain America: The First Avenger

Toby Jones as Arnim Zola in Captain America: The First Avenger (Image credit: Marvel Studios)

Who is Arnim Zola?

For readers of Marvel Comics, Arnim Zola is a long-time Captain America villain and one of creator Jack Kirby’s most visually distinctive concepts. The Nazi-then-HYDRA genetic scientist transferred his consciousness into an android body with what is essentially an antenna for a head and his face projected on a holographic screen in his torso.

Marvel Studios introduced the Swiss scientist (remember that distinction, it'll be important later) in Captain America: The First Avenger, played by British actor Toby Jones as a HYDRA underling of The Red Skull. Zola is captured by Cap and turns rat, revealing the Red Skull's plans so Cap can put a stop to them. 

Zola then returns 70-plus years later in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and reveals to Cap and Black Widow that he went on to work for S.H.I.E.L.D. after World War II in a fictional adaptation of the real world Project Paperclip program, in which the U.S. military recruited ex-Nazi scientists. During this period, Zola secretly brought back HYDRA as a parasite group within S.H.I.E.L.D.

Jack Kirby draws Arnim Zola

Jack Kirby draws Arnim Zola (Image credit: Marvel Comics)

In the early '70s, having worked at S.H.I.E.L.D. for decades, he contracted a fatal illness and made his first move towards his comic book counterpart – uploading his consciousness to a room filled with millions of miles of '70's-era computer databanks. He appears to Cap and Widow as a face on computer screens (again played by Jones) at the site of the former S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters in … wait for it … New Jersey.

The Winter Soldier – regarded by many as one of the best MCU movies – introduced many more story elements that had a profound effect on Avengers: Age of Ultron, a sequel that introduced Wanda and Pietro.

First, we should note that Winter Soldier’s Alexander Pierce, and Ultron’s Baron von Strucker, were likely both answering to Zola. That makes the televised villain responsible for Strucker’s use of the Mind Stone to experiment with A.I. in ABC's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

That in turn would mean Zola – who, in the comic books, is almost always preoccupied with genetic manipulation – the mastermind behind using the Stone to give Wanda and Pietro their powers. And keep in mind this is the same Zola who likely had unfettered access to the Tesseract, which housed the Space Stone, for decades with HYDRA and then later at S.H.I.E.L.D.'s New Jersey base.

Zola is also revealed as the creator of the Project Insight algorithm, a computer program that uses data-mining to identify both present threats and predict future threats to HYDRA. He also transformed Bucky Barnes into the Winter Soldier, brainwashing him so that he can be subconsciously controlled with a verbal trigger code.

Pulling all these elements together, it’s likely Zola conceived of the experiment that gave Wanda her powers, and given his Insight algorithm, he would have known her trauma-based hatred of Tony Stark would eventually give way to her true heroic nature. As such, he probably would not have given her such vast powers without first brainwashing her with a similar subconscious failsafe. Pin that thought. We're going to get back to it. 

Okay, but isn't Zola dead?

Well, probably, not.

While it appeared in the Winter Soldier that he sacrificed him/itself to kill Cap and Widow, the real Zola’s probably not dead. This is the guy who betrayed Red Skull to save his own skin and uploaded his brain onto tape drives. He is the mole among moles and a cockroach-like survivor who almost certainly would have had the means to survive the missile strike he ordered himself. 

For one, he contacted S.H.I.E.L.D./HYDRA in Washington, DC to alert them to Cap and Widow's presence. That means, despite his decades-old computer technology, he could communicate with the outside world, likely via access to the Internet. And there is also the matter of the contemporary zip drive interface Widow plugs in to seemingly activate him, which Marvel has never fully explained the presence of. 

Arnim Zola in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Arnim Zola's 'brain' in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Image credit: Marvel Studios)

And we can also say with reasonable certainty Marvel has been thinking about this. Zola was reportedly considered by the studio to appear in Ant-Man, probably as the 'brain' behind the HYDRA agents trying to purchase the Yellowjacket technology from Darren Cross.

You can even check out unused concept art from Ant-Man featuring several looks for Zola that closely reflect his comic book inspiration, suggesting Marvel has already contemplated that he escaped those New Jersey computer databanks and had a back-up plan.

The studio even planted a new Zola easter egg as recently as Avengers: Endgame. 

So what does all this have to do with WandaVision?

Hold on, we have one more MCU stop to make. 

The unanswered questions of Age of Ultron

While the presence of the zip drive interface and the unknown fate of said zip drive in The Winter Soldier remains a mystery, Avengers: Age of Ultron introduces several more. The film that first featured Vision and fully introduced Wanda (and her brother Pietro) left a few plot holes unfilled.

Stark and Banner discover an unidentified artificial intelligence in the gem that holds the Mind Stone, which when interfaced with Stark's Ultron global defense protocols, resulted in the world-devastation-minded Ultron A.I. But even Stark never figured out why previous failed attempts to create an interface suddenly succeeded. And remember, Strucker was using the Mind Stone to create A.I. alongside his experiments with Wanda and Pietro.

Consider Ultron's other motivations besides evolving himself to a higher form (an experiment which became the Vision). Ultron deemed humanity not worth saving, a race of inferior beings. So he planned to exterminate them.

That sort of philosophy closely reflects Zola’s Nazi origins.

So this is where it all starts to come together…

Tony Stark and Bruce Banner discover an A.I. in the Mind Stone in Avengers: Age of Ultron

Tony Stark and Bruce Banner discover an A.I. in the Mind Stone in Avengers: Age of Ultron (Image credit: Marvel Studios)

Why Zola and why Wanda?

What if Zola, looking for an escape hatch from the computer databanks, managed to upload himself to the Mind Stone, and it was this version of Zola's mole programming that got extracted and combined with the Stark protocols to create the new entity Ultron?

After all, Ultron was fixated on trying to evolve into a less robotic state and wanted to be uploaded into Vision's body himself. That's a plot straight from comic books. Arnim Zola has often been obsessed with seizing Vision’s synthezoid form and putting his consciousness into it, including in the Vision-centric Avengers A.I. comic book title.

And after the first fight at Avengers Tower, Ultron escapes via the internet immediately to… the Sovokian HYDRA base. Likewise, the Avengers observe that Ultron kills Strucker, who is in their custody, because he "knows something Ultron doesn't want us to know." What that is is never definitively identified - though the clue leads to Ulysses Klaue.

So there was definitively some connective tissue between the Mind Stone and HYDRA when Stark first acquired it. And that connection seems to have been broken by the merge with the Ultron protocols. When the Mind Stone was later interfaced with JARVIS along with a jumpstart from Thor's hammer the Vision was created, who was 'born' immediately worthy of lifting Mjolnir.

This suggests Ultron was a "unique" (Vision's own words) product of the Mind Stone., Tony's protocols, and a third corruptive influence.

So where does this all lead to? 

Wanda and Pietro in Avengers: Age of Ultron

Wanda and Pietro in Avengers: Age of Ultron (Image credit: Marvel Studios)

The endgame

Wanda was given powers by Zola's experiments and was also likely brainwashed with a subconscious trigger, allowing Zola to exert control over her if needed.

Vision's body was ideal for Zola’s needs – a human-like robot that could potentially be controlled by his A.I. mind. However, after Thanos 'killed' Vision, Zola needs to look for another option.

And what could be the next best thing after Vision? A male child of Wanda and the synthezoid.

In WandaVision episode 3 a 'joke' is even made about whether the baby would be human or synthezoid. Maybe Zola is subliminally manipulating Wanda to use her reality-altering powers to create something more human than a robot body but still machine enough that Zola's mind can be uploaded to it. In comic books, Zola has a long history of cloning and genetic experimentation, including rapidly lab-growing his own genetically perfect children.

That last bit was a central plot point in the Captain America comic book story 'Castaway in Dimension Z,' in which Steve Rogers was trapped in an alternate reality of Zola’s making where time and reality worked differently.

art from Captain America vol. 7

art from Captain America vol. 7 (Image credit: Marvel Comics)

And remember, Wanda was 'Snapped' for five years, Pietro is dead (at least the MCU Pietro is dead), the Winter Solider was cured of his Zola brainwashing by Shuri, and the other Winter Soldiers were killed by Zemo in Civil War.

Zola might have had no means to return from wherever else he managed to hide until Wanda was 'Blipped' back.

Very much like Ultron, Zola's comic book M.O. is to always find a way to return to new bodies when his enemies think he's dead or destroyed. And episode 5 has now confirmed the twins are aging rapidly, seemingly at their own whim. And that they're "real." So when Wanda quickly cycles through to the 2020s in a matter of days or weeks, Billy or Tommy or both could be fully adult and ready to be Zola's new body.

And speaking of that sitcom theme, where would a Swiss Nazi scientist living on an American military base have learned what suburban American life was like? And likewise, what might a woman who grew up in war-torn Sokovia envision as the idyllic American dream? Classic American sitcoms. And on that point, it might also be worth noting that Darcy Lewis needs an older model TV to receive WandaVision’s broadcast band – and who but Arnim Zola spent decades housed inside obsolete technology, trying to upgrade?

WandaVision episode 1

image from WandaVision episode 1 (Image credit: Marvel Studios)

The connections are all there – the TV themes, the New Jersey location, Wanda and Vision's MCU history, Zola's familiar comic book and movie schemings. Marvel might have also been playfully teasing us all along. Remember the Strucker watch commercial in Episode 2? Who is famous for making watches? The Swiss. I told ya we'd come back to that one. The commercial even makes a point to say the watch is “Swiss made.” Maybe the commercials are Wanda's suppressed consciousness trying to leave a trail of breadcrumbs.

One way or another, we know WandaVision's final four episodes will likely pack several more surprises and we also know Marvel Studios has become more and more fond of calling back to their history. Marvel's last release before WandaVsion, Spider-Man: Far From Home, included surprise references to characters and plot elements from Iron Man, Civil War, and Captain Marvel, not to mention the original Sam Raimi Spider-Man films.

Marvel's movie history will likely play a significant role in what's still to come in WandaVision. After all, this is already a show that has managed to tie it into Captain Marvel and has brought back Darcy from the first two Thor films and teamed her with a minor character from Ant-Man and the Wasp. And Marvel Studios will welcome back characters like Jane Foster and Sif, General Ross and the Abomination, Harley Keener, and Electro from the Sony Spider-Man films, and perhaps a host more in other future projects. And heck, even Zola's chief comic book antagonist – Captain America – might be coming back too.

So don't be surprised if Zola – the guy who lives in TVs – is the real villain behind the scenes in Marvel Studios' TV-centric first TV show.

Because Zola is almost certainly returning – it's just a matter of at what Marvel-time, on what Marvel-channel.

Find out where Arnim Zola ranks on Newsarama’s list of the 10 best Captain America villains of all time. Want to watch the show? The Disney Plus free trial ended a while back but these Disney Plus bundles and Disney Plus sign-up deals are surprisingly affordable compared to most of the best streaming services.

I'm not just the Newsarama founder and editor-in-chief, I'm also a reader. And that reference is just a little bit older than the beginning of my Newsarama journey. I founded what would become the comic book news site in 1996, and except for a brief sojourn at Marvel Comics as its marketing and communications manager in 2003, I've been writing about new comic book titles, creative changes, and occasionally offering my perspective on important industry events and developments for the 25 years since. Despite many changes to Newsarama, my passion for the medium of comic books and the characters makes the last quarter-century (it's crazy to see that in writing) time spent doing what I love most.