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What Happened To Arnim Zola In The Marvel Cinematic Universe?

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has taken a number of iconic villains from the pages of the comics to the silver screen since "Iron Man" kicked things off back in 2008. As more Avengers join the ranks of Earth's Mightiest Heroes, more villains come flooding out of the woodwork. Vision (Paul Bettany) puts it best in "Captain America: Civil War": "Our very strength incites challenge. Challenge incites conflict. And conflict ... breeds catastrophe." The paranoid synthezoid has a very good point — the Avengers are a beacon to all would-be villains to step right up and take a swing. But some villains actually have a huge hand in forging some of the heroes themselves.

Yes, Captain America (Chris Evans) is born thanks to his own heroic spirit and selfless personality, but it takes a long time for Bucky Barnes, aka the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), to use his enhanced abilities alongside the Avengers rather than against them. He would never have become a superpowered hero without the experiments done on him by the Soviet Union and Hydra after "Captain America: The First Avenger." In fact, a minor villain from that film had a huge hand in forging Bucky into the Winter Soldier: Arnim Zola (Toby Jones).

The Hydra scientist might not be the most terrifying villain in the MCU, but he has a fascinating journey through his brief appearances in "Captain America: The First Avenger" and "Captain America: The Winter Soldier."

Arnim Zola joined SHIELD after World War II

In the aftermath of World War II, the U.S. government created Operation Paperclip, which recruited around 1,600 Nazi scientists from post-war Europe (via History.com). This also took place in the MCU, and Arnim Zola was one of those scientists who moved to the U.S. after World War II and joined SHIELD.

As revealed in "The Winter Soldier," Zola worked with other former Hydra agents to keep the sinister organization alive as "a beautiful parasite inside SHIELD." Yikes. He also worked closely with Howard Stark (John Slattery) in the 1970s underneath the U.S. Army base Camp Lehigh. We know this because, in "Avengers: Endgame," the Stark Industries founder walks in looking for Zola while Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is attempting to steal the Tesseract during the Time Heist sequence.

An Easter egg even proves that Zola is already experimenting with digital consciousness before his "terminal diagnosis" in 1972 — a green computer screen can be spotted in the background. As longtime fans will know, no one ever really dies in the comics because there's always a bizarre way they can be resurrected or were secretly saved from death.

He transferred his brain into a computer

When you're a member of an evil Nazi splinter group like Hydra, death isn't the end. In 1972, Zola manages to transfer his brain onto 200,000 feet of data banks underneath Camp Lehigh — where he helps secretly mastermind Hydra's plans to destabilize the world. In the comics, Zola transfers his digital self into a robotic body, so this is just the realistic adaptation of his classic purple and gold look (via Marvel).

It's here that Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, and Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), find Zola when they track the data from the USB stick that Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) gives to Steve. The scientist is the one who wrote the Project Insight algorithm, which would target anyone Hydra deems a potential threat. Basically, he created a program for executing mass genocide. Double yikes.

Unfortunately, the digital villain reveals all this information to Steve and Natasha as a way of stalling so that they would still be there when the missile sent by SHIELD to blow up Camp Lehigh makes its landing. Obviously, this missile incinerates Zola's data banks, effectively killing the Hydra villain for good. Zola's death would've been a worthy sacrifice for secret bad guy Director Pierce (Robert Redford) if Captain America and Black Widow had also died in the blast — but luckily, they survived.

That's the last time fans see Arnim Zola in the MCU. But what's the golden rule of storing your data? Always have a backup.

He may be in Siberia

Hold on to your timelines, people. We're diving into Multiverse territory here. "What If...?" might reveal where Zola could show up next since the villain has a brief role in the animated Disney+ series. Episode 8, "What If... Ultron won?," imagines how things would've played out if the villainous A.I. had managed to transfer himself into Vision's (Paul Bettany) synthezoid body in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." He winds up detonating Earth's nuclear weapons, leaving Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Lake Bell) as the only surviving Avengers.

Romanoff reveals that Zola has a backup version of himself stored in Siberia, where he could oversee the Winter Soldier program that gave birth to Bucky Barnes — and that they could use him to delete Ultron (Ross Marquand) entirely. Yes, this takes place in a different reality than the one in the main MCU, but clearly, there's potential for Arnim Zola to return somewhere down the line. Remember, we've already seen the Siberian base at the end of 2016's "Civil War." If Toby Jones is keen to explore Zola a little more, perhaps he could return in Anthony Mackie's "Captain America 4," which is currently in the works at Marvel Studios.