It will have been 16 years since we last saw him, but a notably intelligent threat is set to return to the MCU to show both audiences and Sam Wilson just what he¡¯s capable of. As announced this past weekend at the D23 Expo, Tim Blake Nelson¡¯s Dr. Samuel Sterns will return to the big screen in Captain America: New World Order which is scheduled to debut on May 3, 2024, and Kevin Feige made it clear this time he will truly become his comic book counterpart, known as The Leader.
Nelson — who debuted the character in the second Marvel Cinematic Universe entry, 2008¡¯s The Incredible Hulk — will join Anthony Mackie as Captain America, Danny Ramirez as Joaquin Torres, Carl Lumbly as Isaiah Bradley, and Shira Haas as international spy Sabra. While the details of the first Cap film starring Mackie remain a mystery, the choice to bring back Dr. Sterns might offer a handful of hints.
In 2008¡¯s The?Incredible Hulk, Bruce Banner (then played by Edward Norton) had reached out to Grayburn College cellular biologist Dr. Sterns to help find a cure to his Hulk problem. Sterns managed to get Banner to send him some blood to run tests, but it wasn¡¯t quite enough, so he synthesized more. Sterns ignored the potential dangers, instead pushing forward hoping to find a way to render humanity immune to genetic maladies.
The pair came close to developing an antidote, but Banner and Sterns were interrupted by Emil Blonsky and his crew. After Banner was taken into custody, Blonksy grabbed Sterns and forced him to perform a procedure that would involve Banner¡¯s blood and gamma radiation. This turned the soldier into the Abomination. In the wake of Blonksy¡¯s transformation, some of the Hulk blood dripped into a wound on Sterns¡¯ head. The last shot of the man has his forehead pulsing and a smile creeping across his face.
A comic-based follow-up called The Avengers Prelude: Nick Fury¡¯s Big Week?revealed that Black Widow had been placed undercover on the Grayburn campus by Nick Fury. There, she encountered a large-headed Sterns, shot him in the leg, and brought him into S.H.I.E.L.D. custody where he was placed into some kind of stasis tube. However, since the comic tie-ins do not seem to be as important continuity-wise, New World Order‘s Malcolm Spellman and Dalan Musson may not be using that as part of the established continuity and might build a very different story for Sterns in the wake of The?Incredible Hulk.
Brains Over Brawn
The movie version of Sterns clearly played an important part in the story and Bruce Banner¡¯s life, but that character has a much different history in the comics. He debuted in 1964¡¯s Tales To Astonish #62 as a masked figure intent on stealing Bruce Banner¡¯s nuclear secrets. At the time, Banner was still running around hoping that no one would find out he was the Hulk even though he worked for the government agents that were hunting his alter ego. When his plans were foiled by the Hulk, the Leader became obsessed with destroying the brute.
Readers learned that Sterns had been working as a janitor in a chemical research plant when a gamma ray cylinder exploded. Instead of gaining great physical strength like the Hulk, he found that his capacity for knowledge had grown to massive levels. Samuel also experienced a physical change as his skin turned green and his forehead expanded to hold his gamma-powered brain! From there, he established his own global spy ring dedicated to taking over the government. Those plans fell apart, though, when he became preoccupied with the Hulk.
On several occasions, the Leader has implemented incredibly long-term plans to destroy the Hulk. In a story that began in 2001 by writer Bruce Jones, the villain worked from behind the scenes to grind the Hulk down in an effort to transfer his own mind into the Jade Giant¡¯s body. Along the way, Sterns framed Hulk for the murder of a child and even brought his dead wife Betty back to life through cloning.
Another time, it was revealed that the Leader had been secretly working with a group of super-smart villains for years called the Intelligencia. Together, they figured out a way to mix gamma radiation with cosmic energy to turn many of Banner¡¯s friends and enemies into Hulk-like creatures, including his best friend Rick Jones, his ex-wife Betty, and even his constant tormentor General Thunderbolt Ross.
Many might be wondering exactly how or why a prominent Hulk villain will be showcased in a Captain America film. Director Julius Onah commented about the film being a paranoid thriller that will put the new Cap through the wringer, thanks to this villain with a vast intellect. He added that the grounded nature of the film will feel all the more real because of who the Leader is.
With that in mind, it sounds as if the film will mirror the many comic stories in which the villain is working with a network of agents to either take power (hence the name) or defeat a particular hero. In both comics and real life we have seen the angry and disenfranchised join together and do very bad things for what they saw as a just cause. That was the whole point behind the Flag Smasher¡¯s plans in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. The Leader may be able to pick up where she left off and use the Flag Smashers for his own nefarious purposes.
The MCU Brain Drain
It would be great to see the Intelligencia make its way into the Marvel Cinematic Universe at some point, but might be difficult to assemble them right now because none of the characters have appeared yet. Most of them are Fantastic Four villains, including Dr. Doom, Wizard, Mad Thinker, and Red Ghost. Egghead did appear briefly in Ant-Man and the Wasp, though he went by his more conventional name Elihas Starr, while M.O.D.O.K. will be making his MCU debut in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.
This actually points to one major difference between the Marvel Comic Universe and the Marvel Cinematic one: a lack of genius-level villains in the latter. Many of the best and brightest of that ilk came from the Fantastic Four comic because Stan Lee and Jack Kirby knew they needed to pit the big brain of Reed Richards against equally brilliant threats from time to time. Also, while the comics have thrived on keeping their villains around, the films have killed many off along the way. Heck, even Egghead died — or appeared to — in his one film appearance!
While one could argue others, such as Thanos, stand above by being ruthless or cunning, in terms of pure intelligence, the Leader’s return marks him as likely the most outright brilliant villain in the MCU, at least for now. Don¡¯t forget that Fantastic Four is scheduled for a November 8, 2024 release, so perhaps the Leader will have the chance to team up with some of his other super-genius villainous peers down the line.
Other Possible Connections
For years, The Incredible Hulk was all but ignored by the rest of the MCU. Sure, Banner returned in The Avengers, but he was now played by Mark Ruffalo, and beyond a quick mention that he “broke Harlem,” no specifics were given to his past to line up with that prior appearance. However, with Captain America: Civil War, William Hurt returned as General Ross and went on to also appear in Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame, and Black Widow before Hurt passed away. Even more recently, the primary villain of The Incredible Hulk, the Abomination, appeared briefly in?Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings?before a more substantial recurring role in?She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, with Tim Roth once more reprising his role. That move may have set the stage for two of Hulk¡¯s greatest enemies — The Leader and Abomination — to join forces and face off against him at some point down the line.
Speaking of She-Hulk, there was a story in one of her books where the Leader got off for his crimes because his lawyer — a colleague of Jen Walters — argued that he wasn¡¯t responsible after being transformed by the gamma exposure. Interestingly, in the MCU, Jen herself has now played a role in freeing Abomination. Could she end up also giving legal help to another of her cousin’s enemies?
At one point in the comics, the Leader also joined up with General Ross¡¯s Thunderbolts and became the Red Leader. Though he worked alongside the likes of Punisher, Deadpool, and Elektra?on that team, the villain still had his own agenda. It might seem unlikely that the Leader would get drafted into the Thunderbolts so quickly, but it is worth noting that that film comes out after New World Order.
Regardless of who he goes up against or works with, the Leader will elevate the villains of the MCU above the scheming, the vengeful, and the maniacal to true evil genius territory.