It's official: Tim Blake Nelson is returning as the Leader in Captain America: New World Order in a story that seems to go back to the Leader's original comic book roots as the, well, leader of a secret organization - in this case, the eponymous New World Order.
The Leader originally debuted in his human form of Samuel Sterns in 2008's Incredible Hulk. At the same time, in the lead-up to the Leader's just announced return, She-Hulk: Attorney At Law has been seeding potential clues for his return already, including the mention of a villain who wants her blood.
In comic books, the Leader is one of Bruce Banner's arch-enemies, the Gamma-powered brains to the Hulk's brawn. But She-Hulk has her own comic book history with the Leader, tying into a time when Jennifer Walters lost control over her transformation, becoming a rampaging, savage She-Hulk.
Though we'll have to wait and see if the Leader will indeed make an MCU comeback in She-Hulk ahead of his Captain America: New World Order return, in the meantime, the comic history between Jennifer Walters and Samuel Sterns is already in the books (the comic books, that is), and it's one hell of a ride.
Who is The Leader?
First appearing in 1964's Tales to Astonish #62, the Leader started life as mild-mannered Samuel Sterns, an overnight custodian in a chemical plant, who was of average intelligence and little motivation - until an accidental exposure to Gamma radiation changed his body and mind into something much, much more.
Like Bruce Banner before him, Sterns was transformed by the Gamma radiation, though where Banner's great intellect transformed into the Hulk's brute strength, Stern's mind was elevated to a point of supreme, insatiable intelligence. Likewise, his body transformed along with his mind, taking on the familiar green hue of Gamma radiation, while his cranium grew to an enormous size to accommodate his now-massive brain.
Calling himself "the Leader," Sterns created a ring of spies and secret agents all dedicated to taking over the world and installing him as, well, the Leader. Sterns' Gamma-powered nature meant that he and Bruce Banner quickly gained each others' attention - and the pair's inherent Brains Vs. Brawn nature quickly drew them into a decades-long arch-rivalry that continues to this day.
Over the years, the Leader and Hulk have clashed countless times, with the Leader often changing and evolving his Gamma-powered form, like Bruce Banner. At one point, after helping create the Red Hulk, Sterns even took the form of the Red Leader.
Most recently, Sterns launched his most diabolical plan to destroy the Hulk yet, unlocking the metaphysical power of Gamma radiation and mastering control of life and death itself in the title The Immortal Hulk.
But just before that, the Leader's obsession with the power of Gamma led him into direct conflict with She-Hulk in one of her most formative comic book stories.
How does the Leader connect to She-Hulk?
The Leader's first brush with She-Hulk came when he was put on trial for his crimes after being captured by SHIELD. Sterns was represented by Mallory Book of She-Hulk's firm Goodman, Lieber, Kurtzburg, and Holliway (Book was introduced in episode 3 of She-Hulk, played by Renée Elise Goldsberry), who claimed that Sterns' actions were due to his Gamma radiation poisoning, meaning he wasn't responsible for his crimes.
Leader's android henchmen try to rescue him, but Sterns deactivates them and insists on standing trial for his crimes. He is acquitted thanks to the stunt, which is secretly a ploy to show his innocence.
This echoes the plot of She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, in which Emil Blonsky, the Abomination, is granted parole after insisting on returning to jail when given an opportunity to escape.
But that's not the end of She-Hulk's comic book involvement with the Leader.
Years later, in the 2016 story Civil War II, She-Hulk is gravely injured in a battle with Thanos, leading her to lose control over her She-Hulk form, much like Bruce Banner's classic status quo.
In her own relaunched Hulk title (putting Jennifer Walters in the spotlight as the core Hulk for the first time), Jennifer grapples with the changes to her powers and her traumatic brush with death.
During the story, which leads directly to The Immortal Hulk's exploration of the power of Gamma mutates to resurrect after they are killed, The Leader begins secretly experimenting on a young woman named Professor Robyn Meiser Malt, who envies She-Hulk's strength.
The Leader begins influencing Robyn to steal some of She-Hulk's blood (sound familiar?), eventually leading to another evolution of Jennifer's She-Hulk form, and her return to the ranks of the Avengers.
The Leader in the MCU
The Leader hasn't appeared in the MCU yet … or at least Marvel Studios stopped just short of introducing him. But Sam Sterns has, as a scientist working to help find a cure for Bruce Banner's Hulk transformation in 2008's The Incredible Hulk, played by Tim Blake Nelson.
In what was the second MCU film, Sterns makes a Gamma infusion based on Banner's blood that gives its subjects unstable Gamma powers - which he eventually uses to turn Emil Blonsky into the Abomination.
In the aftermath of Blonsky's transformation, some of the Gamma-irradiated blood seeps into a gash on Sterns' forehead, causing the start of an apparent transformation into the Leader for just a couple of frames … but he hasn't been seen since, with the film never receiving a sequel.
Still, given the Abomination's return and central role in She-Hulk, the previous hints about the special Gamma power of Jennifer Walters' She-Hulk blood, and now the plotline about a mysterious villain trying to get a sample of it, we can't help but be reminded not just of the long lost MCU version of Sam Sterns, but more specifically of the character's shared comic book history with She-Hulk.
There are other possibilities for who the boss might be. There's Jameela Jamil's spurned Titania, there's the super-strength obsessed Power Broker/Sharon Carter, and of course there's Julia Louis-Dreyfus' Countess Valentina Allegra de Fontaine and her forming team of Thunderbolts.
But Sterns even has a comic book connection to the latter, having turned himself into the Red Leader in the pages of Thunderbolts in an era when the Red Hulk was on the team. And given Sterns' own history of creating and imbuing Gamma-powers, as well as his initial introduction as a behind-the-scenes villain working on a conspiracy, perhaps there's something to look for.
And now, with the Leader's return confirmed in Captain America: New World Order, there's all the more reason to look for a potential return in She-Hulk.
The story of Jennifer Walters and the Leader is one of the best She-Hulk stories of all time.