It's quite easy to overlook 2008's The Incredible Hulk, due to some dodgy writing and even dodgier CGI. It's also quite easy to forget that it is actually a part of the #Marvel Cinematic Universe, the second movie of the franchise to be released, coming only a month after Iron Man.
There's a number of reasons for this, firstly it stars Edward Norton as Bruce Banner, not Mark Ruffalo who we have come to know as our MCU #Hulk. Secondly, though it was produced by Marvel Studios, The Incredible Hulk was distributed by Universal Pictures, who still hold the rights to the Hulk character.
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Because of this, Hulk is yet to get another solo outing, and it's doubtful that he ever will. Since Universal still holds distribution rights for the character, they will make a profit out of any Hulk movie Marvel makes. This also explains why Thor: Ragnarok is pretty much Planet Hulk but featuring more Thor (Chris Hemsworth).
Indeed the only strong connection The Incredible Hulk has to the wider #MCU is the fact that William Hurt reprises his Hulk role as General Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross later down the line in Captain America: Civil War. Aside from that, we've seen neither hide nor hair of Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) since, and only fleeting references to the events of the movie. You don't miss a lot by not knowing the movie inside out, but did you miss the hidden villain?
Samuel Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson) appears toward the climax point of The Incredible Hulk. In case you've forgotten, he's the mysterious "Mr. Blue" with whom Banner has been corresponding on a mission to find a cure for his big green side.
In the MCU, Sterns is a cellular biologist who creates a possible cure for Banner, but fails. He is later forced to pump Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) full of Banner's blood, which combines with the super soldier serum in Blonsky's blood to turn him into Abomination. Blonsky attacks Sterns, and in the process some of Banner's blood gets into a cut on Sterns's forehead. As Blonsky leaves him lying on the floor, we see him begin to mutate.
In the comics, Sterns is better known as the Leader, a green-skinned, bulbous-headed Hulk villain. The comic book Sterns was a janitor who was exposed to gamma radiation. The radiation mutated him and made him into a super-intelligent being with green skin and an oversized forehead. He gave himself the name the Leader, and turned to a life of crime alongside an artificial army he created called the Humanoids.
So why is this important? Surely it's just a throwaway Easter Egg to delight comic book fans? Well, it could be. But the fact that this event is never referenced again nor followed up upon on screen is a little suspicious. Could The Incredible Hulk have set him up to return far down the line, when we've forgotten about him?
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Indeed, one Infinity War theory follows that Thanos will appear alongside a multitude of other villains from the Marvel canon, similar to the "evil" doppelgänger army that he creates during the Infinity War comic book. We've previously discussed the idea that major Captain America villain Red Skull is likely to pop up again somewhere along the line (possibly in Infinity War) so it's not impossible that the Leader might too.
Bringing him back would also help with another thing: the fact that both #BruceBanner and Hulk really need more character development. Likely we'll see a lot of this in Ragnarok, but bringing back a figure from Banner's past could prove very affective, especially as it is his blood that is responsible for Sterns's mutation.
So where is the Leader now? The Avengers Prelude comics Fury's Big Week revealed that at the time of 2012's The Avengers Sterns was in S.H.I.E.L.D. custody under the codename "Project: Mr. Blue," having been found and incarcerated by Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow.
The #comicbooks confirmed both that Sterns was alive, and that his mutation had expanded his brain power and mutated his cranium. And with the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D. a couple of years later in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the mass breakouts of S.H.I.E.L.D. prisoners we saw in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., it wouldn't be a big surprise for the Leader to crop up again somewhere down the line.
At the end of the day, only one thing is for certain: The Leader is still alive out there in the MCU, and most likely has a bone to pick with Bruce Banner. The knowing smile that creeps over his face as his head begins to transform in The Incredible Hulk is telling, like it's all the beginning of some grander plan. So keep your eyes on the big green one, we have the feeling that the smaller green one isn't done with him yet.
Do you think the Leader will ever return to the MCU? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!