Could ‘She-Hulk’ bring back a long-forgotten MCU villain?

A still of Tatiana Maslany from ‘She-Hulk, Attorney at Law”
Image via Marvel Studios

She-Hulk: Attorney at Law is right around the corner, with the latest Marvel series to hit Disney Plus introducing Jennifer Walters to the MCU. Fans have been waiting to see her appear in the franchise for years, especially as the Hulk side of the MCU has been mostly underexplored ever since 2008’s The Incredible Hulk.

Thankfully, She-Hulk will be doing its best to make up for that with Tatiana Maslany’s Shulkie joined by her more famous cousin, Bruce Banner, with Mark Ruffalo playing a key supporting role as Jen’s mentor in all things Hulk. What’s more, Tim Roth is back as Emil Blonsky/Abomination, his first proper return to the role since Incredible Hulk, although the villain briefly cameoed in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

In many ways, then, She-Hulk is something of a backdoor sequel to the aforementioned Edward Norton movie. That’s got us wondering: could another long-forgotten Marvel villain return in the series, thereby answering one of the MCU’s oldest unanswered questions in the process?

Remember Samuel Sterns?

leader incredible hulk
Image via Universal/Marvel Studios

Cast your minds back to The Incredible Hulk, and you may recall Dr. Samuel Sterns, played by Tim Blake Nelson. In that 2008 film, Bruce Banner is working with Sterns, a cellular biologist based in Harlem, in an attempt to find a cure for his “condition.” He succeeds in producing a temporary cure for the Hulk, but Sterns is then captured by General Ross and forced to transform Blonsky into the Abomination.

The last time we saw Sterns was after Abomination escaped from his lab. The monster knocked over a vial of Banner’s blood, which hit an open wound on Sterns’ forehead. His cranium began to swell in size while the scientist grinned.

For those in the know, this was an obvious setup for Sterns to transform into his own villainous alter ego from the comics, the Leader. Recognizable for his green skin and bulbous head, he is classified as one of the most intelligent people in Marvel Comics and stands as one of the Hulk’s arch-enemies.

When it comes to the MCU, the Leader’s been a no-show, but could She-Hulk finally bring him back?

Could the Leader also return?

She-hulk attorney at law takes a photo with a phone
Image via Marvel Studios

It was certainly Marvel’s original intention for the Leader to reappear. Nelson has previously revealed that he signed on under the belief that he’d appear in a full Incredible Hulk trilogy. Once Marvel Studios moved to Disney, however, any further collaborations with Universal, who own the distribution rights to any Hulk solo films, couldn’t move forward.

The She-Hulk streaming series may be Marvel’s clever way of getting around the Hulk’s solo movie ban, which may have been quietly sorted out anyway, though Kevin Feige has yet to confirm this. While the show will obviously be Jen’s story and will introduce a new foe in Jameela Jamil’s Titania, there’s still room for crossovers, like Charlie Cox’s return as Daredevil.

It’s not impossible that some kind of callback to the Leader could feature in the series, be it a sneaky cameo for Blake or just a verbal reference that finally tells us what happened to him after Incredible Hulk. Fans have often theorized that Sterns could feature in the upcoming Thunderbolts movie, maybe even as its villain. A brief nod in She-Hulk could go a long way to reminding folks who he is, secretly establishing his role in Thunderbolts.

To date, this is all just speculation, but Tim Blake Nelson — a hugely prolific performer, also known as Looking Glass in HBO Max’s Watchmen — is a great actor that Marvel wasted in its first phase, so we would welcome more from the Leader.

As the MCU grows ever outward, it’s also ironically looking to its past more frequently, so the concept of Sterns slipping back into the franchise is a lot more plausible than it used to be. We’ll find out what She-Hulk: Attorney at Law has in store as it unfolds its nine-part first season on Disney Plus on Aug. 18.