Perhaps the most unexpected development to come out of D23’s Marvel panel was the reveal that Tim Blake Nelson would return as Samuel Sterns for Captain America: New World Order. Better known as “The Leader”, Sterns is traditionally a Hulk villain, and hasn’t been seen since he made his Marvel Cinematic Universe debut in The Incredible Hulk over a decade ago. Tim Roth‘s surprising comeback as Emil Blonsky in She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, another famous Hulk baddie thought to be forgotten by Marvel Studios, had given fans hope that Nelson may also show his face again, but nobody seemed to suspect that Captain America would be the franchise he’d do it in. Now that it’s confirmed to be the case, the casting begs a very serious question – why would The Leader be the main antagonist in a Captain America movie?
Rumors swirled for a long time that Marvel had plans to revive the Hulk franchise with an adaptation of either World War Hulk or World War Hulks, two very different comic arcs with very similar names. A recent episode of She-Hulk sent Mark Ruffalo‘s Bruce Banner back to space and gave credence to the former title, in which the untimely destruction of Sakaar leads the Hulk to wage all-out war on Earth and its heroes, but the unveiling of Leader’s looming threat at D23 implies the MCU might secretly be on track to adapt the latter. The villain has a long history of attempting to manipulate gamma radiation as a means of molding the future in his image, and World War Hulks is one of his best efforts. As part of a supervillain group known as the “Intelligencia”, essentially the evil version of the Illuminati, Sterns plotted to create an army of Hulks that would help him and his cohorts take over the world. Although the phrase “New World Order ” is typically used when discussing much deeper, more political topics – something it would make sense for a Captain America film to cover – it is possible that Marvel Studios is using the name as a minor misdirect. In fact, it might actually make more sense if the New World Order in question is actually The Leader’s vision for his own personal Gamma World.
With a threat that large in scale, it would also stand to reason that The Leader’s plan does not unfold in its entirety in just one project. More likely than not, it plays out across multiple projects in the next couple of years, making Tim Blake Nelson a quiet connective tissue between Marvel’s fourth and fifth phases. To help explain this idea, it might be best to break the theory down by project:
She-Hulk: Attorney at Law
At this point, what happens for the remainder of She-Hulk is anyone’s guess. Over the course of several episodes, the series has widened the window on how fans can view the MCU and raised its fair share of questions regarding the franchise’s future. Among the many ponderings, however, lies one untied thread that nobody seems to be talking about. In the pilot, Bruce makes a pretty big deal about the dangers of his blood and the blood of Tatiana Maslany‘s Jen Walters falling into the wrong hands. After all, they’re both Hulks, and the wrong person gaining access to their irradiated blood could lead to an awful lot of unfortunate shenanigans. A few episodes later, a group of hired goons, the MCU’s version of The Wrecking Crew, brought the matter up again when they tried their best to beat down and steal some of Jen’s blood. They were not successful, on account of She-Hulk’s skin being too difficult to pierce, but the attempt revealed there is truly someone out there who wants that gamma-laden plasma.
The identity of the person who hired The Wrecking Crew could end up being anybody, but now that The Leader is definitely on his way back to the spotlight, it seems more and more likely that he’s the one up to his old comic book ways. If this is the case, one has to wonder why he wants the DNA and how he would use it. Bruce explicitly says that the most terrifying outcome would be more Hulks in the world, specifically ones that won’t use their powerful abilities for the sake of good, so that seems like a pretty logical next step in The Leader’s grand scheme. Perhaps he’ll even play a major role in the She-Hulk finale, making a big play and stepping out from behind the curtain at the eleventh hour. There is a comic arc in which Mallory Book, played by Renee Elise Goldsberry in the show, represents Sterns in court and successfully argues that he is not responsible for his crimes because his exposure to gamma radiation forcibly altered his personality. Maybe Attorney at Law adapts this as a final case, with Sterns using the scenario to get closer to Jen and ultimately snag some of her blood. His first test subjects could even be The Wrecking Crew, who, in some sort of post-credits scene, finally grow to match their size in the pages of Marvel comics.
Captain America: New World Order
With his new Hulk drug ready to be dispersed, The Leader will need someone who is able to push it around the globe. Luckily for him, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier reintroduced audiences to someone who specializes in exactly that. Emily VanCamp‘s Sharon Carter, now known to criminal syndicates as The Power Broker, was last seen planning to use her newfound government position as a means of stealing high-level weapons and secrets to supply her nefarious underground business dealings. Whether The Leader is caught in She-Hulk or not, it stands to reason that she would have full access to whatever drug Sterns creates with Walters’ blood. In partnering with her, The Leader would have a means of sending gamma around the world without having to craft some sort of massive gamma dome in the middle of the desert, as he does at one point in the comics and in a multi-episode arc on Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.
Carter’s involvement in The Leader’s plot is enough by itself to get Sam Wilson’s attention, but as the MCU’s new Captain America, it will probably be the random denizens of Earth transforming rapidly into Hulk-like creatures that draws him to the scene. If Sterns’ plan is enacted fully, it would mean a threat on a global scale that Wilson probably can’t handle on his own. Though the Avengers supposedly no longer exist following Avengers: Endgame, there are plenty of heroes who could come to Captain America’s aid in this time of The Leader’s “new world order” (of Hulks). Danny Ramirez has already been confirmed to return as Joaquin Torres, likely the new Falcon by this point, alongside Shira Haas‘ Sabra, in addition to any number of surprise appearances that could come to fruition between now and the time filming begins. New World Order would then follow in the footsteps of Civil War, acting as a miniature Avengers film that tests Sam Wilson’s mettle as a team leader for the first time. Granted, Wilson doesn’t really need this sort of test, but that seems to be the way the MCU is handling his tenure as Cap, and so it fits with the theory.
As for Bruce Banner, and how he aligns with everything, that remains a slightly bigger question mark. There are a few options, now that he’s in space. The Leader could have orchestrated a false Sakaarian situation to get him off-planet before he put his plan into action, as Sterns probably sees Banner as the biggest threat to his success, or Banner could really now be the father to Skaar, his half-Sakaarian son who played a big role in the World War Hulks story in the comics. At some point, the duo could return and join in the effort to put down Sterns or be saved for a separate project entirely. The details get a little messy here, but the general theory sentient remains – New World Order is about The Leader turning everyone into Hulks, with the first part playing as a thriller where Sam and his crew try to stop the spread of Gamma drugs, and the second part as an all-out World War Hulks adaptation that forces Sam Wilson to embrace his role as Earth’s Mightiest Hero.
It was said on stage at D23 that Thunderbolts exists because the word needs a team it can “trust” by the end of Phase 5. Secret Invasion probably plays a big role in this, but New World Order might too. Even if The Leader is taken down, he could still have done some irreparable damage to the world that the Avengers are partially blamed for, or at the very least, his actions might have proven that the world still needs a team of superheroes on its side. In the comics, after the fall of the Intelligencia, a captive Sterns is taken into the custody of General Thaddeus Ross’ Red Hulk and his newly formed team of Thunderbolts. Soon after, he is killed by The Punisher, who is a member of that team and still horrified by The Leader’s actions in World War Hulks. It’s possible something similar plays out in the MCU, with Sebastian Stan‘s Bucky Barnes taking the Punisher’s role after learning what The Leader did to his friend, Sam Wilson. As for why The Leader would be in the custody of the Thunderbolts in the MCU, that’s an entirely different theory.
If the Intelligencia is at all involved in New World Order, the line-up would have to be altered slightly to make sense. There’s a chance that Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, played by the incomparable Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, is in that group, and manipulates her way to controlling Sterns while she forms her own government-sponsored superteam. Basically, she would take the place of the comics’ General Ross, whose actor, William Hurt, passed away earlier this year. In that position, she could force Sterns to use his gamma drug to turn her into a Hulk herself, much in the same way Ross made Sterns and M.O.D.O.K. transform him into the Red Hulk during World War Hulks, so that she may have her own bit of power and act as the Thunderbolts’ muscle, something fans noted was missing from the line-up when it was revealed at D23. The source material has Betty Ross becoming the Red She-Hulk, but it doesn’t look like Liv Tyler will be returning to the MCU anytime soon, so it might make more sense if Val becomes an amalgam of a few characters and takes that spot to simplify things.
With that, the theory is just about summed up. It’s completely feasible that The Leader is planned to be the sub-villain of Phase 5, connecting several projects and bringing Hulks back to the forefront of Marvel lore by bringing World War Hulks to the fourth Captain America film. It’s not clear why Marvel would go this route instead of giving Banner another solo film unless the rights issue with Universal is still an ongoing problem. Either way, it’s an option, and one you heard here first.