The Leader
The Leader (Samuel Sterns).jpg
Variant cover art of Skaar: Son of Hulk #6 (Dec. 2008, Marvel Comics), art by Francis Tsai
Publication information
PublisherMarvel Comics
First appearanceTales to Astonish #62 (December 1964)
Created byStan Lee (writer)
Steve Ditko (artist)
In-story information
Alter egoSamuel Sterns
SpeciesDepowered human mutate
Team affiliationsIntelligencia
Freehold/New Freehold
Riot Squad
Lethal Legion
Notable aliasesThe Red Leader[1]
AbilitiesNone; formerly
  • Superhuman intelligence
  • Telekinesis
  • Telepathy
  • Gamma ray manipulation
  • Self-resurrection

The Leader (Samuel Sterns) is a fictional supervillain character appearing in American comic books published by Marvel Comics. The Leader first appeared in Tales to Astonish #62, created by writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko as the archenemy of the Hulk.[2][3] He has mainly appeared in Hulk-related comic books over the years and was one of the featured characters in the Marvel NOW! Thunderbolts relaunch.

Sterns worked as a janitor in Boise, Idaho when he was exposed to gamma radiation. The radiation mutated him into a green-skinned, super-intelligent entity who named himself the Leader, embarking on a career of crime. He is repeatedly foiled by the Hulk, who overcomes all of the Leader's schemes as well as his artificial henchmen known as the Humanoids. Sterns would later be further transformed, causing his cranium to change into the shape of an oversized brain. As part of the Intelligencia, he is an integral part of the Hulked Out Heroes storyline.

The character has been adapted from the comics into various forms of media, including television series and video games. Samuel Sterns made his cinematic debut in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) film The Incredible Hulk (2008), portrayed by Tim Blake Nelson, and will return in Captain America: New World Order (2024). In 2009, the Leader was ranked as IGN's 63rd Greatest Comic Book Villain of All Time.[4]

Publication history

This section needs expansion. You can help by adding to it. (March 2015)

The character first appeared in Tales to Astonish #62[5] (December 1964), and was created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.

Fictional character biography

This section may be too long to read and navigate comfortably. Please consider splitting content into sub-articles, condensing it, or adding subheadings. Please discuss this issue on the article's talk page. (October 2020)

Born Samuel Sterns in Boise, Idaho, he worked for a chemical plant in a menial capacity. While moving radioactive materials into an underground storage area, some of the radioactive materials exploded, bombarding Sterns with gamma radiation. He recovers, and finds that the radiation has changed him from an ordinary human into a green-skinned, super-intelligent entity with an oversized brain housed in a towering cranium.[6][7] As is the case with most individuals mutated by gamma radiation early-on, the particular set of characteristics Sterns acquired by exposure to it were said to result from a subconscious desire; in his case, the desire to be as smart as his brother Philip, who was a physicist in the employ of the same facility. Calling himself the Leader, Sterns embarks on various ambitious criminal schemes, with the Hulk as his primary nemesis, consistently backed by a self-constructed army of super-strong, virtually invulnerable plastic-skinned Humanoids.[8]

The Leader creates a spy ring to overthrow the United States federal government. He sends a spy to steal a robot Dr. Bruce Banner was developing. The Hulk defeats the spy, after which the Leader dispatches the Chameleon to find out why the spy has failed to report back.[9] Though the Chameleon is similarly defeated, he informs the Leader of another invention by Banner, a radiation-absorbing device named the Absorbatron. The Leader sends a Humanoid to steal the device. The Humanoid is stopped by the Hulk, who the Leader sees for the first time through his Humanoid's eyes. He deduces that the Hulk is a creation of gamma radiation like himself, and becomes immediately obsessed with learning more about him.[6] Thus, though he sends out a horde of Humanoids to seize the Absorbatron while it is being tested on a deserted island, when the Hulk is sighted there he focuses on capturing him instead, now convinced that the two of them are "fated to become allies". However, the Hulk is unwittingly saved from capture by U.S. Army troops.[10] A third attempt at stealing the Absorbatron is successful, and the Hulk is delivered into the Leader's hands at the same time. However, while the Leader is still scientifically studying him, the Hulk breaks free and proves impossible to reason with. He destroys the Absorbatron, forcing the Leader's retreat.[11] Later, when the army corners the Hulk, the Leader rescues him, and the two become uneasy allies.[12] The Leader operates on the Hulk to remove what would have been a fatal bullet in his skull, and further enhances his strength with a shower of gamma rays. The two of them team up to steal the Watcher's "Ultimate Machine", a device containing all the knowledge in the universe.[13] Rather than stop them directly, the Watcher implants within the device an image so horrifying that using it causes the Leader to collapse dead from sheer terror.[14]

One of the Leader's Humanoids revives him,[15] and he resurfaces after months of hiding to offer General Ross aid in neutralizing the Hulk, containing him within a cage of plastithene.[15] However, Betty Ross overhears the Leader gloating to himself about his real plan: to take over the base and use its nuclear missiles to set off a nuclear war, thus annihilating most of humanity and making it easy for him to take over. She frees the Hulk, who stops the Leader's plan.[16] Soon after, the Leader hijacks the U.S. Army's Murder Module vehicle, but it is then destroyed by the Hulk.[17] As revenge, he interrupts the wedding of Banner (the Hulk's alter ego) and Ross by shooting Banner with a ray which restores the Hulk's savage state.[18]

The Leader sends the Glob to attack the Hulk,[19] and attempts to use military technology to beset the Hulk with three-dimensional projections of his enemies.[20] The Leader later tries to take over the government by replacing the President and Vice President with android duplicates.[21] He briefly brainwashes the Rhino into battling the Hulk,[22] and later uses the Hulk and the Thing as pawns in a contest with Kurrgo and his robot to see who would get to use Hulk in their respective plans. Both of them are defeated and Kurrgo's starship is destroyed.[23]

Some time later, the Leader briefly takes over Gamma Base.[24] He then gamma-irradiated Manhattan's water supply in an attempt to mutate humanity into green-skinned beings like himself.[25] He later activated Arsenal, and then dispatched the Avengers through time.[26]

Eventually, the Leader's mutation destabilizes and he reverts to the form of Samuel Sterns. He convinces the Gray Hulk to transfer the gamma radiation from the recently Hulk-like Rick Jones into himself, and the Leader is restored with a new appearance and a psychic link to Rick.[27] The Leader subsequently creates Rock and Redeemer,[28] using them to engage in a scheme to detonate a gamma bomb in a small-town city, Middletown, Arizona, killing over 5,000 people. The few, now enhanced, survivors provide him with valuable research subjects and a group of superhuman enforcers called the Riot Squad.[29] With their help, he builds a self-sufficient society called Freehold in the Arctic, populated with civilians dying from radiation poisoning. When the Leader's brother Philip Sterns becomes Madman, the Leader deems him a threat and sends the Hulk to eliminate him.[30]

When Freehold is targeted by HYDRA, the Leader sends his followers to invade the covert Pantheon organization and coerce them into aiding Freehold. To the Hulk's anger, the Leader and the Pantheon's head Agamemnon ultimately form an alliance. At the same time, the Leader is experiencing Rick's grief over the recent death of his girlfriend Marlo Chandler. The Leader offers to revive Marlo by using the power of his follower Soul Man, hoping to use Rick as a pawn against the Hulk and taking the opportunity to analyze Soul Man's power in a bid to achieve immortality.[31] Marlo's revival is interrupted by a two-pronged attack on Freehold by the Hulk and HYDRA, and the Leader is apparently killed in the crossfire.[32]

The now-incorporeal Leader controls his follower Omnibus and attempts to throw the world into a state of war. Omnibus is eventually exposed by his fellow Freehold citizens, exiled into the Arctic, and was eaten by a polar bear.[33] When Banner is dying from ALS, the Hulk is summoned by the Leader, who had created a new body from various organic materials. The Leader tells the Hulk that he is preparing to transcend the mortal plane, and he grants the Hulk the cure to Banner's condition in exchange for the Hulk bearing witness to his ascension. However, the Leader's body explodes at a crucial juncture. Later, Banner mentally hears the Leader begging him for help, having apparently made a grave mistake. The Leader is ultimately abandoned by Banner, who is unable to help.[34]

The Leader survived once more as a large disembodied head in a tank within a hidden California base. Planning to create a new body from the Hulk's DNA, the Leader established the clandestine organization Home Base and dispatched agents to pursue the Hulk after framing him for the death of a young boy. In the end, after all his other agendas had failed, the Leader finally managed to mind-control the Hulk and guided him towards his secret base, with the intention of taking his indestructible body for himself. Because of intervention by Nadia Blonsky, Betty Ross, Doc Samson, and Iron Man, the plan failed and the Leader died again.[35]

After the Leader regains his body through unknown means, he is captured by S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Hulkbusters and brought to trial for his crimes. His attorney, Mallory Book, convinces the jury that the Leader was not responsible for his actions since gamma exposure had forcibly changed his personality, and he is found not guilty.[36] Following the Warbound's assault on New York, the Leader teleported them to Nevada. There, he used Hiroim of the Warbound, harnessing his tectonic power to activate a gamma powered shield over a portion of the desert. It is revealed that the Leader is dying, and that he constructed the dome to cure him. Due to a miscalculation, the energy of the dome actually kills him faster.[37] In battle with the Warbound, the Leader is stabbed through the chest with an iron pipe. The Leader then absorbed the power of the dome, turning himself into a gray-skinned giant. Hiroim also absorbed the power and battled the Leader, draining both of their powers. In death, Hiroim channels his old power into Kate Waynseboro, who attacks the Leader, and forces him to teleport away.[38]

The Leader, apparently healthy and in the form he originally had, appears once again, this time with designs on the Hulk's son Skaar. It is eventually revealed that he, along with a select group of genius supervillains, is part of a longtime collaboration he calls the Intelligencia.[39] The Leader was also responsible for mutating Marlo Chandler into the second Harpy. During that time, he planned revenge on Kate Waynesboro.[40]

At the conclusion of the Red Hulk storyline, a newly rejuvenated Red Hulk approaches the Leader and gets close enough to him to completely drain the body-altering gamma radiation from the Leader's physiology. The Red Hulk does this as a punishment for the Leader's altering of Ross's/the Red Hulk's daughter into the Red She-Hulk. The Red Hulk leaves Sterns alive to suffer, reminding him that as the person he has been reverted to with his original, well below-average intelligence, Sterns will never be able to duplicate a gamma-infusion and restore his powers as the least not on his own.[41]

A powerless Leader is later seen in custody demanding "gamma" (the one thing no one is willing to give him) if he was to divulge any information on stopping the Intelligencia's fail-safe doomsday plans.[42]

At the end of the second issue of the new Thunderbolts series as part of the Marvel NOW! event, a powerless Samuel Sterns is seen apparently housed within a shipping container. His head is connected to a machine apparently emitting red gamma radiation (in the fashion of the Red Hulk) with the harness in the shape of the Leader's formerly tall head. Samuel Sterns is apparently in the custody of the Red Hulk.[43] During the third issue, Samuel Sterns has reddish-hued skin, but with no apparent powers. Once Deadpool sees that the Red Hulk is employing Samuel Sterns, he expresses his view that the Punisher will not be pleased. As soon as the Punisher sees Samuel Sterns, he shoots him right between the eyes, killing him and foiling the Red Hulk's plan.[44] During the fight against the Madman, the Red Hulk took him to a pipeline that feeds gamma energy to the Madman's lab.[45] The Red Hulk then absorbed the energy himself and then force-fed it to the Leader, bringing him back to life.[46] The Leader then joins the Thunderbolts under the new alias the Red Leader. The Red Leader then realized that his brother, the Madman, had tricked him into divulging where he hid his second brain and the algorithm hiding it—it was on the Internet. After gaining back his memory and intellect, he then whispers something into his brother's ears that causes him to die.[1]

The Red Leader then tricks the Thunderbolts into taking names out of a hat to decide whose mission will be next. He picks the name, since he has "no skin in the game", and chooses the Punisher, since he knows he will want to go to New York City. He hopes to escape Ross, but the Infinity crossover occurs and he is forced to release Mercy when Supergiant of Thanos' Black Order sucks out part of his intellect. He then helps the Red Hulk destroy the Black Order's flagship, but only for self-preservation. He constantly broods over how he should kill the rest of the Thunderbolts.[47]

Later the team is teleported to Hell and the Red Leader then negotiates a contract with Mephisto that if the Ghost Rider and the Red Hulk defeat the current leader of Hell, Strong Guy, they will be teleported out and Mephisto will take control of Mercy, as well as other secret stipulations.[48]

The Red Leader then helps the team navigate the haunted swamps of Honduras, since he can translate an ancient map. During the boat ride, he whispers something in an ancient language that causes the Ghost Rider to lose his powers and get devoured by a tentacled monster. Their river guide then makes a deal with the Red Leader to betray his team, but the Red Leader double-crosses him and the team kills the guide's ambush. The Red Leader then tells the team to enter the temple, but via a booby-trapped path that gets them all killed, except for Ross, who finds the source of the temple's power—an infant Celestial's head. The Red Leader is killed when his head explodes after drinking the Celestial's blood. He and the team are revived when Ross makes a deal with a Celestial-powered being and teleports them back to before the mission started.[49]

After the Punisher quits the team, the Red Leader, long looking for ways to kill the Thunderbolts and knowing Castle had countermeasures to take each of them down, puts a bomb in his safe house with a note saying "You don't quit us. You're fired", knowing that he would survive and that he would think it was Ross who attempted to kill him and thus would take the Thunderbolts down.[50]

Six months after the Thunderbolts disbanded, the Red Leader had built his own criminal empire in Kata Jaya. Living a life of luxury and trying to conquer the heart of the girl he was in love with, the Red Leader saw everything he had built be destroyed by his former partners and the Avengers. Betrayed by Caitlin (the girl he loved), the Red Leader was captured by them and put in jail. The Punisher used the Ghost Rider's skull to put the Red Leader under a permanent Penance Stare, but he was eventually freed from it by Mephisto (with whom he had made a deal when he went to Hell along with the Thunderbolts).[48] Enraged by the fact that the Red Leader had reneged on their deal, Mephisto made him sign a new contract and led him to Hell.[51]

As part of his measure to neutralize gamma mutates across the world, the Hulk's Doc Green form pinned down the Red Leader, who, through unknown means, had escaped from Hell, started to play with occultism and neutralized his gamma-powered abilities. However, the Red Leader had reached out previously to Gammon (an artificial intelligence duplicate of Doc Green) who had implemented a countermeasure against Doc Green's actions. As soon as he was de-powered, the Red Leader slowly transformed again. However, instead of transforming back into Samuel Sterns, the Red Leader transformed back into the Leader. He and Gammon agreed to work together.[52]

In the "Hulkverines" miniseries, the Leader is shown to be detained at Shadow Base Remote Facility 43B using Big Bob's Lumber Lounge in Akron, Ohio as a front. He is approached by Agent Castillo, who informs him that the Hulk has returned from the dead and they need his help to kill him. The Leader accepts, but stabs Agent Castillo, stating that he would rather do it himself. The Leader arrives at the area where the Hulk and Weapon H are fighting each other, until Shadow Base agents led by Agent NG catch up to him. As the Hulk starts sneezing, the Leader states to Agent NG that he infected Clayton Cortez with a gamma-altering virus. Arriving where Weapon H had knocked the Hulk unconscious, the Leader begs for Weapon H to finish him off. When the Leader threatens his family as part of Plan C, he detonates some bombs near Weapon H in order to get away. Clayton chases after the Leader until Wolverine arrives.[53] The Leader brings out the Humanoids, only to be regressed back to their pods by reverse-engineered Humanoids when former Weapon X Project scientist Dr. Aliana Alba shows up. She advises the Leader to leave the disposal of Wolverine to her. After a brief fight, the Leader explains that he was pursuing the Hulk, while Dr. Alba states that she was pursuing Wolverine. They come to a conclusion that they were manipulated by someone who wants Weapon H dead. This leads to them making plans to capture the Hulk in order to collaborate on a project. The Leader and Dr. Alba later attack Shadow Base's Remote Facility FN34.[54] After the larger Humanoid abducts Wolverine and Bruce Banner, it brings them to Shadow Base's Remote Facility FN34 as they begin the experiment that gives the Hulk the claws of Wolverine and Wolverine the strength of the Hulk. The Leader and Dr. Alba unleash the mutated Hulk and Wolverine on Shadow Base Auto-Op WMD Facility BX91 in Central, Ohio using Green Energy Corp as a front. Weapon H arrives and lures them towards the Leader and Dr. Alba. When Weapon H destroys the remote-control in the Leader's hand, Dr. Alba withdraws the nanobots that were placed in Wolverine and Bruce Banner and places them in Weapon H. It does not work on Weapon H, as the Leader repairs his teleporter enough to get himself and Dr. Alba away from Weapon H. After watching the aftermath from afar, the Leader and Dr. Alba share a romantic kiss as they embrace each other.[55]

After the Hulk left after finding that Xemnu the Living Titan devoured the Minotaur and transformed him into a Xemnu/Minotaur hybrid, the Leader visits him. While controlling Rick Jones when spying on the Hulk, the Leader advises the Minotaur to leave the Hulk to him.[56]

While revealed to have merged with Gammon, the Leader then began working on studying the Below-Place where gamma mutates travel to after dying and before resurrecting. He began to learn how to control the Green Door while in the Below-Place. He encountered Brian Banner, who wanted the Leader to help him escape the Below-Place. Instead, the Leader removed his skeleton for research. Following the Hulk's victory over Xemnu, the Leader had Rick Jones send a surge of gamma energy into the Hulk during a photo shoot, which caused him to release a blast of gamma energy where the survivors were saved by Rick Jones, who was mutated to an elongated and multi-limbed form. Gamma Flight came to confront the Hulk, which the Leader commented on. Then, the Leader controlled Del Frye so that he could send Doc Samson to the Below-Place and watch his plans unfold. During the Hulk's fight with the Absorbing Man, Puck fired an energy beam on the Hulk, as the Leader planned. The Leader used the Green Door to take over the Hulk and his Green Scar persona.[57]

During the "Empyre" story line, it was revealed that the Leader also used the Green Door to return the She-Hulk to life after she was possessed by a Cotati.[58]

Powers and abilities

Originally, the Leader has superhuman mental acumen as a result of his exposure to an explosion of gamma-irradiated waste. He is capable of knowledge and comprehension that is beyond the human ability to understand. Just as the Hulk has the potential for limitless strength, the Leader has the potential for limitless intelligence, being capable of mastering every worldly subject and adopting concepts completely foreign to his environment. His higher brain functions, including pattern recognition, information storage/retrieval and logical/philosophical structuring have been enhanced to inhuman levels. He also has total recall of every event he has witnessed since the accident that transformed him and can calculate possibilities and outcomes so accurately that it borders on predicting the future. Despite his limitless intelligence and supreme knowledge, his effectiveness is greatly hampered by his own arrogance, impatience and obsession with defeating the Hulk, which constantly causes him to lose sight of necessary details and act prematurely, causing the ruin of his schemes. His egotism also led him to embark on two impractical schemes to turn the rest of humanity into green-skinned beings like himself.[25][26]

He has also unlocked latent telekinetic and telepathic powers within him. He is able to control the minds of ordinary humans by merely touching them (aside from gamma-mutated individuals like the Hulk or the Abomination), wipe the memories of several humans at once, create illusions to trick others or disguise himself, and project telekinetic blasts potent enough to topple a very weakened Hulk.

The Leader is also a technological genius that specializes in gamma radiation. He has created technology that is beyond human ability, including vehicles, weaponry, computers, laser pistols, pulse weapons and kinetic gauntlets, and is particularly adept at genetic engineering and manipulating radiation for many nefarious purposes. The Leader has created an army of synthetic henchmen at his disposal called "Humanoids" that have served him throughout his career of world domination, mainly as bodyguards, soldiers and laboratory servants. They have versatile programming capacities to allow them to perform any task, do not tire, talk or need sustenance and have elastic-like bodies that make them immune to blunt impacts. They range in size from microscopic to hundreds of feet tall. The Humanoids are usually controlled directly through the Leader's own mental commands, but can also be pre-programmed to carry out a certain directive. The Leader has also developed gamma bombs, shield generators to cover large areas, cages for holding the Hulk, powered armor, teleportation devices, android duplicates, a means of controlling the minds of the Hulk or the Rhino through technological devices,[22][35] a Revivo-Beam which was designed to restore him to life in the event of his death[15] and Omnivac,[22] a sentient computer that maintains the enormous space station he has used as a base of operations.

On occasion, the Leader has been shown to have the ability to change himself back into Samuel Sterns, but this ability resulted in him losing all memory of his identity as the Leader, as Sterns' mind was ill-equipped to cope with the Leader's intellect (although he always remembered everything when he changed back into the Leader again).

Although the Leader can be killed, being a gamma mutate, he is able to resurrect himself each time he is by passing through the Green Door, which makes him virtually immortal.[59]

Other versions

Marvel Cinematic Universe tie-in issues

Prior to the release of The Avengers in 2012, Marvel ran a series of canon tie-in comics entitled Avengers Prelude: Fury's Big Week, which take place within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In issues #6-7, Sterns is seen undergoing a rapid head mutation just as he is discovered by Natasha Romanoff who stumbles upon him immediately after the Hulk has escaped (which happens during the climax of The Incredible Hulk, while the Hulk is fighting the Abomination). Although his brainpower has already drastically increased to the point where he can pinpoint the exact location of the Black Widow's birth just by a brief hint of Stalingrad in her accent, Natasha shoots him in the leg when he attempts to bribe her by offering to help her return to her home and he is taken into S.H.I.E.L.D. custody.[60]

Marvel Zombies

The Leader makes an appearance as a zombie in Marvel Zombies vs. The Army of Darkness in the horde that overwhelms and infects the Punisher. He has a giant hole blown through his cranium, which does not stop him.[61] He is also in Marvel Zombies 3 where he is looking over food and medical supplies that other zombies have found as an offering to the Zombie Kingpin. The Zombie Leader determines how long the others can feed on the human clones. The Zombie Leader is sent with other zombified superbeings to find and destroy Machine Man. The android gains the upper hand in the battle and destroys all his pursuers. The Zombie Leader then kills himself by ripping out his arm, using it to take out all of his brain, and ripping out his own body.[62]

Ultimate Marvel

The Ultimate Marvel equivalent of the Leader is an enemy of Iron Man and the Hulk.[63] In Ultimate Human, Pete Wisdom is an ex-British Intelligence agent thrown out of MI6 after testing his "British Enhancile Program" on himself, transforming him into the Leader.[64] Wisdom has psychic and mental abilities similar to the original Leader, but requires a wheelchair and a halo brace to support the weight of his enlarged cranium's weight. The Leader attempts to steal Tony Stark's nanotechnology, as Bruce Banner and Stark work together to try to incorporate into Banner's physiology in the hopes that it will grant control over the Hulk. When Stark commands a decoy Iron-Tech robot into the Leader's base, Banner transforms into the Hulk. The Hulk resists the Leader's influence, and pounds him into the ground. The Leader, almost dead, commands a C-17 down onto the Hulk, ultimately killing Wisdom.[65]

The Ultimate version of Samuel Sterns is an elderly doctor who is seen in a wheelchair. In Ultimate Mystery, he is amongst a brain trust group for Roxxon Industries, including Doctor Octopus, Arnim Zola, Misty Knight, Nathaniel Essex, and Dr. Layla Miller.[66] He has the ability to transform into a hybrid of the Hulk and the Leader, but is defeated by the original Spider-Man,[67] and later the new Spider-Man[68] on two different occasions involving Spider-Woman.


In 2009, the Leader was ranked as IGN's 63rd Greatest Comic Book Villain of All Time.[69]

In other media



Video games


The Leader appears in the X-Men/Avengers crossover trilogy Gamma Quest by Greg Cox.[citation needed] He forms an alliance with the Super-Skrull to enhance his abilities with the powers of various other superhumans, but during the final confrontation Rogue is able to borrow enough of the Leader's intellect to reverse the procedure and return the Skrull to his usual power levels.


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