When an ordinary laborer was moving a load of waste material in the sub-cellar of a chemical research plant, a one-in-a-million freak accident occurred as an experimental gamma ray cylinder exploded. The trapped laborer was helplessly caught in the blast. For about a minute his entire body was bombarded by the mysterious gamma rays, one of the strongest forces known to man. Although a fraction of the dosage he received would have been enough to kill a dozen men, for some inexplicable reason the laborer survived. He seem completely unharmed.
Yet, he was different. After leaving the observation ward, he read every book he could find. He studied like a man possessed and remembered everything he read. His mind absorbed knowledge like a sponge. A few days later, the long-term effects of the gamma rays finally took place and he went unconscious. When he awoke, he did not suspect what happened to him, but when he looked into the mirror, he knew that he had become something more than human. The once unskilled laborer had been transformed by the gamma rays into one of the greatest brains that ever lived. "My former name is meaningless now! I choose to be known simply as... The Leader!"
Mayor Story Arcs
As the Leader, he became one of the Hulk's deadliest villains, choosing to manipulate others into fighting for him rather than confronting the Hulk himself, or throwing his artificial humanoids at him. Sterns's spy ring meant that he could always keep track of his enemies without having to lift a finger. His schemes against Hulk hit a head when him and Hulk (secretly with the intellect of Bruce Banner due to a freak accident with a bullet in his head) would meet, with Hulk being overpowered due to the bullet in his head preventing him from operating at full potential. Leader would remove the bullet from Hulk's head, but demanded that Hulk do something in return: his spy drones had detected a object of interest while investigating the lair of The Watcher, and he wanted access to it, but he knew that he was not strong enough to get through any security that Watcher would have. As such, he sought the assistance of the far more powerful brute to get it for him. Hulk would oblige, and after a shuffle with a alien that also tried to get the device, he would find and obtain it for him, despite Watcher being there at the time. Due to his vow of non-inference he doesn't stop the Hulk, but he warns Hulk that the "Ultimate Machine" as he calls it, is too dangerous to be used by a mere mortal.
Regardless, Leader would teleport Hulk and the Machine back to him, and would attempt to use said device to gain all knowledge in the known universe, as the machine, it turns out, was a huge storage device for raw knowledge: perfect for a mind such as himself, whom he believed could use it properly. The Ultimate Machine worked, but it was too much for him to handle, and it killed Sterns in the process of giving him the knowledge he desired. It would later be revealed that the knowledge of the Green Door would be what killed him in particular, but the nature of such meant that he wouldn't recall it when he was brought back to life later on. Hulk believed that Leader was dead, and would even use the Ultimate Machine himself to figure out where his best friend, Rick Jones, was without much of a care about his passing, but he would continue to plague him for years to come.
When Leader began losing his enhanced intelligence and became more human looking, even taking up a regular job as a coroner's assistant in New Mexico. After killing his co-worker and hijacking the ambulance he was in after realising that he was working near Gamma Base, a place where Banner was almost sure to be at, he was able to locate the (now grey) Hulk, promising the Hulk persona that he would help him find a way to be the Hulk full time if he helped him regain his lost intellect. Leader used a device created by Banner that siphoned all of the excess radiation out of the body of the Hulk's sidekick Rick Jones' body into his own after Hulk was able to rebuild it using the Banner side of his brain with great effort. This impact destroyed the lab itself, making Hulk and Rick believe that Leader had died.
The device worked but it left Leader even more mutated than before and he now had a unstable mental link with Rick Jones. Leader would also steal the body of the recently departed General Ross for his own schemes. He contacted a being called Half-Life and gave him work to stall the Hulk while he worked on his resurrection technology. After Half-Life's brutal dismemberment at the hands of a less than pleased Hulk, Leader gathered up his parts and returned him to his lair, outfitting him with a suit of armor/mobile camera then sending him out again. He knew that Hulk would ultimately win this fight as he did before, and so recorded a message to him. Leader during this time developed his resurrection technology, and tested it out on General Ross. It worked: but only for the body. Ross's mind was absent and he was essentially a vegetable. Leader knew that he needed many more test subjects, and decided to test out a new experiment: the effects of Gamma radiation on a entire town population.
After outfitting two former Hulkbuster units (both of them had been struck off for their reckless attitude, with both of them having caused massive accidents in the field) with new combat technology and dubbing them Rock and Redeemer, Leader gets them to plant a Gamma bomb in the town of Middletown within the state of Arizona. Sterns would challenge Hulk to find the bomb within the time frame before it went off, and offered a challenge: if he found it, he would deactivate the bomb and leave, if he didn't.....then the impact would be enough to kill Hulk without needing anything else. Hulk would have to fight through Rock and Redeemer in a rough fight but would finally find the device, but Leader doesn't keep his word and teleports himself and the defeated pair before manually detonating the controlled gamma bomb in the town, which killed over 5000 people from the blast itself. The blast seemingly killed the Hulk and created five new superhuman enforcers whom he used to build the hidden society called Freehold in the Arctic, under the ice itself.
Sterns had been populating Freehold with radiation victims knowing that some form of total-annihilation was due to happen on Earth by the nation states themselves sometime in the future. Leader believed that Freehold would survive and they would repopulate the Earth under his wisdom and guidance: this wasn't just a boast as the people of Freehold genuinely loved him due to his public kindness to his people (many of his citizens were shunned from regular society due to their mutations and were welcomed with open arms) as well as Leader's advanced technology, which kept him healthy and happy. Leader would behind the scenes plot with fellow villain group The U-Foes to sort a deal with the Pantheon group, with them agreeing that Pantheon would render aid to Freehold if and when it came under attack from external forces. Leader also had seemingly perfected the resurrection process via the assistance of a Middletown mutate survivor known as Soul Man, who could bring the dead back to life using what he called a "life force" seemingly created from his divine connection, with Leader even believing that his powers could give him immortality if used correctly. Despite even Rick Jones joining with Leader in the promise that his long lost girlfriend could be brought back to life, the Hulk would catch up with Leader in Freehold after it was attacked by HYDRA: Hulk was apart of Pantheon, so he was both the agreed aid set up by them and also was allowed to get his revenge on Leader for his genocide of Middletown, throwing Leader's body into the machine he created out of the energies of Soul Man, seemingly destroying both men in the process despite Rick's protests.
Freehold would go on without Leader in charge, with Hulk promising to assist if any other forces would try to take over the city. After his apparent death, the Leader's right hand man Omnibus is placed in charge of Freehold where he tries to incite a nuclear war and the Leader begins to haunt him by temporarily possessing his body causing him to become increasingly paranoid. Omnibus is sentenced to death and is eaten by a polar bear after his schemes are exposed and he's exiled from the base. Leader on recollection knew that this scheme wouldn't work and that Omnibus would eventually be exposed regardless of what he'd do, but he wanted to see how potent his mind control was.
When the Hulk is poisoned Leader supplies him with information about his brother, the Madman. He wants the Hulk to put Madman out of his misery because he felt that after his brother's mental breakdown he was only suffering. Hulk leaves but at near death, having been in a coma for multiple hours.
The Leader would eventually rebuild his body using his mental powers, using the cells of plants and dead animals to pull something resembling his body back together, through he was physically strained and clearly weak from this process. Using his telepathy he called upon his greatest foe to meet him in human form in a abandoned mine where he had taken as his home. Banner at the time was suffering from advanced ALS brought on mutations in his brain and was badly physically hindered by it. Leader offered Banner a deal: he would use his knowledge to cure his disease on the stipulation that he'd watch Leader transcend the physical plane. Banner agreed and watched as the Leader's consciousness expanded, only for the Leader's body to explode at the final, crucial moment of realisation (namely, the existence of the Green Door) Sterns returned to the Below-Place and became desperate trying to escape the wrath of the One-Below-All. Banner, knowing that Sterns demanded his help, wasn't able to help him, and this occasion would cause Sterns to become deeply resentful, spending the next few years planning his downfall as well as researching on the place that had escaped his grasp so many times at the peak of death.
At some point, the Leader begins to recruit other villains of intellect in order to combat their foes and to perhaps figure out the secrets of the Green Door itself. Along with the Wizard, the Mad Thinker, Red Ghost and Egghead he forms the super group the Intelligencia. They also gain the cooperation of Doctor Doom. Together they plan to restore the information of the Library of Alexandria by stealing the info from various sources across the world.
After finally obtaining all the necessary information, the Leader and the others are betrayed by Doctor Doom. The Leader knows that they cannot hope to defeat Doom on his own land and retreats from the battle. He disappears for some time, putting himself deep in thought. He is then found by MODOK to reform the team.
MODOK had developed a way to finally defeat the Hulk: create their own intelligent Hulk, allowing him to be manipulated to their demands. Although this Red Hulk is eventually cast from their plans, the Leader creates a Red She-Hulk to help assist them. They begin to formulate a plan to remove any other threats from their way. They determine which eight of Earth's greatest intellects would stand against them and attack the smartest first. They soon use the Cathexis Ray (with Red Hulk attached) to "hulkify" most of the super heroes and their personal army, the AIMarines into "hulked-out" versions of their selves. Soon Bruce finds Leader and starts beating him down. He prepares to kill him but Leader escapes. After Bruce Banner saves the eight smartest men, they build a machine that absorb the gamma radiation from the hero and the AIMarines and transfers it into Banner, changing them back to normal. The Leader is soon caught up with the Red Hulk who drains the gamma radiation out of him, removing his powers. The Leader begs for Red Hulk to kill him but Red Hulk replies "Not a chance".
Unknown to everyone else, The Red Hulk gave Sterns a red gamma treatment to give him his powers back in order to use him as his personal intelligence agent, but would limit his powers enough to keep him under control. He would join the latest incarnation of the Thunderbolts for a while, and would assist the team while also scheming as best as he could with the limited brainpower he had to use. After the Punisher quit the team due to disagreements on their methods, the Leader, long looking for ways to kill the Thunderbolts and knowing Castle was obsessed enough to find out perfect counter-measures for all of them, put a bomb in his safe house with a note incriminating Ross, knowing he would survive, and he would think it was Ross who attempted to kill him and would take the Thunderbolts down. This actually succeeded, with Sterns covering for his death by using a LMD to cover for him when Punisher went after him.
Sterns would later be uncovered on holiday six months later living out a life of luxury with his connections and intellect giving him a massive house, advanced tech, and Gamma mutated bodyguards all over the place. Despite all of this, the Avengers would take him down after being tipped off about his activities, and he was defeated after a shuffle.
He would later be depowered again in Doc Green's global anti-Gamma mutate campaign, with the latter hunting him down and draining him of all of his powers. However, Sterns behind the scenes had been informed of this by Doc Green's rogue A.I. Gammon, who would activate a countermeasure for Green's tech that removed the depowering effects. This blast of extra Gamma would return Sterns back to his full intellect as the Leader, and he would later reward Gammon for his actions by allowing him to be merged with his own intellect, allowing both of them to benefit from his discoveries.
Crash with She Hulk
After observing She-Hulk and her increased rage and strength, Sterns was able to figure out that said additional rage and fury seemed to come from her hidden suppressed memories of being killed during her fight with Thanos and sent to the Below-Place. He wanted to see how she would react to either dying a second time, or killing someone else in a fight. To this end he used Robin Meiser Molt, who was obsessed with She-Hulk's power and secretly desired it herself. Leader gave her this wish by infusing her blood with Gamma, which caused her to mutate similarly to her idol. Leader convinced her that She-Hulk holds herself back by clinging on to the human roots of her personality, and that only by facing off in a life threatening situation would she reach the full potential she had. This resulted in a brutal fight with the pair which only ended when a accidental telepathic connection caused them to both realise what was going on. The extra focus allowed Jen to overcome her more brutal side and successfully capture the Leader before he escaped his failed scheme.
After his radioactive accident, Sterns underwent a transformation that severely increased his intelligence. The potential of his intelligence is nearly unlimited. It is assumed that he can think above and beyond the normal human spectrum of thought (example. Possibly comprehending 4 dimensions etc.). This great intelligence allows him to predict possibilities and outcomes with extreme accuracy. It flirts with the abilities of precognition or extra-sensory perception. In other words, his assumptions are almost always correct. It is also said that the Leader has a perfect memory with the ability to recall any event after his radioactive accident.
Sterns has also demonstrated the ability to control minds with his psionic powers. This power works in the same fashion as dominate mind/person, allowing Sterns to turn humans into puppets of his will.
With his increased intelligence and comprehension, Sterns has created a number of weapons that are far beyond those on earth. These advanced weapons have aided him in his nefarious plans of corporate domination.
After he absorbed all of the radiation from the body of Rick Jones they developed a mental link which the Leader used to his advantage.
Like most evil geniuses Sterns is somewhat obsessed with defeating his nemesis the Incredible Hulk. So much that many of his plans are foiled simply because he had some how angered or enticed the Hulk to enter the fray. It is a continual goal for Sterns to best or exploit the Hulk and, despite his infinite intelligence and supreme knowledge, his arrogance and hatred of the Hulk is usually his undoing.
Samuel Sterns appears in Ultimate Enemy as a member of Roxxon Corp's brain trust. He brings up the idea that all the attacks are just a distraction to steal the items stored at Project PEGASUS. After the rest of the brain trust are webbed up by Spider-Woman when they questioned who she really was, Sterns transforms into a hulk like creature and takes Spider-Woman down.
In Other Media
Samuel Sterns appears in the film, portrayed by Tim Blake Nelson. In a departure from the comics, this version of Sterns is a good-natured scientist and university professor who seeks to help cure Bruce Banner.
Dr. Sterns acts as a contact over the computer for Bruce Banner while he is on the lam, making attempts to find a cure for Bruce's "condition". When no cure can be found, Sterns asks him to meet with him in hopes of change. When Bruce and Betty meet with him, he runs the procedure with a special serum where the results could vary due to its toxicity. The test seems to be a success, but Sterns tells Bruce and Betty that he has mass produced Bruce's gamma-irradiated blood. Bruce demands that Sterns destroy it all in fear that the military will use it as a weapon, but are ambushed by General Ross's men and Emil Blonsky. Blonsky, desperate for the Hulk's power, forces Sterns to recreate the experiment that created the Hulk, but when Sterns notices that he has been injected with some enhancements already (a super soldier serum), he warns Blonsky that the mixture could result in "an abomination", but Blonsky still plans to go through with it. Sterns watches in fear as Blonsky transforms into the Hulk-like creature, who strikes Sterns, knocking him out. While unconscious, a sample of Bruce's blood falls into an open wound in his temple, causing his cranium to begin expanding, and recovers with a mischievous grin. This was meant to tease a sequel that would feature Sterns becoming the Leader, but the follow-up was never made.
- The Leader appears in the 1994 Incredible Hulk game.
- The Leader appears as an enemy in the Hulk video game, which is set after the events of the 2003 film. Michael Dobson provided the Leader's voice.
- Dr. Samuel Sterns appears in the 2008 video game adaptation of the Incredible Hulk movie, with Tim Blake Nelson reprising his role.
- The Leader appears in Lego Marvel Super Heroes, voiced by Jeffrey Combs.
- The Leader appears as a villain in Marvel Avengers Alliance.
- The Leader appears in Lego Marvel's Avengers.
- The Leader appears in Avengers Academy.
- The Leader appeared in ToyBiz's toyline for the 90s Incredible Hulk animated series.
- The Leader was featured in a two-pack with Hulk for the Marvel Legends Face-Off line from ToyBiz.
- The Leader appeared in Hasbro's Super Hero Squad line.
- The Leader was featured in the HeroClix figure game.
- Bowen Designs produced a Leader bust.
- The Leader was featured in Eaglemoss Publications' lead figurine line.
- The Leader was featured in Diamond Select's Minimates line.
- The Leader appeared in Hasbro's toyline for the Avengers Assemble animated series.
- The Leader was featured in Hasbro's Marvel Legends line as part of the Abomination Build-a-Figure wave.