It’s been 14 years since The Incredible Hulk opened in theaters as the second film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Now it’s slowly becoming one of the most important.
At this year’s D23 Expo, Marvel unveiled a slate of shiny new things to look forward to, including the cast of Thunderbolts and the intentionally kitschy style of Disney+ special Werewolf By Night.
One of the announcements included new details about the fourth Captain America movie, Captain America: New World Order, previously announced at San Diego Comic-Con in July.
While introducing the cast, Kevin Feige made the surprising announcement that Tim Blake Nelson will return to reprise his role of Dr. Samuel Sterns, who will become the supervillain known as “The Leader” in New World Order.
“When we last saw Tim Blake Nelson in the MCU 14 years ago, he was lying on the ground having been exposed [to gamma radiation],” Feige said. “We teased him becoming The Leader. And 14 short years later, we deliver. Promises fulfilled in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.”
On stage, Nelson said he was “delighted” and praised Marvel for its role in “cinema history.” “I get to be a part of that. It’s an absolute honor,” he said.
The Leader is a villain of supreme intellect who sports telekinesis and telepathy, and has often been an archenemy of the Hulk. He’s been a staple of Hulk’s comics ever since his first appearance in Tales to Astonish #62 in 1964, where he was introduced as a janitor named Samuel Sterns who’s accidentally exposed to gamma radiation. Instead of turning him into another monster like the Hulk, the gamma radiation increases his brain power.
It’s a somewhat obscure bit of Marvel trivia that gamma exposure actually amplifies one’s secret desires rather than just their physicality. Samuel was envious of his smarter brother, a physicist, so the gamma radiation transformed him into a brilliant supervillain.
In the MCU, Sterns is already a decorated biologist who tries to help Banner create an antidote for his condition. But towards the end of The Incredible Hulk he’s exposed to Banner’s blood, and he appears to be transforming into something ominous when we last see him. This raises an obvious question: Since the Leader is Hulk’s nemesis, will the Hulk be appearing in Captain America 4 to help the new Cap fight the brilliant villain?
We won’t get an answer for a while, but in the meantime it’s just plain cool that Tim Blake Nelson is back in the MCU. The actor’s filmography has only grown more interesting since his last Marvel appearance, with movies like Colossal, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and last year’s Nightmare Alley all on his resume. Nelson also had an unforgettable role as Looking Glass in the subversive superhero drama Watchmen on HBO.
It’s also interesting that in praising Marvel and its role in “cinema history,” Nelson has more or less stuck to his guns about the superhero industry. In a 2019 interview with BUILD Series, Nelson chimed in on Martin Scorsese’s op-ed about superhero movies. Nelson was diplomatic, praising Scorsese’s craftsmanship and contributions to cinema as an art and institution, while complementing Marvel’s movies for their own artistic ambitions.
“I think a movie like Logan is cinema, and I think there are images that appear in the Marvel movies that are absolutely cinematic,” Nelson said. “Where I do agree with [Scorsese] is, because there is so much money involved, there is a kind of ‘artist-by-committee’ aspect to superhero movies that threaten the sort of authorship that Martin Scorsese or Francis Ford Coppola or the Coen Brothers or Paul Thomas Anderson have.”
Nelson only played a small part in The Incredible Hulk, a movie that spent a long time as the “forgotten” movie in the MCU canon. Released mere weeks after the franchise big bang Iron Man, the movie often felt glossed over even by Marvel itself.
But The Incredible Hulk has its merits. Directed by Louis Letterier, it’s a creature feature in the disguise of a bombastic blockbuster that delivers exactly what it promises. Its plot is functional, but it’s balanced by a script that doesn’t rely on punchlines, and its color palette is made up of warm tones that stand in contrast to the washed-out looks predominant in Marvel’s movies today. Edward Norton feels like he’s sleepwalking, but everyone else — including Tim Roth, Liv Tyler, William Hurt, and Tim Blake Nelson — all strike that precise note of sincerity and dumb, popcorn fun.
Thanks to Roth’s own return to the MCU in Shang-Chi and She-Hulk, fans are revisiting and reappreciating The Incredible Hulk. Now, with Nelson back and the MCU finally following up on a teaser old enough to attend high school, it’s time to finally acknowledge that yes, The Incredible Hulk is more than just Marvel’s forgotten movie. It’s also a good one.
Captain America: New World Order will be released on May 3, 2024.