One of my favorite things about the clamor of excitement surrounding any new comic-related movie is that every time a new film is released, more and more of my friends get interested in reading the comics a movie is based on.
Captain America: Civil War is no exception to this, and Marvel’s first Civil War event had such far-reaching consequences for the comic universe that there’s a ton of material to delve into—tons of books, tons of speculation and opinions to be read and heard for any curious fan. The Marvel comics universe is on the brink of a second Civil War event as well, which means the conversation, at least among certain groups of comic and movie fans, has reached a fever pitch.
One of the magical things about the Marvel Universe, for me, is the multiverse (the concept that there are multiple different versions of the Marvel Universe all existing in tandem with each other). Regardless of whatever consequences it faced as a result of this past summer’s Secret Wars event, it’s the existence of the multiverse that lets the very loose adaptations the Cinematic Universe has brought us fit soundly inside the scope of decades of Marvel history. Any given film is not a retelling of comic book stories; it’s just a window into a different Marvel Universe. The MCU is just one of an infinite number of reconfigurations of the same stories, the same characters, the same tropes.
There are more variations on the Marvel Universe than there are variations on Janet van Dyne’s costume. There are universes where all of the Avengers are apes. There are universes where Tony Stark is a mouse and Captain America is a cat. There are universes where heroes are villains and villains are heroes, and sometimes everyone is a cowboy, a gladiator, a cybervampire. One of the best things about Secret Wars was getting to see so many different windows open into so many alternate universes—the worlds that current writers dreamed up and populated with characters and ideas that we’ve all loved for so long.
But there’s one universe in particular that I was disappointed to see missing from the Secret Wars lineup. It’s also one that is deeply fascinating to discuss in light of Civil War, and it’s one that almost always piques the interest of newcomers who are learning about the events of Civil War for the first time.
That’s Earth-3490. If you’re not familiar with the number, you’re probably familiar with the concept: Earth-3490 is the universe where Iron Man is replaced with Iron Woman, and Iron Woman is married to Captain America. It’s also one of only 418 universes out of over 3 million that experienced a conflict over superhuman regulation that managed to solve the conflict peacefully.
That’s it. 418 out of 3 million. That’s, and I’m no Reed Richards, so correct my math if I’m wrong, just over 0.01 percent. That means that in almost every possible configuration, civil war was inevitable.
But this is one of those universes where it isn’t. And it’s also a universe that has only appeared in three comic panels that I know about: two in this particular issue of Fantastic 4. The third, to quite a lot of fans’ surprise and delight, appeared this summer: Iron Woman and Captain America can be seen in a crowd scene in the short story “Squirrel Girl Wins a Date With Thor,” written by Marguerite Bennett and drawn by Kris Anka in the romance anthology comic Secret Wars: Secret Love.
So what’s intriguing and brilliant about Earth-3490 is that we have such a dearth of information about it, but the information we have is so very specific. Here’s the original panels that introduced the universe, while Reed was exploring all of the peaceful potentialities.
That’s it. That’s all we get. But it tells a fascinating narrative. Here’s what we can glean from these panels:
- We know that rather than Iron Man, there’s an Iron Woman.
- We know her name is Natasha Stark.
- We know she’s married to Steve Rogers.
- We know that their relationship was part of what staved off the Civil War
- We know that Hank Pym is “not a factor,” and we can assume the reason he’s “not a factor” is that he appears to be in prison.
- We know that Reed Richards carried out Registration
It’s two panels. Six facts. And the potential in those six facts is astounding. Years after this comic hit the stands, there’s a subset of fans still trying to extrapolate out, determine what else this universe holds, and what, exactly, let them escape the Civil War.
As Reed continues his search, he starts adding more factors: first he adds in the existence of the Illuminati. The Illuminati, in Marvel-parlance, is a secret group of representatives who meet to discuss and exchange information about major world events—and who sometimes delve dangerously into decision-making in spite of a stated agreement not to. Under the model of universes that had both some kind of registration legislation and the formation of the Illuminati, there are only 67 peaceful outcomes. And then, he adds in the Skrull invasion, and there is only one peaceful outcome: a universe where the earth surrendered and the Skrulls won, which, while peaceful, is far from acceptable.
Earth-3490, and all of the other peaceful outcomes, are filtered through the lens of Reed’s own feeling of personal responsibility for the poor outcome of his own universe, his guilt for the death of people he cared about, and his self-critique of his own inaction at key points over the course of the narrative. We’re told that Reed’s own choices, in each of these peaceful universes, played a major role in establishing peace.
But, in the case of 3490, we’re told that Steve Rogers’ and Natasha Stark’s relationship and ability to temper each other also played a major role in preventing the Civil War, and that detail has begged any number of questions from fans since it was made public.
After all, the existence of a universe where Iron Man is Iron Woman isn’t quite the same as a universe where Thor becomes unworthy and is replaced by Jane Foster as a new, female Thor; it’s more in line with the kind of universe where Gwen Stacy becomes Spider-Woman, where this was always the truth of this universe, that this beloved superhero was presumably always known as a woman.
There’s criticism among fans about this choice, and it’s good criticism: many people feel that changing Iron Man’s gender in order to make it somehow acceptable for two characters to have a romantic relationship is re-enforcing the heteronormativity that runs rampant in comics, for example. Which is a fair argument: after all, there’s precedent for queer readings of assumed-straight characters in other universes. In Fantastic Four #563, where we see an alternate universe meant to be literally only one dimension away from 616, where Reed Richards married Johnny and not Sue:
After all, Tony Stark’s sexuality has been pretty regularly questioned by fans who see the character as more likely bisexual or pansexual than heterosexual, so why not marry Steve Rogers and Tony Stark?
There are also fans who question the potential ingrained cissexism and gender-essentialism in stories often known as “Rule 63” stories: stories where a character’s assigned gender is changed from male to female, or female to male. Arguments against genderswap usually point toward stories where a writer’s ideas about how biological sex informs personality can be very off-putting and ignores the way many people experience gender identity.
For me, however, this change has always been a significant and positive one, because there’s no stated difference between Tony and Natasha, no reason to suggest that Natasha isn’t Tony’s equivalent in every single way apart from her gender, and there’s no reason to assume that key elements of her identity outside of gender are any different. And since there’s no evidence presented to the contrary, there’s also no reason to exclude the possibility that Natasha Stark is trans from potential speculation on the character.
And of course, while it’s very easy to assume that their romance and subsequent marriage is only possible because of assumed heterosexuality, the more I’ve considered the possibilities of this universe, the more I’ve wondered whether, rather than implying something heteronormative or gender-essentialist about personality traits, Hickman was exploring the very specific result of someone behaviorally like Tony Stark, and with his same class privileges, experiencing life as a woman, rather than as a man. She certainly would have been raised differently from Tony, and it calls us to ask how people would have treated a precociously brilliant female scientist with the same impossible mind as Tony Stark, and how people would have treated a superhero called Iron Woman and not Iron Man. And maybe, just maybe, that it’s those differences in her life experience that made her someone capable of preventing a war where Tony couldn’t.
[pullquote]Because as much as gender-essentialism as a measure of our internal selves is bogus, and the spectrum of genders beyond the two binary ones is something our popular culture is only just beginning to really explore, the experience of being someone who externally presents as female is vastly different from the experience of being someone who externally presents as male. [/pullquote]Because as much as gender-essentialism as a measure of our internal selves is bogus, and the spectrum of genders beyond the two binary ones is something our popular culture is only just beginning to really explore, the experience of being someone who externally presents as female is vastly different from the experience of being someone who externally presents as male. We have the testimony of countless trans men and women and nonbinary people who have presented differently over the course of their lives to show that even the same exact person is treated differently when they change their outward gender presentation. And that means if we assume that all other things are equal—that Natasha and Tony have the same analytical brain, the same innate personality, qualities, and flaws—Natasha Stark’s life was still likely a very different ball game than Tony’s.
We know that, even with major initiatives to change this, girls still lag behind boys in STEM education and occupations, and many of those initiatives wouldn’t have existed when Natasha was in school. Even being a certified genius, and having access to her father’s resources as Tony did, Natasha would have had a great deal of prejudice to overcome that Tony didn’t. Knowing that the 616 version of Howard Stark was outright abusive to Tony, Natasha might have faced the same abuse, and might have even been outright discouraged from following in her father’s footsteps. A young girl, in the aftermath of her parents’ untimely death, might not have been given as much freedom as a young boy. Shareholders in her father’s company might have been even more skeptical when it came time for her to inherit.
Or maybe things were different: maybe Howard Stark was more protective and less abusive toward a girl child, maybe he advocated for her more than he would have for Tony, maybe instead of becoming the kind of person who is as desperate for acceptance, approval, and affection as Tony is repeatedly shown to be, she knew that in spite of the blockades the world might throw at her, she would always have people in her corner who loved her.
Or maybe Natasha began life as Tony and was disowned by her father when she came out as trans. It’s no secret that Tony Stark of Earth-616 has built his fortune from the ground up multiple times, losing everything and starting over only to come back stronger than ever. Maybe Natasha had to build her own fortune from the beginning, with her brain as her only resource.
And we can apply this kind of speculation to every single aspect of Tony’s life as we know it, consider all the ways it might have been different for Natasha, and the ways it might have been the same. Maybe she once dated Jim Rhodes; maybe she still dated Bethany Cabe. Maybe Obadiah Stane still used Indries to try to seduce Natasha out of her fortune; maybe he tried to seduce her himself. Maybe she still fell to her deepest depths as a victim of alcoholism; maybe she found herself addicted to another substance, instead. Maybe Natasha found other outlets or coping mechanisms for her unhealthily addictive personality and never abused substances, or she stopped before it was too late.
We also know that Tony, while attempting to keep up his “playboy” reputation, had a great deal of trouble with intimacy after acquiring the chestplate that kept him alive. He couldn’t have a physically intimate relationship with a woman without feeling comfortable with her knowing his secret identity—something he was ill at ease to share.
Natasha Stark would have to balance the requirements of the life of a socialite with wearing clothing that might have appeared dowdy in a world where women are judged on their fashion decisions at every turn, where a female celebrity leaving the house in no makeup or an “unflattering” pair of shorts can get their photo plastered all over the internet and criticized to extremes. She would have to navigate the world as a young heiress and business leader without being able to wear many of the latest fashions. And of course, the mechanism needed to maintain her heart would also have mutilated at least one of her breasts. While she certainly could afford very nice prosthetics, we can wonder about how this physical change affected her: for many women, both trans and cis, breasts are such an important part of female identity and positive self-image. Would she have dealt with many of the same personal struggles that women who have experienced mastectomy face?
The question of Natasha’s gender can also lead us to considerations of just how her relationship with Steve would have been different. Earth-616 Steve Rogers is a notoriously overprotective boyfriend: he goes so far as to go behind Sharon Carter’s back to have Nick Fury remove her from a fieldwork job with SHIELD because he thinks it’s unsafe. How would this have changed, had he been dating someone with the firepower of Iron Woman? Would he have struggled just as much to feel comfortable with the risks Natasha took with her life? Would Natasha have revealed her identity to him sooner—and if so, how would that have changed the way they worked together? If not, how would Steve have reacted differently than he did upon learning Tony’s identity? Considering that the first time Tony’s identity was revealed to the other Avengers for any considerable amount of time, Molecule Man stripped him of his uniform and left him naked, we’re talking about a scene that might have left Steve far more incensed had Natasha been the victim, rather than Tony.
In Reed’s exploration, he discovers an earth where he convinced Tony to invite more, different people to have a part in making the decisions that the Illuminati in their own world made in secret. Reed’s argument in that world allowed for better decisions and a successful resolution, whereas prioritizing intellectual superiority over other qualities only created more rifts and more problems. Would Natasha Stark have seen the problem with a secret geniocracy? Would she have fought enough for representation and agency in her own life that she might have wanted to give others that opportunity or seen the problem with placing that kind of power in the hands of so small a group?
There are as many different possibilities as there are women’s stories, and so many of them could lead to a person who, romantic relationship or not, might have made a different call and changed the course of history—for better or for worse.
The exercise of puzzling out what might have been different, what might have been the same, in the life of Natasha Stark, constantly leads to new ideas: there’s a huge wealth of ways such a seemingly small change could affect the life of a person who has such a huge impact on a fictional universe.
All that leads to the next question: what other typically male characters might be female in some other universe? How does it change their role, all other things being equal? Because if there’s a universe where Tony Stark is a woman, that opens up the idea that there are universes where any character who is typically male might be female. If there’s a universe where Tony Stark is a woman, there’s a very high likelihood that the same applies to Steve Rogers, and imagine the history that might have led to a young woman becoming an American supersoldier in the 1940s … and what that experience would have been like.
This is something we need, and need more of. Not just stories that replace the person filling a particular title with a different person of a different gender, but stories that explore what the world might be like if the titular character had always been of a different gender and had the personal and social experiences that go along with that. And of course the same logic can be applied to race, to sexuality, to any part of a person’s identity that significantly changes the way they would experience life that would make their story different from the default straight white male hero story that we’ve been told over and over again.
Representation in comics is slowly getting better, and Marvel has been making great strides in this capacity of late, but this is one potential source for new stories that balance our interest in seeing new characters and new stories with seeing our very favorite characters re-imagined, and as of yet, it hasn’t been mined to its potential. I know that I would eat up every single issue of a comic title that explored a world where one of my favorite male characters was re-envisioned as a woman, and I’m sure there are lots of other readers who would, too.