MCU Phase 4 Theory: Endgame's Iron Man 3 Cameo Sets Up Young Avengers

Harley Keener in Iron Man 3 and Iron Lad

WARNING: Spoilers for Avengers: Endgame.

Avengers: Endgame's surprise Iron Man 3 cameo could help set up the Young Avengers in the MCU. The dust is settling from Thanos' defeat at the end of Avengers: Endgame, and gradually attention is focusing on the question of what's next for the MCU. Marvel Studios is still avoiding making any official announcements about their Phase 4 plan, with president Kevin Feige indicating new releases won't be set until after the release of Spider-Man: Far From Home.

That doesn't mean that the future is a complete mystery, though. Marvel's known to be working on a range of movies for after Avengers: Endgame, with both Black Widow and The Eternals expected to start production shortly in order to release in 2020. Meanwhile, Avengers: Endgame is very much like one of Marvel Comics' annual Summer Events, with a conclusion that radically alters the MCU's status quo. As such, a number of key scenes - such as Thor heading off with the Guardians of the Galaxy or Steve Rogers handing over the shield to Falcon - should really be seen as setup for the Disney + TV shows and future Marvel movies.

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Related: How Avengers: Endgame Sets Up ALL Confirmed Disney+ Shows

There's one potentially important moment from Avenger: Endgame that's been somewhat overlooked in terms of its future ramifications. Tony Stark's funeral sees the universe's mightiest heroes gather to mourn his sacrifice, with the characters conveniently dividing according to franchise. But the scene also included a surprise return appearance that may set up the Young Avengers.

The Kid At Tony Stark's Funeral Is Harley From Iron Man 3

Iron Man 3 Kid Harley

As the camera pans through the crowd, lingering on the stars of each franchise, it passes by a teenager who most viewers didn't immediately recognize. That's Harley Keener (Ty Simpkins), who crossed paths with Tony Stark in Iron Man 3. Harley encountered Tony at one of the lowest points of the billionaire's life, when he was struggling with PTSD and on the run from the Mandarin. Although Tony treated Harley with his usual sarcastic and acerbic wit, it was clear he swiftly came to care about the kid, and at the end of the film he sent him a generous gift of computers and robotic technology as thanks. There's a sense in which this began Tony Stark's "father figure" arc, which would run through his relationship with Peter Parker and on to becoming a dad himself in Avengers: Endgame.

Simpkins has always tried to maintain his connection to Marvel, and in fact has been invited to attend several premieres over the years. There had long been rumors that he'd reprise his role in Avengers: Endgame. He's since taken to Instagram to thanks his fans for their support, encourage people not to spoil the film online, and to confirm that he had an absolute blast returning to Marvel.

Could Harley Become Iron Lad?

On the face of it, this is simply a respectful way of bringing Tony Stark's story to a close, by ensuring the funeral involved all the key characters who've interacted with Iron Man over the last 11 years' worth of Marvel blockbusters. But, given Harley hasn't been seen or referenced in the MCU until now, could Simpkins' return actually be setup? In the comics, there is a precedent for a teenage boy to take over the mantle of Iron Man, with Nathaniel Richards donning armor and dubbing himself "Iron Lad." There'd be an amusing irony to Harley becoming the MCU equivalent, given in Iron Man 3 he literally said he wanted to be Iron Man, and Tony quipped back, "Maybe if I die, kid." Of course, this would be a very different version of Iron Lad to the comics; the comic book version is a time-traveling teenager attempting to avert a future in which he becomes a despot (Kang the Conqueror, who took advantage of the multiverse).

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At the very least, the fact Harley was invited to the funeral suggests he remained a part of Tony Stark's life. Although Tony did his best to hide it, the kid clearly touched his heart, with Tony feeling a degree of sympathy because Harley's dad had abandoned him. Presumably, the relationship continued over the next decade or so, meaning Harley could well have been mentored by Stark. This surprise cameo essentially writes Harley back into the MCU as Tony's potential protege; and the great thing is, it doesn't feel forced. Although Iron Man has been a constant presence in the MCU, he's not starred in his own film since 2013's Iron Man 3, so his wider relationships haven't been explored at all.

Other Young Avengers Being Set Up In Endgame (And Beyond)

Supporting this theory, Marvel does seem to be working on a number of other Young Avengers characters. In the comics, Scott Lang's daughter Cassie was a member of the team, becoming a superhero codenamed "Stature" a few years after her father had been believed to be killed. Ant-Man & the Wasp went to great lengths to set this idea up; as Kevin Feige noted, "We love that Cassie in this movie in particular is inspired by her father, wants to do good. Certainly, we're following that trend. Where, when, how, we'll see, but I think [Young Avengers] would be cool." The one problem was Cassie's age - but that particular hurdle has now been leaped by a recast courtesy of Avengers: Endgame's five-year time jump.

Meanwhile, Marvel Studios is working on a number of TV shows that will stream exclusively on Disney +. One of these stars Hawkeye, and will reportedly be adapted from Matt Fraction's popular Hawkeye run in which the archer passed on the mantle to a student. In the comics, this is Kate Bishop, and she's another member of the Young Avengers. It's possible the MCU's version will be rather different; Clint isn't a family man in the comics, and Avengers: Endgame opened with Clint training his daughter Lila. He even called her "Hawkeye" as a joke. While this would be a radical departure from the comics, Marvel has form for taking liberties with the source material.

Read More: Hawkeye Is Awesome - And Here's His Marvel Movie Future In MCU Phase 4

If Marvel is indeed switching things up a bit, of course, there's no reason other younger heroes couldn't be incorporated into the Young Avengers. Letitia Wright's Shuri was tremendously popular in Black Panther, to the extent that Marvel Comics has rewritten the character to make her more like her MCU version. The MCU's Spider-Man would be a natural fit for the Young Avengers as well, incorporating another valuable franchise into the team. And the WandaVision series will reportedly draw inspiration from Tom King's Vision run, which introduced Viv Vision, currently a member of the Champions super-team.

Will The Young Avengers Be In Phase 4?

All this raises the question of just what the Avengers franchise itself should look like in Phase 4 and beyond. It's unlikely to continue in its current vein; as the MCU continues to expand, the Avengers films are increasingly becoming a logistical nightmare. Scripts need to include an ever-growing number of characters, somehow finding a way to give everybody their chance to shine; the production crew need to work with countless A-list actors to make the schedules work. All this means that after Avengers: Endgame, it's unlikely Marvel will try to make a blockbuster quite so big for some time. But that doesn't mean the Avengers franchise itself is over and done with for the foreseeable future.

Perhaps the smartest way of keeping the franchise going would be to subvert the Avengers brand, having it branch into sub-franchises with various smaller teams that can eventually come together again. That would fit with either the Young Avengers, or even with the also-rumored Dark Avengers.

At this stage, it's impossible to say for certain that Marvel is indeed setting up the Young Avengers. But it definitely looks to be a strong possibility; Marvel is toying with too many characters and concepts who would fit with that project. And Harley Keener may well have his part to play in the next generation of Earth's Mightiest Heroes.

More: Avengers: Endgame’s Ending Has Some Disturbing Implications

Key Release Dates
  • Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) release date: Jul 02, 2019
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