In a movie full of surprises, perhaps none was more unexpected than Ty Simpkins.
The child actor from Iron Man 3 returned as a college-aged version of his character Harley Keener for a brief appearance at the end of Avengers: Endgame was the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe gathered for Tony Stark's funeral.
When Simpkins appeared onscreen, you probably squinted for a second trying to figure out who that skinny kid was standing between Scarlet Witch and Maria Hill before the camera panned over to Captain Marvel and Nick Fury. But for Simpkins, those few seconds in Avengers: Endgame were a major moment in his life as an actor and a Marvel fan — and one of the hardest things he ever had to do.
Back in 2017, Simpkins learned Marvel's biggest secret: Iron Man was going to die in Avengers: Endgame. Keeping that spoiler to himself was as great a challenge as anything the Avengers have ever faced.
"That’s two years to keep that a secret," Simpkins says. "It was the hardest thing."
In 2013, Simpkins starred in Iron Man 3 as Harley, a young boy who winds up helping a struggling Iron an rebuild his suit and finds a father figure in the process. Years later, Simpkins was practicing lines in his car before another audition when his manager called. There was a possibility Marvel Studios wanted to bring back Harley for the final movie in the Infinity Saga.
Later that week, his manager confirmed the news. Then, Simpkins got another call from Marvel Studios co-president Louis D'Esposito.
"He just kind of talked me through the general plot leading up to the scene that I was in," Simpkins says. "He walked me through how they get to a point where they’re fighting Thanos and then at the end Iron Man dies. So then he just told me I’m gonna be at the funeral."
As soon as Simpkins hung up, he reached out to Robert Downey Jr. (the two have stayed in touch and check-in periodically).
"I was talking to him a little bit about how excited I am to be in the film and how much the character of Iron Man meant to me through my entire life," Simpkins says.
Marvel is famously secretive about the twists and turns of each upcoming movie. In interviews, actors often joke about "Marvel snipers" to get out of questions verging into spoiler territory. After Avengers: Endgame, Spider-Man actor Tom Holland (who has a reputation for spilling important details) revealed that someone actually told him he was filming Tony Stark's wedding, not his funeral, to keep the movie's ending a secret.
But according to Simpkins, most cast and crew members were aware of what was happening.
"Wedding was like the code word they were using with the crew and some of the cast," he says. "For people who were auditioning for roles, they told everyone it was a wedding, but I knew ahead of time. I knew what I was getting myself into. I knew when I showed up on set what was gonna happen, and then I gathered little bits and pieces of the plot from the rest of the cast."
Of course, that didn't make keeping Marvel's big secret any easier. Simpkins says it wasn't particularly difficult at earlier on, especially before Infinity War's release when the concept of Iron Man's death felt far off and intangible, but as Endgame got closer, it became harder to keep his spoiler from slipping out.
"At the end there it started seeping out of me a little bit," Simpkins says, "just because we filmed that in November 2017 and it came out in 2019."
After Harley's brief cameo in Avengers: Endgame, plenty of Marvel fans wondered if the movie might be setting him up to play a larger role later on. Simpkins says he hasn't heard anything either way, but he'd jump at the opportunity to return to the MCU for a meatier role.
I’d love to be in future films," he says. "Obviously I’d love to be inserted anywhere I could, but I haven’t been told anything."
Specifically, he tells me he'd like to see Harley team up with Spider-Man or Captain America, adding that as a kid he was obsessed with Cap and used some of that life experience to color his relationship with Tony Stark in Iron Man 3.
In the short term, however, Simpkins is focused on finishing his education. After earning his high school degree, he's headed to Pace University in New York to study acting. And even if he never returns to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, playing a part in Endgame provided some closure, both on a chapter of his career and on his life as one of the millions of fans who grew up loving the live-action versions of Iron Man, Captain America, and the rest of the Avengers.
"The Iron Man movies were the ones that came out first and that I grew up with, onscreen and offscreen," he says. "That was my childhood and it’s going away now. These movies have been out for so long now, and now they’re moving to the next chapter of things. When I found out Iron Man was going to die I just thought, Ok I’m growing up."
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