Little boys have their own dolls — or “action figures,” the masculinized term that society has forced us to call them — to play with. G.I. Joe, Transformers, Power Rangers, Batman, Superman, Legos, and more. But unlike girls, when boys outgrow toys, they can move on to collecting “figurines” to build. They can collect comics. They can even watch big-budget film and TV adaptations of their favorite toys. From the ’80s until now, nearly every significant boy-marketed franchise has had new life breathed into it in the form of live-action films. High-profile actors from Michael Keaton to Chris Pratt have become the fully realized adult versions of beloved boy heroes.
Marvel specifically has worked to perfect its mass appeal, incorporating comedy that children can engage with as well as nuanced themes for adults. They’ve managed to imbue an emotional gravitas to the stories of Iron Man, Captain America, Black Panther, and more that now-adult male fans of these heroes can ponder. They changed the game of superhero adaptations for the mainstream, challenging all creators of “nerd” media to meet their standards. Most importantly, they figured out there was a market for speaking directly to men who were not ready to let the playthings of their youth go. Even before Marvel’s rise, we had Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” trilogy, Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy, and Michael Bay’s “Transformers,” a franchise that’s still going strong 16 years on. All boy toys, all the time, at the box office.