Note: This review contains spoilers for the movie Man of Steel. If you haven’t seen it and don’t want it spoiled for you, read no further.
I have generally found that novelizations are the exception to the general rule that novels are better than movies. Where a movie screenplay is the original source material, the novel can feel thin and hurried–lacking in the depth of thought and characterization that goes into good original novels. Thus when I was asked to review the Man of Steel novelization, I agreed with low expectations. I was pleasantly surprised.
Although the novel adds a few additional scenes (which possibly could have been in the original screenplay but cut from the film), including an amusing anecdote of an infant Clark wreaking havoc at a doctor’s office, it is for the most part faithful to the movie. Thus if you’ve seen the movie you know the basic story, and I won’t bother to summarize it here.
The chief advantage of the novel is that it gives you a window into the minds of the characters that is simply impossible to achieve on screen. This perspective is interesting in that it gives context to some of Superman’s seemingly uncharacteristic actions. Many people have argued the movie was untrue to Superman in that he seemed unconcerned by the collateral damage caused by his battles. I agree with those criticisms. The novel makes it clear that Superman was very much aware of and anguished by the damage being done about him. Here we can see from Superman’s thoughts that he was trying desperately to drive the action out of populated areas, but that he was simply too overwhelmed to confine the fighting.
Less convincing is the author’s attempt to reconcile Superman’s final decision to kill Zod. As in the movie, Superman is faced with choice between killing his enemy and allowing his enemy to kill innocent men, women and children. Moreover, we see from his thoughts that he could think of no other alternatives. He lacked the energy to drag Zod away, Zod couldn’t be permanently subdued, etc. I found this less satisfying, precisely because Superman should be able to think of another alternative. For all the emphasis on his powers, Superman has always been a creative and cunning combatant, perhaps second only to Batman in his capacity to plan and adapt. A Superman that can think of no alternative to killing is not quite as bad as a Superman okay with killing (the novel makes it very clear he’s devastated by the decision), but it’s still far from ideal.
Despite my continued reservations about some aspects of the story, I think author Greg Cox did as well as possible with the source material he was given. I liked the character that emerged on the pages somewhat better than the one apparent on the screen. The novel in essence fills in the missing thought bubbles that pervade comic books but can’t be easily translated into film. If you didn’t like the movie, or liked it primarily for its special effects, then you can safely skip the novel. But if you liked the movie and are hungry to dig deeper into the Man of Steel story, then I expect you’ll enjoy the book.