MAN OF STEEL, the Novelization: Better than the Movie.

Official novelizations are nothing new. In fact, the production of these little palm-sized books (designed to offer the whole arc of a blockbuster movie in 68,000 words) have become a standard marketing practice for a few decades now. Novelizations rarely, if ever, stray from the screenplay. So why read them? Well, because as Greg Cox demonstrates in Man of Steel: The Official Novelization, every once in awhile they can actually offer something new. And maybe even better.

Here’s the official word from Titan Books:

“A young man learns that he has extraordinary powers, and that he is not of this Earth. As he approaches adulthood, he journeys to discover where he came from, and what he was sent here to accomplish.”

First off, this is what Man of Steel does not offer: a different beginning, middle, or end. The anatomy of the story you saw on screen lives on in this book, right down to the dialogue. Man of Steel provides a scene-for-scene, and often word-for-word reenactment of the movie. Which is just what you would expect from an official novelization. And probably just what writer Greg Cox got paid to do. And yet, despite this predetermined structure, Greg Cox was still able to amplify some of the latent Superman themes that comic geeks were hungry for, and which the film actually failed to highlight — an extraordinary feat given the lack of wiggle room Cox had to work with.

So how did Cox do this? By exploiting two narrative techniques common to books, that screenplays still haven’t figured out a way to master: internal dialogue and exposition. Or in short, all the shit that happens inside a character’s heart and head that’s impossible to film. Yes, Cox’s characters think. And feel. And they do it on the side, in-between the lines they have to say. The result is a fun (and at times compelling) book that’s infinitely more satisfying than the movie.

Here are some highlights…but read on cautiously — spoilers abound:

It’s Got None of that Jesus Stuff:

We’ve all heard about Warner Bros’ deliberate choice to cast Kal-El in a Messianic light (even though Superman was clearly a product of two Jewish kids from Cleveland, and, by extension, a better candidate for Moses than the big J.C.). But regardless of how you feel about this choice, the invitation to equate Kal-El with Jesus was very clear on screen, and even overdone.

Well, Cox has none of that. Yes, we still get the Pa Kent “heavenly father” scene, and we still get Superman talking to a priest, but gone are the overwrought visuals that really made the Jesus marketing strategy intolerable: Superman does not “hang” in outer-space on an invisible cross; nor do we get the pseudo “Garden of Gethsemane” scene where a stain-glass Jesus literally looks over Superman’s shoulder as he decides whether to turn himself in or not. Instead, Cox turns his back on these allusions (as much as he can), and let’s Superman be, well, Superman.

Superman as the “Ideal” Immigrant:

Maybe Cox’s paring down of the Jesus stuff left room for him to explore other themes. And if so, then Superman as the “ideal” immigrant is definitely one of them. This is an old-school topic of conversation among hardcore Superman fans, and one which the movie all but ignored. But here, Cox embraces it. Here’s the jist: Superman is not from here. He’s from somewhere else, but man, he does a good job of assimilating. He takes on a “normal” name; get’s a “normal” job; and even tries to land a “normal” girl. He works his ass off to make sure he’s never identified as the uber-foreigner he is. Sure, he has pride for his homeland, but he keeps this aspect of his life under wraps…literally. If it wasn’t for the Fortress of Solitude, all we’d see is the aspiring farmboy. In today’s pluralistic culture this aspect of Superman is problematic as hell, but for better or worse it’s central to his character.

Now enter Zod — he doesn’t want to assimilate; he wants to invade. And in many ways Zod’s agenda typifies the xenophobe’s greatest fear. Cox seems to understand this, and Man of Steel offers a lot of narration to highlight this fundamental difference between the two Kryptionions. It creates for awesome moments of tension. And some heartbreaking scenes. When Superman first meets Zod, Cox writes: “Despite his apprehensions regarding Zod’s agenda, Superman felt a tremor of excitement, as well. These were his people, after all. For the first time in his life he was about to meet other living Kryptonians. Maybe this was just a reunion” (173). What unfolds, of course, is carnage — and Superman looks like a sap for having ever felt such hope, or kinship with Zod. In the end they can’t negotiate they’re opposing visions on how to emigrate. And it pains Superman. Moments like this make Superman seem vulnerable. And real. Something the movie never quite pulled off.

Superman as a Mama’s Boy:

Let’s be honest: In the movie, Lois Lane’s was as flat as a kitchen table — she tried to have spunk, with no backstory to speak of, and very little opportunity to play anything but a damsel in distress, she never pulled it off. And while Cox’s novelization doesn’t revive Lois, he does a surprisingly good job of making Ma Kent feel like a real-life person. Some of the novelizations most tender moments are between Superman and Ma Kent. They hug. They talk. She reflects back on him as a baby. And Cox throws out sentences like these, creating a more empathetic version of Supes than the movie ever did: “His homeworld had indeed been very different from Earth. He tried to imagine the challenge they had faced, raising a child from another planet” (143). Superman is a Mama’s boy, which makes Zod’s invasion of the Kent farm even more dramatic.

Superman as a Killer:

The only major drawback to Man of Steel is Cox’s inability to make Superman’s murder of Zod read authentic. Yes, Cox tired. Yes, he offered lines like: “Superman cried out in anguish, knowing he had no other choice” (303). But in the end, it rang hollow. But maybe that’s just because Superman can’t suddenly (and convincingly) transform into a killer, no matter how good a writer you are.


In the end, a novelization can only do so much. It’s tethered to a screenplay that’s pretty much set in stone. But despite this, Greg Cox managed to deliver new elements to the story that got handed to him. And he left it better than he found it.



Max Delgado is the founder and curator of The Longbox Project (@LongBoxProject), a memory project where comics are both inspiration and point of departure. You can check it out here.

S#!T Talking Central

  • idlereader

    I think this article could have used another read through before posting. Man of Steen? Am I the only one who sees that in the title of the article? And “But maybe that’s just because Superman can be believably made into a killer, no matter good a writer you are.” is not a well written sentence.

    • writer

      Thank you for your comment. I’ve just taken care of them.

  • awesome movies

    Superman has killed before In the same situation in comics AKA doomsday….zod was genetically engineered for a purpose and in the end vowed to kill every single person on earth …..SIMILAR TO DOOMSDAY WHO WAS ALSO ENGINEERED FOR A PURPOSE AND HAD NO CONCIOUS and pure hatred for all life…..if superman did not kill doomsday then doomsday would of took every humans life AND WE ALL KNOW SUPERMAN WOULDN’T LET THAT HAPPEN. ….SAME IN MAN OF STEEL…..SUPERMAN was raised by human so he is in no way perfect by any means but he tries his hardest to make the right choices even when they are difficult