WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE MOVIE
If there’s anything harder than adapting a super-hero to the movies, it might be adapting one to a prose book. Much like how writing about music is like dancing about architecture, writing prose about super-heroes just feels bizarre and awkward. And if you’re writing a novelization of a movie based on a screenplay that is not the final draft, well, you’d better be a pretty skilled writer. Thankfully, the adaptation of Superman Returns was done by longtime comics writer Marv Wolfman, who had a run of writing Superman in the 1980s, and whose comic writing credentials are impeccable.
Wolfman does a terrific job in this book of extending and filling out certain scenes in the movie, giving them more depth and emotional complexity than they seem to have on the screen. There is at least one critical piece of the movie that’s left out in Wolfman’s adaptation, which stands out as a very sore thumb, but on the other hand he fleshes out other aspects of the story so much that the omissions and deletions are pretty much a tradeoff.
The additions make the story feel like a director’s cut in many ways. The biggest addition to the book is an extended sequence showing Superman’s trip to Krypton. This sequence is exciting and interesting in Wolfman’s hands, showing both the history of Krypton and Kal-El’s extended family. We get a recap of Superman’s origin in there, but we also get the extra pathos of the circular storyline in the story. In the movie, since viewers don’t see much about the trip to Krypton, we don’t see Superman’s reflections about the story essentially going full circle. In the book, he flies to Krypton and sees that the planet is a dead husk; thus, when he sees the Kryptonian crystal mountains that Luthor creates on Earth, it forces Superman to consider what his real home is. That gives the character more depth and character.
Similarly, the scene on the Kent family farm gives Clark extra depth that he doesn’t have in the movie. In the book, great pains are made to talk about how Martha Kent has moved on with her life after the death of her husband. She has a new paramour, with whom she plays Scrabble, and has plans to move to Montana. We see how the life of Superman’s loved ones has changed since he’s been gone, which gives his story arc extra pathos. It’s nice to see inside Clark’s head to see the emotional pain he feels about his mother’s growth. Clark Kent may be Superman, but he still has a lot of immature boy in him.
The big exclusion in Wolfman’s novelization is that the relationship between Superman and his apparent son Jason isn’t explicitly revealed in the book. In fact, the biggest difference between the book and the movie is that Jason doesn’t shove the piano at Luthor’s henchman. Jason never actually shows any super-powers in the book, and the scene at the very end where Superman visits the boy is changed to a visit to Lois instead. It’s an interesting change, and one wonders if it’s because the novelization was based on early draft of the screenplay or if Wolfman was asked to keep the revelation out of the book.
I found myself really enjoying this book as sort of a supplemental director’s cut of Superman Returns. We get lots of “bonus scenes” that do things like give greater depth to Luthor’s henchmen, give the back story of the space shuttle launch, and spend more time in the Fortress of Solitude. The Superman Returns novelization is a quick and easy read, perfect for beach or airplane reading.