LOS ANGELES – First there were the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Now, for many Christian moviegoers comes another gospel.
As the hype machine shifts into high gear for the upcoming release of "Superman Returns," some are reading deeply into the film whose hero returns from a deathlike absence to play savior to the world.
"It is so on the nose that anyone who has not caught on that Superman is a Christ figure, you think, `Who else could it be referring to?"' said Steve Skelton, who wrote a book examining parallels between Superman and Christ.
As one of society's most enduring pop-culture icons, Superman has often been observed as more than just a man in tights.
In his early 1930's comic-book incarnation, he was a hero of the New Deal, aiding the destitute and cleaning up America's slums, said Tom De Haven, author of a book about Superman's status as an American icon and a novel about the hero's high-school days.
By the 1950's, fears of postwar urban lawlessness had turned him into a tireless crime fighter, while his early television persona envisioned him as an idealized father figure, De Haven said.
More recently, Quentin Tarantino had the villain of "Kill Bill: Vol. 2" wax philosophical about the Man of Steel: "Clark Kent is how Superman views us... Clark Kent is Superman's critique on the whole human race."
Some have also seen the hero as a gay icon, forced to live a double life with his super-self in the closet. A recent edition of the gay magazine "The Advocate" even asked on its cover, "How gay is Superman?"
But the comparison to Jesus is one that's been made almost since the character's origin in 1938, said Skelton, author of "The Gospel According to the World's Greatest Superhero."
Many simply see the story of a hero sent to Earth by his father to serve mankind as having clear enough New Testament overtones. Others have taken the comparison even further, reading the "El" in Superman's original name "Kal-El" and that of his father "Jor-El" as the Hebrew word for "God," among other theological interpretations.
"Superman Returns," which premieres June 28, has been drawing its own comparisons to biblical accounts, especially after the appearance of its trailer earlier this year.
The preview shows the hero with his eyes closed as the voice of his father -- Marlon Brando's, courtesy of 1978's "Superman" -- tells him he was sent to Earth because humans "lack the light to show the way."
"For this reason," continues the voice, "I have sent them you, my only son."
Online message boards and Web logs quickly latched onto the biblical resonance of those lines.
"The allusion to Jesus Christ could hardly be accidental," wrote Christian blogger Tom Gilson.
"Is this a new Superman for the new Evangelist red state America? Superman as Jesus?" asked one contributor to the Portland-based blog site Urban Honking.
The premise of the new Superman movie alone has fueled speculation that it's wearing its biblical comparisons on its long, tight sleeve. Superman, in the film, returns to Earth after a long absence, a narrative that's been likened to Jesus' death and resurrection.
Meanwhile, news reports that "Passion of the Christ" star James Caviezel was originally in the running for the lead role in "Superman Returns," which eventually went to Brandon Routh, convinced others that the film's makers were playing up the New Testament comparisons.
Moviegoers who enter the theater looking for Christian imagery are unlikely to be disappointed. At one point, Superman sustains a stab wound reminiscent of the spear jabbed in Christ's side by a Roman soldier. In another scene, Routh poses with his arms outstretched as though crucified.
Not everybody welcomes the Superman-Jesus comparisons.
"It's a misrecognition," said Amy Pedersen, who is writing her doctoral thesis in art history at the University of California, Los Angeles, on superhero comic books.
Pedersen said Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who introduced Superman in 1938 in a comic book, were Jews who were inspired by the Old Testament story of Moses and the supernatural golem character from Jewish folklore.
The Christian allusions are recent innovations that compromise the integrity of the Superman myth, she said.
"This does not need to be a consistent cultural form from its beginning to its present, but something has to be maintained," Pedersen said.
"Superman Returns" director Bryan Singer said the notion of Superman as a messianic figure is simply another case of contemporary storytelling borrowing from ancient motifs.
Singer, who is Jewish, said his neighbors' Christianity played a powerful role in the community where he grew up.
"These allegories are part of how you're raised. They find their way into your work," he said. "They become ingrained in your storytelling, in the same way that the origin story of Superman is very much the story of Moses."
It's unlikely that studio executives, conscious of the size of the Christian audiences that were coaxed into theaters by the biblical echoes in "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," would discourage religious associations.
"The way in which the Christian population can get behind a movie that they can agree with is a huge push financially," said Skelton, who also distributes bible-study kits that draw scriptural lessons from classic television episodes. "It's a smart move in terms of attracting an audience."
At the same time, Superman is fixed firmly enough in popular secular culture so that the religious accents are unlikely to alienate a mainstream audience, said Craig Detweiler, who directs the film-studies program at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.
"Just like Jesus, in some ways (Superman) transcends parities and politics and can not be co-opted to serve the narrow interests of others," he said. "That could be one reason why studios aren't afraid to let Superman go that way, toward the religious."