It's a bird!  It's a plane!  No, wait ... it's Jesus!  At least that's what some Christians are seeing in the long-anticipated "Superman Returns," which flies into theaters this week, after decades of failed attempts at sequels.

A savior figure who returns to earth after a long absence.  A stab wound.  A death, in a crucifix-like position.  Even a resurrection. 

The allusions between Warner Brothers' Superman Returns and the Bible story are obvious, says Stephen Skelton, author of The Gospel According to the World's Greatest Superhero (Harvest House).  He quotes from the film to prove it:

"When Jor-El, Superman's father, sends him to Earth, he says, ‘Even though you've been raised as a human being you're not one of them.  They can be a great people, Kal-El.  They wish to be.  They only lack the light to show the way.  For this reason above all - their capacity for good - I have sent them you... my only son.'  The metaphor was clearly there," Skelton insists, with more than a trace of excitement.  "And they're both named "El," which is the Greek word for ‘God.'"

During the past few weeks, the Internet has echoed Skelton, fueling more talk about whether Superman is a Christ figure.  USA Today and MSNBC recently joined the banter, with stories that explored the different ways in which people perceive the hero - including Christians. 

Of course, The Advocate, a popular homosexual magazine, also ran a cover story that questioned whether Superman was gay.  When it comes to analogies, therefore, maybe truth is in the eye of the beholder.

Not surprisingly, Warner Brothers hasn't discouraged this kind of speculation.  Like many studios since The Passion of the Christ, they've retained Grace Hill Media, a Christian public relations firm, to court the Christian press - and even arranged interviews with a surprised but delighted Skelton.

"To shy away from the symbolic aspects would be silly of me," says Bryan Singer, who wrote the screenplay and directed Superman Returns.  "They're obviously there… If you grow up in a Judeo-Christian context, these things are in your consciousness and find their way into your work."

Singer, a University of Southern California film school graduate, experienced a strong association as a boy with the superhero that launched a genre, after being created in 1938 by DC Comics.

"I'm adopted and an only child," he says.  "I was Jewish growing up in a Catholic neighborhood.  Knowing these things I always felt a little different.  Here was this guy who was adopted, an only child.  He also had blue eyes, and I had blue eyes."

Since Superman: The Movie, which starred Christopher Reeve and was directed by Hollywood legend Richard Donner (The Goonies, Lethal Weapon) in 1978, and its three, less-popular successors (Superman II, III and IV), Hollywood has made several attempts to get Superman off the ground again.  Entertainment Weekly reported that during the late '90s, director Tim Burton tapped Nicolas Cage (who even named his second child Kal-El) for the role.  In 2002, Brett Ratner (X-Men: The Last Stand, Red Dragon) considered everyone from James Marsden and Josh Hartnett to Ashton Kutcher for the part.  Then director McG (Charlie's Angels) considered the largely unknown, youthful Brandon Routh - who has finally made it to the screen in Singer's version - as late as 2004.  That project crashed when, reportedly, the aviophobic director refused to board an airplane for Australia, where the film was scheduled to shoot.