But is Superman? Maybe, but probably not.
We will get (yet) another answer to this question this week when Warner Bros. releases "Justice League" on Friday, its answer to Marvel’s Avengers movies. The film will unite Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash and Superman, who died in 2016’s "Batman v. Superman" and apparently needs resurrecting.
Messianic imagery has been a part of the Superman mythos for years. It's hard not to see it, considering Superman is a perfectly pure son of a heavenly father who comes to a humble earthly town and inspires everyone with his powers. So it wasn’t too odd in the original 1978 film when Jor-El, Superman's father, bids farewell to his son on planet Krypton, it felt like God sending Jesus down to Earth.
2013’s "Man of Steel," which starred Henry Cavill in the title role and rebooted the Superman film franchise, went a few steps further and was decidedly less subtle with the religious imagery.
In the film, it’s explicitly said that Clark Kent is 33 (Christ's age at his death), he assumes a crucifixion pose in space at one point, and even wears a Kansas City Royals shirt (Royals = King of Kings). They even frame one scene with Clark’s face and Christ praying — in case you missed it.
I can understand the temptation to do this with the character, but the minor details are where the Superman-as-Messiah allegory stops. The core idea of Christianity is that a loving God sacrifices his one perfect son to save the souls of all his other, imperfect children to lead them back to heaven. But Krypton isn’t heaven (it blows up) and Jor-El isn’t God – on the TV show "Smallville" they even made him a villain.
Superman departing a doomed world for one where he has amazing new opportunities doesn’t sound like Christianity to me, but it sounds a lot like the life of his two Jewish immigrant creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who might have otherwise died in Hitler's Europe had their families not fled to America. Superman personifies not just the immigrant dream of the USA but also an ideal for America's muscular role in the world.
Remember, 1980’s "Superman II" ended with our hero returning a flag to the White House, apologizing for having been away and promising he won’t let America down again.
This kind of unrepentant, unmistakable nationalism might not fit in the current political climate and certainly not without an enemy as apparent and agreed upon as the Nazis or the Soviet Union. In that void of political uncertainty, because you have to make Superman about something, "Justice League" will probably play up the Superman-as-Messiah idea — again, particularly since they have to resurrect him.
Now, my feeling is that we need a solidly American Superman now at least as much as we did after Watergate and Vietnam. But if "Justice League" director Joss Whedon double downs on the religious angle, my expectation is he’ll do it better than director Zak Snyder did in "Man of Steel."
Snyder was directing "Justice League" but left in May when his daughter died and Whedon stepped in. Nerd-favorite Whedon — who is also a noted atheist — directed both "Avengers" and "Avengers: Age of Ultron." The former was better received by fans and critics, but the latter is my preference largely because of how Whedon cleverly laced "Ultron" with religious imagery.
From little details like Iron Man's "Jarvis is my co-pilot" bumper sticker to the main plot point of Iron Man trying to unload the burden of avenging on an army of robots led by the uber sentient — and ultimately evil — Ultron, Whedon's film is full of Christian (some may say mythic) moments.
At one point, Ultron even tells the character Quicksilver, whose name is Peter, "Upon this rock, I will build my church."
So if anyone can make Superman as savior work, it’s Whedon.
At least, he’d better. With a production budget of more than $300 million, "Justice League" is one of the most expensive movies ever made. Given that Warner Bros. has had limited success bringing DC comic book characters to life, this is a pricey gamble.
Which means, it may be time for them to start praying.
Jared Whitley is an award-winning writer who comments on the intersections of politics and culture. Reach him on Twitter @whitleypedia - or don't, since Twitter is stupid.