Parkour, Spiderman and Jesus- Power and Freedom in Photography and Comic Culture

parkour-freerunning-image

This image is taken from a gallery of parkour photography, and features a runner doing a backflip on a jetty. He is suspended completely in the air, the water, jetty and land on the horizon taking up the bottom third of the image. He and the sky take up the upper two thirds. This sky-heavy quality and the low angle of the image give a sense of weightlessness- of freedom. Closest to the camera is his hand, perfectly flat and ringed by cloud, as if pushing them away. His arm is obviously muscular and his whole stance is powerful, and his face, turned away from the camera and so seemingly indifferent, adds to this impression. Hanging in the sky, unreadable and physically impressive, he seems powerful and free.

Power and freedom are two of the central themes of the superhero mythos, be it on the pages of comic books or the blockbuster film. One of comic culture’s most quoted lines deal directly with both themes and comes from the pages of a figure who encapsulates parkour’s principles of freedom of movement- Spiderman. “With great power comes great responsibility” reads the caption as Peter Parker’s uncle dies. This is seen by Peter as his fault, he abused his powers, using them for his own ends, and this drives him to be a hero. His indulgence of freedom, possible only because of his new power, is at the centre of his origin story. A similar thread runs through the death of Gwen Stacey, an event which arguably haunts the comic to this day.

The seemingly impossible feats performed by parkour runners, from doing flips atop bridges to leaping across massive gaps and heights, make them as close as we can come today to real superheroes. Indeed DC’s TV show Arrow, set, at least for its first season, in a realist depiction of our world, makes extensive use of parkour to get Green Arrow from A to B, evade attacks and express strength and skill beyond that of his enemies.

The distortion of the image, familiar to views or users of the GoPro cameras which are favoured by parkour runners further adds to the surrealist nature of the image. The horizon bends not convexly but concavely, seemingly pushed down by the jumper’s power. He is the absolute centre of the image, pushing aside cloud, land and water to demand the viewer’s attention. The light clouds on the camera side of the image give way to darker ones behind the runner, evoking another common superhero, and indeed heroic, theme; that of standing between the population at large and danger or darkness (a tradition that goes at least as far back as Jesus’ sacrifice in the Bible). With arms outstretched is this heroic pose aided by an unconscious comparison with the famous image of Jesus on the cross? The sense that he is not about to fall down, but up, created by the vastness of the sky and neglect of the solid ground he jumped from, could certainly be seen as reminiscent of ideas of the rapture, and ascent into the clouds.

The height of the jump, the power of the jumper and the contortion of the natural elements around him all add to the heroic and slightly superhuman connotations within the image. The runner, like Iron Man flying through the sky, Spiderman swinging from a building or Batman gliding through the night, evokes the power and freedom that make superheroes such enduring and powerful figures. Even Batman couldn’t bend the very horizon around him.

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