Fingerflip. Varial. Kickflip. 360 Shove It. 900.
If these words mean anything at all to you, chances are you’re either a skater or a Tony Hawk Pro Skater. The game itself released in September 1999, long after the skateboarding boom had cleared out skating parks in the mid-‘80s, but just as the X-Games were starting to take hold in the public eye. A game designed for skate fans by one of the premier skateboards of the day, Tony Hawk, this Activison/Neversoft release for home console play would be instrumental in shifting how popular culture would view skaters, bringing the very niche sport to the masses. In his first feature length film, the documentary Pretending I’m a Superman: The Tony Hawk Video Game Story, Ludvig Gür explores the cultural impact of the Tony Hawk Pro Skater series through a variety of interviews, news reels, and specialty recordings, each new piece of information making it clear that this single game, the first installment in the series, single-handedly changed the course of pop culture forever.
Fans of the prolific game series Tony Hawk Pro Skater (THPS) will delight in several aspects of Pretending I’m Superman, as the bulk of the documentary is clearly aimed at them. You’ll listen to renowned skaters like Steve Caballero, Chad Muska, and Rodney Mullen talk about the die-out of skating in the ‘80s before its rebirth, their involvement in the game, and the impact THPS has had on their lives. Mullen, for instance, recalls how being involved in the second game made him more popular on the tour circuit than some of the better skaters he traveled with. You’ll also hear from current skaters like Keire Johnson and Jordyn Barratt, who each discuss how the representation they found within the games inspired them to pick up a board. These talking head portions will delight longtime fans of the series or general skate enthusiasts as the information they share is profoundly relatable. Unlike other sports — baseball, football, soccer — which became popular and changed in a myriad of ways as a result of popular assimilation, skateboarding remains just as gritty and daredevilish as ever, somehow impervious to the capitalist machine that seeks to homogenize it the more popular it becomes. This is but one of many points touched on during the course of the 77-minute documentary, which even includes John Feldmann, lead singer of band Goldfinger, whose song “Superman” has the lyric from which the doc takes its name; Larry “Ler” Lalonde of Primus; and Jay Bentley of Bad Religion; each of whom discuss the impact the inclusion of their music on the soundtracks for both THPS 1 and 2 had on their respective professional lives. Feldmann recalls playing “Superman” during a European tour and seeing the crowd immediately shift from engaged to absolutely out of their minds. Pretending I’m Superman is just one story extolling how instrumental the game has been in a variety of personal successes on top of another.
In short, Pretending I’m Superman offers a series of top tier interviews fans of the game will take extensive delight in hearing. The problem is that the documentary is so focused on speaking to the fans that it misses an opportunity to really explore who the skaters are and how the world of skating shifted as a result of THPS. For instance, while THPS players or skate fans might be aware of Caballero, he’s offered little screen time and doesn’t speak much about how he got into skating or his current role in the community. Same for Muska, Mullen, and Aaron “Jaws” Homoki. The audience is eventually clued in that these skaters are connected to the game, but without any kind of background on them, it’s difficult to connect with them in any meaningful way. One suspects that the documentary does this on a superficial level in order to move from one aspect of the game’s journey to another, yet, in so doing, makes it difficult for anyone outside of the sport/culture to truly come to appreciate who these people are other than Tony Hawk himself. It’s even stated within the film that Hawk was selected as the face of what would become the first THPS because he possessed this clean-cut look and the public was taken with him through his involvement with the X-Games. Yet we don’t come away from the documentary knowing anything about Hawk outside of where his life touches on the game. Pretending I’m Superman is a fine, enjoyable documentary on its own, sure, but, without this deeper dive, it ultimately feels like an advert for the newly released remaster of the first two Tony Hawk games instead of something aimed at a clear niche. Is there anything wrong with aiming for a niche? Absolutely not. But the common message within Pretending I’m Superman is how the game itself blew open the doors so that the general public could come into this world, learn, and appreciate what these athletes are all about. Hence why the film would have benefited by taking it a step further by using the game as a means of exploring the individuals involved even more deeply.
Without even trying, Pretending I’m Superman boldly proclaims that skateboarding is not bound for the old folk’s home anytime soon as the legacy inadvertently borne out of THPS is still going strong. The documentary may not offer a deep dive into the skaters apart from a brief introduction that may help make THPS fans into greater appreciators of the skaters behind the series nor does it offer the most cursory exploration of the music which would help define it, but the profound love for the series by those involved and by those who would pick up boards as a result of THPS is obvious. Sports have been connected to video gaming since its inception (Pong, 1972) and games like the Madden NFL series never seem to run out of steam or popularity, even as not much changes other than the roster from iteration to iteration. Yet, Tony Hawk Pro Skater stood out above the rest because it took something complex and found a way to simplify it down to its core: unadulterated fun. By tapping that, a legacy began that not only inspired others to pick up a controller, but, better still, a board, thinking that they, too, could land a 900 just like Tony Hawk. It’s a dream that continues to persist today.
Available on digital beginning August 18th, 2020.
Head to the official website for more information on Pretending I’m a Superman: The Tony Hawk Video Game Story.
Tony Hawk Pro Skater 1+2, a remaster of the first two games in the series, is available on Playstion, Xbox, and PC beginning September 4th, 2020.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.