Film reviews

Pretending I’m a Superman: The Tony Hawk Video Game Story – Documentary Review

The Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater franchise is having a bit of a moment, right now.  Activision and (formerly) Neversoft’s landmark skateboarding video game series, which hasn’t had a proper entry in 13 years – look, I will gladly forget the Robomodo disasters ever existed if you’re also willing to – turns 21 next month and that occasion is being marked by, at long last, a ground-up supposedly-faithful remake of Pro Skater 1 + 2 by former handheld-Hawk developers Vicarious Visions.

Naturally, this has set the Internet ablaze in nostalgia for the once-mighty arcade-y king of the wheel-board world, aided by both the near-simultaneous announcement of Skate 4 and the nostalgia cycle in general officially hitting the early 2000s.  Heaven knows I’m not above it.  Hell, I still bust out my PS2 copies of Pro Skater 3 through to Underground 2 on the regular for some of that fast-paced, super-accessible yet fiendishly hard to master skating goodness and one of the most consistently excellent soundtracks in all of gaming history.

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And now, serendipitously right on cue with these developments, we have the release of Ludvig Gür’s long in-development documentary on the video game phenomenon, Pretending I’m a Superman.  And, boy, do I mean long in development – this film first made headlines for an Indiegogo crowdfund campaign back in 2017; I’m legitimately surprised it’s finally been finished and is getting a proper release.  Pleasantly surprised, to be fair, but surprised nonetheless.

Also, pleasantly surprising is that Pretending I’m a Superman is actually pretty solid, which sounds like the mother of all backhanded compliments but isn’t intended to be.  I’ve watched a lot of video game and crowdfunded niche subject documentaries over the years and many of them, a very great many of them, are cringe-inducing garbage drunk on their own mythmaking and preoccupied with base-playing rather than meaningfully educating or interesting those outside of the subject’s faithful – see: Video Games: the Movie and Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony or, more accurately, do not see under any circumstances.

Pretending I’m a Superman is not exempt from those same issues, the biggest one being that it already assumes you have some familiarity or love for the games themselves and don’t need much of a primer on why they’re so good, but Gür very smartly and very quickly recognises that the story of the Tony Hawk games is more the story of skateboarding, skate culture, and its various peaks and valleys in mainstream popular culture.

To that end, it’s a refreshingly focused documentary, one which sees the games themselves as more of a conduit to talk about how skate culture evolved in the public eye as a result of these games and their ‘right place, right game, right time’ arrival.  Gür’s talking heads consists predominately of skaters featured in the series – Tony himself (obviously), Bob Burnquist, Rodney Mullen, Chad Muska, among others – as well as skaters who grew up on and were inspired to take up skating by the series – Jordyn Barratt, Keire Johnson, Aaron Homoke – each reflecting on the impact of the games but also just as often their initial apprehension at the series and involving themselves in it due to skate culture’s longstanding push-pull relationship with rebellious authenticity and capitalistic opportunism.

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So, if you’re coming along looking for an understanding of why the games are so beloved as playable video games rather than for what they represent, you’re gonna be left wanting.  Even with a few key Neversoft employees getting (limited) camera time, the gaming analysis is rather vague, being as it is mostly provided by skaters who can only really talk in generalities in the form of “I picked up the controller and it just felt right”.  I definitely feel that giving either the Neversoft developers some more screen-time to go into detail about their process or bringing in some game critics to better explain things like game feel and the series’ relation to arcade and platforming genres would have helped significantly.

The predominate focus on the first two entries in the series and their pop cultural impact over later instalments also means that the near-decade after Pro Skater 2 is cast off in about five minutes which fail to properly explain why the series really burnt out; although it does include poor old Tony still insisting that the motion-controlled RIDE board just didn’t get its due, bless his little heart.  Gür might have been better served pulling from Mat Whitecross’s playbook with his Oasis documentary, Supersonic, in just pretending anything after those first two years didn’t happen and utilising that time to fully flesh out late-stage interviews where Barratt and Johnson discuss how seen they felt when the games let them play as female and Black skaters (respectively).

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But for its specific focus, Pretending is a really solid documentary.  All of Gür’s talking heads are highly passionate personalities clearly thrilled to be discussing these games and the impact they had upon their careers.  Mullen talking about how his recognisable presence in the game helped defuse a tense situation when filming in a rough neighbourhood, Goldfinger’s John Feldmann recounting their first European tour and the complete 180 an apathetic crowd had when they hit “Superman” on the setlist to a pogoing frenzy, Burnquist’s initial reservations about the whole thing given the shaky try-hard launch of the X-Games.

The early going pre-Pro Skater is honestly an interesting and entertaining skate documentary in its own right, charting the rise of street skating and the landmark landing of The 900 by Tony.  There are even some good points made about how Tony himself made for an ideal non-threatening white-meat poster-child for skating to present to middle America, I’d like to have seen even more insight and self-critique of that nature.

Those interviews are also supplemented by a wealth of archival footage and music cues taken from the games’ legendary soundtracks – that last part causing Zave Demonte’s original Explosions in the Sky-y score to come off rather ill-fitting for the topic.  I honestly couldn’t tell you if there’s any rare or cleverly recontextualised footage in here cos I’m not deeply immersed in skate culture to know that stuff myself, but I will say that it appears very comprehensive.

Lots of skate footage, some demo builds, plenty of scene-setting commercials which effectively demonstrate and highlight the absurdity of Tony’s rise in the mainstream, and once again lots of the bigger names from those soundtracks, a fair bit of which I’m shocked they were able to afford to license.  That may explain why Pretending I’m a Superman is a svelte 65 minutes long (70 with credits), but the trade-off does provide good pacing and a strong visual component that several other very low-budget documentaries end up lacking by necessity (Jewel’s Catch One springs to mind).

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So, although hampered by its limited budget and perhaps assuming a touch too much viewer familiarity on the games involved to give them the exploratory dive the documentary’s title primes them to expect, Pretending I’m a Superman: The Tony Hawk Video Game Story shakes out as a surprisingly solid little doc about how a beloved video game franchise managed to push skateboarding and skate culture once more into the mainstream, and cement skating’s importance for a whole new generation.

For fans of the games and skating, I see folks largely coming away satisfied.  For the non-believers, the brief runtime, quality anecdotes, and overall breezy presentation make it worth a gander, although I imagine both parties may still find themselves wishing Gür had the time and resources to plug a little deeper.  If nothing else, it’s definitely gotten me fully hyped up for the series’ grand return!  …y’know, so long as it doesn’t end up like the last grand return.  *shudders*

Pretending I’m a Superman: The Tony Hawk Video Game Story will be available to rent and buy on all major VOD services from 18th August.

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