Approaching the new documentary Pretending I’m a Superman – The Tony Hawk Video Game Story, from director Ludvig Gür in association with Wood Entertainment, I must admit that I know very little about the world of skateboarding. Additionally, my familiarity with the video game industry is not much deeper. Thus, I walked into this film – which would detail the influence and impact of Hawk and the Pro Skater video game series – with very little baggage, biases, or personal expectations. I was glad to discover a considerably informative and engaging documentary that managed to keep a newcomer like me engrossed over the course of the feature’s runtime.
The first quarter or so of the documentary is patient and gracious enough to provide plenty of context regarding the ebbs and flows of skateboarding’s popularity throughout the decades. By way of interviews with masters of the sport like Tony Hawk himself, Steve Caballero, Rodney Mullen, Chad Muska, and Jamie Thomas, I was given a solid amount of framework with which to work as I absorbed the rest of the story. And, make no mistake, even with a relatively short runtime of approximately 70 minutes, there is a high volume of story present. Little did I know that there is a long history of conflict between the sport of skateboarding and corporate structures, including The X Games. I thoroughly appreciated the commentaries provided on this front from the aforementioned industry professional skaters. As members of the skateboarding community, part of their identity and culture revolved around independence and autonomy. “Selling out” was the last thing they ever wanted to do. Even in certain instances as skaters tried to dip their toes into corporate waters, the strong current of capitalism would violently pull them in and quickly spit them back out with no hesitation. This is precisely why Hawk – already a living legend in the skater populace by the late 1990s – was so wary to partner with a video game studio. However, the decision to finally take a leap of faith and develop an alliance with Neversoft and Activision paid off tremendously with the massive hit of Tony Hawk Pro Skater in 1999.
Essentially, Hawk was willing to make a personal sacrifice by selling his rights if the ripple effect had a positive impact on the sport of skateboarding. All that mattered to him was the happiness of skaters everywhere. Indeed, the momentous influence of this video game is difficult to depict in a documentary of this short length – especially as the film frequently meanders into music video style montages of skateboarding highlights and archived mixtapes, with unfortunately inconsistent sound mixing. While thrilling and compelling, cutting out a few of these reels in the editing bay might have been a wiser decision. Regardless, the crux of the storytelling direction from director Gür and the rest of his crew has all of my respect. Even as its focus strayed in some areas, the documentary told me everything I needed to know about the impression made by Hawk, as an individual and ambassador of the sport, and as a pioneer of extreme sports gaming. In an interview with Walter Day, the man known as “The Father of Competitive Gaming,” he compares the significance of Tony Hawk Pro Skater to that of the original Pac-Man, in their respective time periods and video game genres. Comments from members of the band Bad Religion, who produced the soundtrack for Pro Skater, pinpoint how their involvement with the game changed the trajectory of their entire music careers. Rodney Mullen mentions how amazed he was that the game “brought the complexity of what [skaters] do to the general public,” bridging the gap between those outside and within the sport. All of this was made possible because Hawk took the chance and signed on with Neversoft and Activision. Again, from my perspective as someone quite unacquainted with skateboarding and video games by themselves, it was awesome to recognize that the marriage between these two communities resulted in something so meaningful for various facets of the entertainment realm.
It is hard for me personally to judge how hardcore fans of Tony Hawk, skateboarding, or video games might react to this documentary. These individuals may or may not find any revelations that are noteworthy or surprising about Hawk or the Pro Skater series. Yet, speaking for myself, I can definitely say that Pretending I’m a Superman had me intrigued for practically the full runtime, even with a few detractive factors along the way. In its mission to characterize the indelible mark of one man across skateboarding and gaming, this film flourishes.