If you were a video game fan in the late '90s then you already know just how big 1999's Tony Hawk's Pro Skater game was. Already a real-life sport growing in popularity at the time, the video game helped bring the sport to a much wider audience as well as kicked off one of the most popular and best-selling video game franchises of the early 2000s, one that offered unique features and inspired other "extreme" sports games. Even more than two decades on, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater continues to cast a long shadow and it's the story of how that game came to be as well as its enduring influence that the new documentary Pretending I'm a Superman attempts to tell. While the film doesn't necessarily stick the landing, it's an engaging and fascinating look at the skateboarding world and its evolution.
The documentary centers itself around interviews with a variety of figures, some directly involved in the creation of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, others who are experts in the gaming industry, and still others who were inspired by the game – including various pro skateboarders – and also features a great deal of video footage of skating as well as gameplay. The result is a film that has a bit of a rough-edged look and feel. The editing here isn't great, but it's something that is tonally spot on with skateboarding culture while still remaining accessible for those whose interest in skateboarding is limited. In particular, the documentary does a truly fantastic job of giving the viewer both a history lesson about skateboarding generally while also offering a glimpse into the future with many of the film's subjects talking about just how far skateboarding has come and how today's skaters are pushing the envelope in ways that keep the sport fresh in astonishing new ways.
What doesn't work quite as well, though, are elements that are meant to talk more about the video game. While there's definitely some interesting interviews about how Tony Hawk Pro Skater came to be, as well as some exploration about some of the missteps in the franchise in later years – Tony Hawk: Ride and the skateboard peripheral in particular comes to mind here – much of the documentary just feels at times like a lot of "isn't this just cool?" with no real explanation of why it was cool. And it was cool. It is cool, so much so that skateboarding and gaming fans alike will certainly wish there was just a bit more substance. Getting to see some of the footage of Hawk in a motion-capture suit doing tricks for the first game is deeply interesting, but fans looking to really get into details won't get a whole lot in that respect.
The documentary also misses the mark a bit when it comes to fully exploring the impact the game and the game franchise has had. While there are several people who mention at various points what the game meant to them, when it comes to getting into the diversity element of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, it almost feels like that's mentioned as an afterthought. The game notably featured both a Black skateboarder, Kareem Campbell, and a female skateboarder, Elissa Steamer, but the two interviews that talk about how seeing that kind of representation in the game changed things is too brief. For a film that, at times, leans into just how groundbreaking Tony Hawk's Pro Skater was and how it changed the face of skateboarding, there's a lot more tell rather than show, even with plenty of footage of truly incredibly tricks.
Pretending I'm a Superman is an interesting and fun documentary that sheds light on the overall history of skateboarding culture as well as Tony Hawk's general career as framed through how the game helped anchor his success. While the film probably would have worked a bit better being focused entirely on skateboarding, entirely on Hawk's career, or simply on having gone a bit deeper into the creation of the game, it's still an enjoyable and informative project that captures the joy of the sport in a way that anyone can appreciate – skater or not.
Rating: 3 out of 5
Pretending I'm a Superman hits digital/VOD on August 18th.