Film review: Pretending I'm a Superman tells the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater story

If you had told me back in the early 2000s that there would one day be a documentary about Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, I would have been surprised. My high school clique of punk and metalhead nerds burned countless hours trying to grind, grab, and fly like the Birdman, but at the time none of us realized this was a passion shared by so many others. Back in the early 00s, you couldn’t just Google up THPS sales stats.

But indeed it was a bestseller, and Pretending I’m a Superman, the new documentary offering a behind-the-scenes look at the early years of the franchse, makes a compelling case that THPS made a huge impact on the lives of the people involved, and played a huge role in the proliferation of skateboarding throughout mainstream culture.

The film starts with a quick crash course on the history of skateboarding, from its birth in the 70s to its nadir in the 80s and rebirth in the 90s with street skating and the X-Games. It also touches on how skateboarding culture spread through VHS tapes featuring new tricks by folks like Rodney Mullen. While this won’t be news to anyone familiar with the history of skating, it’s useful context for civilians.

The film itself sits at a fascinating intersection of documentary filmmaking, video game culture, and sports. While abortive attempts at cinematic video game adaptations are common, this is the first film that I know of that has attempted to analyze the real world impact of a particular gaming franchise (documentaries featuring pearl-clutching alarmism regarding video game violence notwithstanding). And that makes sense - skaters are always trying to push their limits, try new tricks, and perfect their technique. Much like Tony Hawk pulling off his famous 900, being first is significant.

The early years of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater

In the 90s, Tony Hawk, at the behest of a small PC developer, started shopping a skateboarding game around to game publishers. It was a natural fit - Hawk was a gamer already. The film includes archival footage of him as a teenager playing 720, an arcade skateboarding game. Eventually, he teams up with Neversoft and Activision and the Tony Hawk Pro Skater franchise is born and it takes the world by storm.

A hit game will occasionally catapult devs to fame and/or notoriety: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s West and Zampella come to mind, with The Last of Us and Neil Druckmann as a more recent example. But video game characters rarely become household names. But THPS-featured pro skaters went from relatively obscure to famous nearly overnight: Mario, Sonic, and... Rodney Mullen? Yes, actually.

The film centers around interviews with pro skaters like Chad Muska, Steve Caballero, and Jaime Thomas. The fact that I recognize these names help prove the film’s thesis: I’m not a skater, but I recognize these names from the hours I spent with a Dreamcast controller in my hand.

In the final third of the film, the documentary also portrays the unfortunate decline of this series. After THPS 4, it was pretty much all downhill from there, culminating in the expensive failure of Tony Hawk Ride and its buggy skateboard controller.

As a gamer, I'm used to seeing money hungry publishers drain every last ounce of blood out of popular franchises. Seeing how bummed out everyone was by this turn of events was a reminder of how jaded you can get in the video game industry.

The real world impact of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater

One of the most moving sections of the film involved young skateboarders talking about how THPS influenced them to pick up their skateboards, and how female and black representation in the character roster inspired them.

Back in the early 00s, I remember seeing Elissa Steamer in the roster, and she might’ve been one of the first female characters I ever saw in a game who was playable, not sexualized, and just as competent as her male counterparts.

The documentary reminded me of the character generation systems in THPS 2, which let me make myself at 16 - a teen goth Asian kid riding a skateboard in combat boots. This might have been the first time I was able to build (an idealized version of) myself in a fully 3D world.

Whenever diversity comes up, there are those who like to proclaim that the portrayal of women and minorities in games doesn’t actually matter. This section of Pretending I’m a Superman is concrete evidence of what marginalized folks already know: hell yes, it matters. You can’t be it if you can’t see it.

The documentary focuses on how THPS boosted skateboarding culture into the mainstream consciousness. But it also discusses how gaming culture influences the wider world. Pretending I’m a Superman is a strong argument for the power of gaming’s influence. And gaming, as a culture, was far smaller at the height of THPS than it is now.

Gaming, Culture, and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater

Culture and art exist in an endless feedback loop. THPS was a best-selling video game franchise for several years in a row, and skateboarding is richer and more well-known as a result. In the film, they talk about how today’s skaters are engaging in (and shooting videos of) tricks that didn’t exist in the 90s and early 00s, but look like they’re straight out of THPS.

Interest in skateboarding video games appears to be on the rise once again. Activision is remaking THPS 1+2 with a planned release for September 2020. I myself log a few hours into Session every month. Skater XL just left early access. We might be on the verge of a resurgence of skate gaming.

However, in the documentary Hawk makes the point that THPS was meant to be easy to learn and play for non-skaters. It’s a game about skating for gamers. Skater XL and Session are skating games for people who want a hardcore simulation sandbox experience. To make an analogy, THPS was Need for Speed. Today’s skating games are often more akin to hardcore racing simulators. While I enjoy these games, I think their complexity has minimized their popularity and their cultural impact.

It’ll be interesting to see how the more accessible THPS remake will be received. I’m already impressed with the soundtrack - Rough Francis’ Deathwire, the first track featured in that video, has already made it into my daily playlist. The original THPS soundtrack was one of the best of all time; the new game looks to follow suit.

A Moment in Time

On a related note, Pretending I’m A Superman makes the point that THPS managed to capture and create a moment. Its popularity intersected with mainstream awareness of skate culture, but the game’s popularity helped amplify the impact of skating as a whole.

THPS created an open world before we called it that. The devs created an interactive environment, a physics engine, and said, “Go.” Through our tricks and stunts, we made it our own. Players interacted and innovated; we did not destroy. Compare that to modern open world games. In THPS, you’re a resident. In most other open world games, you’re a conqueror. I think there’s value in a game that simulates re-interpreting and experimenting in the world, rather than violently changing it. 2020 could use a bit of that energy.

Video game culture is obsessed with innovation. We always want the newest thing. But Pretending I’m A Superman is a reminder that as an industry, we should look backwards every so often, if only to see just how vast our impact really was.