As my 30s continue to approach like a looming stormcloud, pop culture constantly forces me to consider my own mortality by reminding me that the things I loved as a child are now considered relics of a bygone era. Case in point: Wood Entertainment’s new documentary Pretending I’m a Superman: The Tony Hawk Video Game Story (on major VOD platforms Aug. 18), chronicling the release of 1999’s Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater video game, which marked a watershed moment for skateboarding’s mainstream visibility. Its lizard-brain game controls and infinite replay value also hit a deep nerve in my 8-year-old self at the time; that blue cartridge spent countless hours planted in my Nintendo 64.
The documentary is about as slight as they come at 71 minutes yet still too unfocused to make this more than a disposable lark for fans of the influential franchise. “Skateboarding video game” isn’t a subject that necessarily requires a 12-hour ESPN 30 for 30 miniseries, but director Ludvig Gür never quite conveys the game’s joyful, almost-wholesome spirit of rebellion that inspired thousands of kids to put their feet to grip tape for the first time.
In addition to featuring software developers pivotal in the first game’s development, the talking heads are additionally populated by a rogues’ gallery of ’90s skate legends: Tony Hawk (naturally), Rodney Mullen, Jamie Thomas, Steve Caballero (all of whom were playable characters in the game) and several others give firsthand accounts of how skateboarding evolved from a fringe subculture to a sport with the ability to attract corporate sponsors from Disney to General Mills.
That history lesson takes up roughly the first third of the film, and while the enthusiasm of the skaters’ commentary is infectious, their insights are about equal in depth to a Wikipedia page on the same topic. Lots of recollections are generally along the lines of, “We were just a small community doing what we loved. We didn’t care about the money, and then suddenly, we were competing in the X-Games and featured in video games.” These people are absolute legends of their sport and undoubtedly could make for the subjects of a compelling documentary. However, it appears as if the filmmakers didn’t care to capitalize on the potential of their interviews.
Hawk provides the most enlightening behind-the-scenes anecdotes, particularly in just how involved he was in the kind of game he envisioned THPS to become. As a self-professed arcade rat growing up, he didn’t like how previous skateboarding games seemed catered solely to actual skateboarders, and he wanted a game accessible enough that newcomers could master its controls without an encyclopedic knowledge of skate tricks. It’s a unique moment where an athlete — who, in other sports, has almost zero to do with the games in which he or she is featured — not only played a hand in developing the video game itself but offered a vital contribution toward its massive success.
Unfortunately, the documentary’s material on the game often comes across as cursory as the skateboarding history bits. There’s nothing memorable or particularly entertaining relayed about the response to the game or the process of its creation. It suffers from a similar issue as many making-of segments included in Blu-ray releases for many major-studio blockbusters: a lot of people giving banal, positive remarks about how happy they were about their success and little else.
Pretending I’m a Superman further neglects to spend time on the truly fascinating direction the series went in such later installments as Tony Hawk’s Underground and only briefly pays lip service to its incredibly rad punk soundtrack (including Goldfinger’s “Superman,” a song whose lyrics inspired the movie’s title), which has maintained almost equal relevance to the game after all these years. This doc is more a missed opportunity for fans than it is a godsend. Regardless, for a certain subset of millennials, watching it also feels like being seen. And sometimes that’s enough to warrant an hour and change of your time.