In an age when teenage fantasies of the kind Marvel produces have taken over Hollywood, it’s not surprising to see the resurgence in popularity of Pokemon, which doesn’t even aspire to the level of teenage fantasy, and which has been given the blockbuster treatment in the new movie Pokemon Detective Pikachu. It will likely start a franchise.
The story is simple: a young adult with the personality of a child has to go in search of his lost father. He’s an orphan, as so many young people are in our stories. He’s a strait-laced kid, shirt tucked into his pants and all, and almost too boring to watch, but then he teams up with various Pokemon characters, including Pikachu, and can have the fantasy life that audiences crave. You’ll be excused for thinking this business of finding his father doesn’t much matter in all of the riveting action. If you like computer games and the kind of imagery they offer, you’ll love this. Audiences, indeed, seem to—the movie got a rather good A- Cinemascore and it opened to more than $170 million globally.
Ryan Reynolds, who made his career amusing the childish as the filthy Deadpool, can also amuse children by voicing the innocent Pikachu, the lightning-tailed yellow…well…rodent. Pikachu is a symbol for young people today—a combination of plushy cuteness and deadly electricity, he’s all bland niceness, up until the point when outrage momentarily takes over. Then it’s back to bland niceness.
Pikachu is also a hero who fits the sort of story we tell nowadays. Whether it’s Rey in Star Wars, Captain Marvel in her movie, Black Panther in his movie, or any number of others going back at least to The Matrix, you have the same recipe for success: put moral purity and power together and eventually you win. It’s a last-ditch effort on the part of movies to keep people fantasizing, while allowing for a kind of acknowledgment of all the anger pent up inside.
But there’s more than anger mixed in with the blandness—there’s comedy, too. The movie is driven by a comic duo, a straight man and a funny guy. The young man played by Justice Smith—great name for an actor!—is not only morally innocent, but also mostly clueless and slow-witted. Reynolds’ Pikachu is witty and impossible to get to shut up, on the other hand.
Here’s why it works: Pikachu is a kind of ideal image of a young man today; he is utterly unmanly and in a way crippled—for purposes of the story, he is amnesiac and mostly cannot use his deadly electricity powers—but at the same time, his humor is a kind of defiance and a coping mechanism for a world in which he finds himself suddenly alone. Pikachu worked with Smith’s father, so he has been orphaned almost as much as the actual orphan.
Telling a story about the burden of fatherlessness, especially for black kids—Justice Smith is black—would depress people or create some kind of scandal. Talking about why boys and young men might feel powerless and in fact enjoy identifying with this childish fantasy is, of course, unthinkable. There is something desperate in the desire for Pokemon-like innocence; I know young men who loved this movie, so I believe it’s a real phenomenon.
In the movie world, Pokemon fulfill the fantasy needs that crop up where life lets us down. They are pets to people who don’t have other love in their lives. They’re childish fascinations for kids who don’t have anything else to do. They’re also fighters in cage matches for people who enjoy more violence in their fantasies.
Above all, they help people fight off fear of death—this turns out to be the secret at the center of the movie’s central mystery. If you plunge into fantasies and forget about the real world, you don’t have to worry about being human anymore.
Fantasies, unfortunately, cannot make up for a disappointing reality. Video-game victories, no matter how spectacular, cannot give audiences the conquest of fortune they seek—or some sense of control over their own lives. This business model of selling fantasies will fail. Then we’ll get back to reality.
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