Unpacking the Unhinged Detective Pikachu Universe

Photo: Warner Bros.

On May 10, a film entitled Detective Pikachu will enter theaters, starring Ryan Reynolds as a talking, crime-solving Pokémon who loves coffee. If you’re familiar with the Pokémon universe, this sentence may seem normal to you. If you aren’t, it probably seems extremely not normal. What is a Pikachu? Why does he love coffee? What is it about this yellow electric mouse thing that ensorcels the minds of nearly every young millennial? Lucky for you, we’ve brought together two of our writers, Rachel Handler, a confused newcomer, and Jackson McHenry, whose addiction to Pokémon is so thorough he somehow hasn’t stopped playing Pokémon Go, to bridge the gap and answer every Detective Pikachu–related question. Whether you’re a complete stranger to the labyrinthine Pokémon universe, or someone whose primary motivation was to nab a holographic Charizard back in the day, we hope this helps you prepare for the movie phenomenon ahead.

What is a Detective Pikachu?
Well, Detective Pikachu is a kind of Pokémon called “Pikachu,” which are these cute electric mouse things. This one, as seen in the video game Detective Pikachu and the movie of the same name, solves crimes and loves coffee. In the film, Justice Smith plays a man whose father, a detective, recently died — or at least went missing — and this Pikachu was his partner.

Wait, is there more than one Pikachu?
Yes, there are multiple Pikachu; it’s a species. You might be familiar with the one from the animated TV show, which is the Pikachu owned by the main character, a kid named Ash. A throwaway line in Detective Pikachu implies it takes place about 20 years after the beginning of that series.

But they’re all named Pikachu?
They all are Pikachu, it can be a singular and plural noun, and they constantly say variations of their name, “pika-pika,” but you can name them whatever you want

Meaning you, the owner of the Pikachu?
Yeah, you give them nicknames and such.

Do all Pikachu have human owners? How does this work? Who owns Detective Pikachu?
In this universe, there are both wild Pokémon, which humans can catch and train, and Pokémon that have human owners. The ones with owners — or trainers, as it goes in the games, or partners, as they call it in the movie — bond with them, and then can level up and learn new skills and battle against each other. In the film, Justice Smith’s character’s dad is partners with Detective Pikachu, but with him gone, Pikachu has to bond with Justice Smith.

How do you “catch” them?
You throw these things called “Poké Balls” at them when you run into them in the wild, and if you’ve sufficiently bonded with them or exhausted them through battling, the ball catches them and stores them inside. There’s some hand-wavy magic technology that makes the Poké Balls work so that large Pokémon still fit in them. One of the creators was inspired by bug-collecting, so there are elements of that.

Why are some of them born into human ownership while others are born “wild”?
The games generally draw the parallel between Pokémon partnership and pet ownership, as if some are domesticated and some are out in the wild. The implications and morals of controlling sentient beings are very awkward, and they actually made a whole game installment called Pokémon Black and White, where they tried to get into it and just made things stranger (the “villain” is actually a guy who wants to free all the Pokémon).

What is entailed in “owning” a Pokémon? Do they have to follow you everywhere? Do you have to feed them?
In the games, you’re supposed to take care of them and feed them and carry them around with you, and then train them to hone their skills by leveling up in battle with other trainers’ Pokémon.

Why do they battle? What are they fighting for?
Supposedly it’s a way of building your affection with your Pokémon: The more they train in battle, the closer they are to reaching their full potential or something. But anyway, to beat each game, you battle a series of stronger trainers until you become the champion — the very best, the best there ever was, to quote the TV show’s song.

What happens when you become the champion?
You can just stop playing the game or you can do all sorts of other things. Try to catch rare legendary Pokémon, breed Pokémon, try to catch every species of Pokémon, or even go back and battle all the trainers again. Given that you’re supposed to be a kid in these games, it’s a real treatise on trying to find purpose when you peak young.

Back to Pikachu. So Pikachu all look the exact same. And don’t have names. How can you tell them apart? Like, how do you know Detective Pikachu is different from the other Pikachu?
Detective Pikachu wears a nice hat, that’s a key thing, and it talks to Justice Smith somehow, which is a mystery in the movie. But in general, they can be various sizes and colors.

“It”? Do Pokemon have genders?
They do, actually! Pikachu can be male or female (Pokémon is big on the gender binary, sadly), and many other species also have genders. Some species, however, are all one gender, like this female cow Pokémon, while others are genderless, like this snowflake.

Do Pokémon fuck?
Yes! Pokémon definitely fuck. In fact, they can also breed and have children. In the games, you can leave two compatible Pokémon together at a day-care center, and come back after a certain amount of time and discover they’ve laid eggs (the actual mechanics of Pokémon fucking are not discussed). All Pokémon lay eggs, regardless of whether they seem mammalian or plant-like.

So all Pokémon fuck?
Well, certain rare “legendary” Pokémon do not breed — though of course that doesn’t mean they can’t fuck. Genderless Pokémon can still breed (and I assume fuck), but only with one specific Pokémon. That’s Ditto, this pink fuck-master blob that can transform into anything. Ditto’s actually a key part of Detective Pikachu, though the movie doesn’t get at its fucking skills.

Okay, back to Pikachu. They’re mainly differentiated by their accessories?
In the video games, they can also have stats when you use them in battle and abilities and such. Or in this case, different vocations. There are also baby Pikachu, named Pichu, and evolved forms of Pikachu, called Raichu.

Can Detective Pikachu only investigate Pokémon crimes? Or does his jurisdiction extend into human life?
Well, in this movie’s story, Pokémon live around humans in harmony, so their laws are basically the same, I assume.

I guess humans specifically would be the ones who have to answer to the rule of law, but it would also apply to their partner Pokémon, like pets. Since Pokémon are like animals, I don’t think they technically participate in a social contract.

So Detective Pikachu operates outside of the law. But his job is upholding it?
It’s very noir.

“Forget it, Pikachu. It’s Pokémontown.” Is he a self-appointed detective or was he put on the case by a public organization? Or was he hired privately by a wealthy family?
Justice Smith’s character’s father was a detective, so Detective Pikachu used to work with law enforcement, but now that his partner’s gone, he’s more of a rogue. Once the father disappears, Pikachu also has amnesia, which adds to the mystery.

What crime is he specifically trying to solve in the movie?
There’s the mystery of what happened to Justice Smith’s father, Detective Pikachu’s original partner, and there’s also the mystery of this drug called “R” that is making tame Pokémon go insane and attack people. They two mysteries are connected — and yes, the connection does involve Rita Ora.

Who is Psyduck?
Psyduck is a star, and also a duck that is constantly having a psychic breakdown. It hangs out with Kathryn Newton, a mysterious noir dame who is also a blogger.

Relatable. So Pokémon, despite being animals, have the same systems of logic and brain functions (or malfunctions as it were) as humans?
They have varying degrees of consciousness. Some are animal-like, others are animate objects, like gears of a literal pile of trash.

So Detective Pikachu is highly evolved?
Given that he can talk, yeah, he’s toward the upper level of Pokémon consciousness. There are other Pokémon, like Mewtwo, who show up in the movie, who are even more intelligent and can communicate telepathically.

Is there a class system? I could see the telepaths oppressing the more feral Pokémon.
Some of them, like Mewtwo, start evil schemes and stuff, but it’s more like an ecosystem than a class system.

A food chain. Do Pokémon eat each other?
I assume yes, but it’s never confirmed directly in the games.

Wow. A cannibal detective who does not answer to the legal system he purports to uphold.
Yes, but Pikachu himself is vegetarian, I believe. Like a mouse. The Pikachu from the anime loves ketchup, though I don’t know Detective Pikachu’s thoughts on ketchup, only that he loves coffee.

Are there Pokémon plants?
Yes, but Pikachu doesn’t eat the Pokémon plants. It’s a weird universe where there are both plant-plants and Pokémon that resemble plants.

How does Pikachu know when something is a Pokémon plant or just a plant? Do the Pokémon plants talk?
Some of them do! They talk and move more freely than actual plants, and they’d attack back if Pikachu tried to eat them, I imagine.

But there is no ketchup Pokémon?
Sadly no. Plenty of grass-type Pokémon, though.

Grass type? They have types?
Every Pokémon has one or two “types,” which are sort of generally shared traits. The plant ones are generally grass type, while ones that live in water are water type. In battle, different types are better against each other: Water is good against fire, fire is good against grass, grass is good against water (like Rock-Paper-Scissors). It gets weird when you get into the more esoteric types. For instance, fairy-type Pokémon are immune to dragons, because [long shrug].

Are Pokemon immortal?
When you use them in battle, they just collapse when they’re defeated, and you heal them, but they can also die from old age or terrible circumstances. There are also ghost Pokémon, some of which are implied to be the spirits of dead ones. Oh, and there are god Pokémon.

A Pokémon god?
Maybe it’s better to call him a “divine-creation being.” But anyway, it’s called Arceus. You can actually catch it, it’s pretty good in battle.

Just one god? We’re dealing in monotheism?
In addition to that god, there’s an embodiment of space, an embodiment of time, and an embodiment of antimatter. It’s a complicated religious structure, roughly based on Shintoism, but further complicated by the fact that you can catch and battle with all these things. There are also Pokémon from other dimensions, though that’s a relatively new addition.

Other dimensions? So do Pokémon have String Theory?
I feel like the answer would be yes, but I’m not sure of the details. Pokémon is unhinged.

I have so many more questions. The deeper you get into this the stranger it becomes.
Truly, it’s all a case for Detective Pikachu himself.

Unpacking the Unhinged Detective Pikachu Universe