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In ‘Detective Pikachu,’ If You Know You Know

Warner Bros.’ blockbuster foray into the world of Pokémon dives right in without any hand-holding, a strategy that might be a blueprint for future franchises

Warner Bros./Game Freak/Ringer illustration

As the starting point for what may soon become a Pokémon Cinematic Universe, Detective Pikachu is a curious choice. Casual Pokémon fans may be surprised to learn this premise wasn’t devised by a Warner Bros. executive emerging from Burning Man: It is, in fact, based on an offshoot video game of the same name where Pikachu is, yes, a detective who solves crimes. But still, as a franchise kickoff it’s undeniably bizarre—imagine if the Marvel Cinematic Universe opted to introduce audiences with Guardians of the Galaxy instead of Iron Man.

Even weirder may be how quickly Detective Pikachu pulls you into the beguiling mythos of Pokémon headfirst, without even trying to hold your hand. This is a world where humankind shares the earth with creatures that resemble rodents, birds, sea creatures, and dragons; that have extraordinary powers; and that can be captured in tiny Poké Balls and subjected to gladiator-esque battles against other Pokémon. When providing the necessary Poké-exposition dump, the film briefly flashes an image of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, where, in place of a revered cat, we have a pharaoh hanging out with Bulbasaur. If you didn’t really understand the world of Pokémon heading into Detective Pikachu, the movie won’t be much help.

Welcome to Pokémon, a phenomenon that has ebbed and flowed through the zeitgeist since it began as a series of popular video games in the ’90s and was soon followed by an animated television series, trading cards, and feature-length animated films. That initial Pokémon craze of the ’90s was an infamous time in the United States—kids were diagnosed with the “Pokéflu,” elementary schools banned trading cards, and major publications printed cover stories treating the entire endeavor with unfounded gravitas. While the reaction to Pokémon was certainly overblown, it also carried notions of otherism, as many in America responded to this thing that was not of their own culture by vilifying it rather than trying to understand it.

Pokémon’s global cultural ubiquity—which found a second wind in recent years after the release of Pokémon Go—seems to inform Detective Pikachu’s choice to thrust the audience into the Pokéverse without a life vest, ancient Egyptian Bulbasaur notwithstanding. That’s extended to criticisms of the film, which tend to treat the universe with derision for being its own wacky thing. “Your feelings about Pokémon: Detective Pikachu probably hinge on if you can tell a Squirtle from a Bulbasaur,” a review in USA Today reads. “No? Then you might not care one Jigglypuff.” While dismissive, though, the criticism isn’t totally off base. You can either accept that Ken Watanabe, playing a police chief in Ryme City—the first metropolis where Pokémon and humans live and work together harmoniously—shares an office with a pink Snubbull and gives him the occasional chin rub, or you can find the clearly marked exits in your theater.

Does Detective Pikachu owe its audience a better explanation for the Pokéverse? The substantial box office projections are a compelling argument it doesn’t. Beyond that, it helps that only a basic knowledge of Pokémon is required to follow along. Of the 65 different types of Pokémon that grace the screen in Detective Pikachu, most are among the first 151 creatures featured in the original video games and TV series (your Bulbasaurs, Squirtles, Pikachus, Jigglypuffs, Psyducks, and Charizards). As far as Pokémon lore goes, Detective Pikachu is more like George R.R. Martin’s introductory novel in A Song of Ice and Fire—not one of the intricate companion books detailing the fiery and bloody history of House Targaryen.

But make no mistake, Detective Pikachu is a film appealing to its fandom. The movie opted not to streamline the mythology for general audiences, which may limit its potential upside at the box office and keep it from becoming a hit on the level of Avengers: Endgame, but it’s a value proposition that rewards fans of Pokémon, a group that is, in reality, quite huge. (It’s safe to say more Pokéman fans exist than readers of Mortal Engines.) According to the Pokémon Company, Pokémon Go has been downloaded 800 million times. Video games are still being released and they continue to sell well. When Pikachu spoke (pre–Ryan Reynolds) in the animated film Pokémon the Movie: I Choose You! in 2017, it set the internet ablaze. Pokémon may not be a piece of monoculture, but it’s far from niche, and with Detective Pikachu, Warner Bros. is directly appealing to its energetic, highly concentrated base.

Such an approach is a departure from how major, franchise-setting blockbusters have functioned in the past decade—before Endgame went all in on itself, there were 21 movies of previous setup—but it may become a more popular strategy as studios target specific fandoms and fill the void in the box office’s middle class that’s been vacated by dwindling genres like the rom-com. Perhaps the Sonic the Hedgehog movie will employ a similar tactic later this year (once the CGI character’s nightmarish appearance is amended). Further down the road, the upcoming movies about Minecraft, Mega Man, and Metal Gear Solid would be primed to follow Detective Pikachu’s lead.

Depending on how Detective Pikachu is received by audiences (though all signs point to a warm reception) and what Warner Bros. would consider pursuing outside of a straight sequel, the franchise could be heading in some ambitious and divergent directions. It goes without saying: Not all Pokémon movies are going to riff on film noir with an adorable yellow detective-mouse who has electricity coursing through his fur. We may be in line for some deeper Pokémon cuts down the road. If the MCU eventually laid down the cosmic trappings of Infinity Stones, what’s to stop a cinematic pivot from a Jigglypuff to a Deoxys?

The prospect of this franchise may never be appealing to some people, especially when it requires a rudimentary knowledge of its universe. (To all the bewildered parents being dragged to showtimes by their kids, thank you for your service.) But films like Detective Pikachu don’t need to appeal to everyone, they just need enough of an audience to justify their existence and hefty production budgets. Will it be enough? Well, Pokémon Go may not be the phenomenon it was in 2016, but it generated nearly $800 million in revenue in 2018: a 35 percent uptick from the previous year. There’s still a ton of people who wanna catch ’em all—and a whole other group of people who might be curious to see what all the fuss is about.