Despite how cute Detective Pikachu is, it makes disability the villain

Sure, Detective Pikachu has a charming cast, captivating visuals, and just cute Pokémon; however, it also villainizes disabilities and disabled people.

Warning: This article contains spoilers for Pokémon Detective Pikachu.

He’s yellow, fluffy, adorable, and fueled by caffeine (that explains his thunderous spark). Detective Pikachu, both the character and the film, recharged our Pokémon fandom. (As if we needed another reason to play through the titular video game or buy another Eeveelution plushie.)

Detective Pikachu is making the masses fall back in love with Pokémon. While there’s a lot to love about the film beyond the sappy storyline, all the cute Pokémon, and a stellar cast, there is a major downfall in the movie: it villainizes disability and disabled people, particularly wheelchair users.

To be fair, Detective Pikachu has a wholesome central plot, with an even more refreshing final resolution. Above all else, the animation conjured our childhood selves because we wanted to believe that a world with Pokémon exists. Though the movie has a lot of exceptional cinematography, that doesn’t mean it’s immune to criticism, especially when some content carries negative overtones about the real-world disabled community.

Detective Pikachu combines the main evil arc from the titular video game and a weirdly ableist spin on Bill’s human-to-Pokémon transmutation experiment in Pokémon Red/Blue. More specifically, Howard Clifford (i.e. the main villain), wants to turn himself into a Pokémon, along with the rest of humanity. It seems simple and harmless, until you get to the part that he only wants to become a human-Mewtwo-hybrid because he hates being in a wheelchair.

Sure, Clifford’s plot evolved past his goal of curing his disability and into a Sauron-esque scheme to morph everyone’s consciousness into Pokémon. However, the basis of his intention was his weird fixation with getting out of his chair and escaping his disability.

For those who may not be aware, a common motivator for villains in the disabled villain trope can include a plot to cure the villain’s disability. This stems from the notion that a disability is bad or some sort of heinous burden that drives a typically good-natured character to do evil things.

Those who are disabled face way too many stigmas and negative perceptions already, and adding yet another villain in a wheelchair trope into the mix of current entertainment doesn’t help. This trope further fuels the inaccurate myth that there’s something terrible about using a mobility aid or being disabled at all, when (spoiler) our lack of accessibility and rights is the sucky part about being disabled.

In a movie that’s catered to kids (even though us adults enjoy it, too), Clifford’s twist in Detective Pikachu is especially disappointing. Because the overtones exist and, on some level, depict disability as something horrible, this plot point in the film could contribute to a younger audience’s negative perspective on disabilities and disabled people. Given how common disability is, how pop culture portrays disability can indirectly impact how people interpret real-life disability.

Unfortunately, Detective Pikachu isn’t the only film or modern media to fall into this trope and it doesn’t end with evil characters in wheelchairs. The trop extends to a myriad of disabled villains throughout film and television history.

There’s Niles Caulder (at some point) in both the Doom Patrol comics, as well as the DC Universe show.

Villainous past and ambiguity aside, Dr. Connors from The Amazing Spider-Man falls into the more archetypal criteria of the trope. After all, his weird obsession with becoming abled again kickstarts his villainous origin story into a murderous lizard-person who wants to transform the rest of the world into the scaley hybrid as well.

There is also the lengthy list of characters with mental health conditions that Gotham used as its villainous ammunition. More notably, almost immediately after the series started to code Edward Nygma as having D.I.D., he went on to kill Ms. Kringle before delving deep into his ongoing path of evil.

The Flash illustrates Eobard Thawne as an evil disabled character, and the never-ending list of Thawne’s aliases also embarks on the similarly fake disability trope.

From Rage 2 to multiple villains throughout the Arrowverse, illustrating disability as an evil attribute is somehow still a common theme in modern entertainment.

Doubling down on its villain in a wheelchair, who is also motivated by his disability on some level, Detective Pikachu only bolsters the growing trope. We’d love to discuss the heartfelt commentary in the film, or just gush over adorable Pokémon. But it seems disingenuous not to note the harmful associations the film indirectly attributes to disabled people.

We’d love to get to the point where disabled people can portray kick-butt villains who just cause mayhem and have complicated storylines that don’t draw adverse connotations to disabled people. For that to happen, the entertainment industry — like many other industries — needs to continuously hire disabled actors, writers, consultants, and directors to create more representative and nuanced disabled characters. There’s a lot more that needs to happen beyond that, but it’s a start at least.

Frankly, Clifford’s evil motive in Detective Pikachu just doesn’t seem realistic. A more realistic disabled villain would use their power and success to create a city that is actually accessible to every person. Granted, that would’ve redefined Clifford as a hero, rather than a villain.

Still, hopefully, any future Pokémon-verse films will help resolve this villain problem.