“I see now that the circumstances of one’s birth are irrelevant… It is what you do with the gift of life that determines who you are.”
– Mewtwo, Pokémon: The First Movie
Some Pokémon are basically animals. And then there are those like Mewtwo, who is basically an intellectual peer of philosophers like Sophocles, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche. In the world of Pokémon, Mewtwo is a powerful monster whose entire nature is as derivative as its name suggests, having been born as a result of experimentation with Mew’s eyelash. He is by turns brooding, nihilistic, aggressive — cursed by his intelligence in a world which has brought him only pain. In short, Mewtwo is a Byronic hero.
“He knew himself a villain…”
Lord Byron was an English Romantic poet who enjoyed astronomical success in the early 19th Century. Perhaps most famous for the 17-canto epic Don Juan, Byron was himself the eccentric archetype upon which he based his protagonists. Throughout his life, he was an intelligent and cultured outcast with a disdain for authority, a tortured artist soured by cynicism and self-serving priorities. He’s also credited as having led a section of the rebel artillery in the Greek War for Independence despite having zero military experience, which is a pretty cool thing to have in your biography.
In Rupert Christiansen’s book Romantic Affinities: Portraits From an Age, the historian Lord Macaulay describes the Byronic hero as “a man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection.” Aside from the fact that Mewtwo doesn’t explicitly have a brow on which to boast defiance, this is pretty much a word portrait of the feline phenom. Additionally, this kind of hero is also typically capable of compassion and ultimately redemption, which is the case in both of Mewtwo’s silver screen appearances in The First Movie and Detective Pikachu.
Still not convinced? Well, Byron’s poem “The Corsair,” published in 1814, seems to have foreseen Mewtwo’s plight approximately 184 years before Pokémon: The First Movie:
“He knew himself a villain — but he deemed
The rest no better than the thing he seemed;
And scorned the best as hypocrites who hid
Those deeds the bolder spirit plainly did.
He knew himself detested, but he knew
The hearts that loathed him, crouched and dreaded too.
Lone, wild, and strange, he stood alike exempt
From all affection and from all contempt.”
It Looks Like Lord Byron’s Blasting Off Again
Mewtwo is largely unphased by what anyone thinks of him in the films, having developed an unwavering conviction in his plan to rid Pokémon of humanity. No atrocity he commits could ever rival those of the scientists who experimented on him, and thus he becomes an unfeeling monster, “implacable in revenge.” However, at the end of The First Movie, Mewtwo witnesses a Pikachu attempting to Thunderbolt its petrified trainer back to life. Moved by the Electric type’s tireless endeavor, all of the surrounding Pokémon begin to cry, and their collective tears stream in harmony, resurrecting Ash and convincing Mewtwo that not all humanity is bad. At the end of the film, he wipes everybody’s memory of everything that happened and floats off into the sky, having become the iteration of Lord Byron he was always supposed to be.
And then (spoilers) he returns in Detective Pikachu. Here I’d like to draw your attention to the Collected Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, which lends itself well to understanding this more mature version of Mewtwo:
“Lord B.’s establishment consists, besides servants, of ten horses, eight enormous dogs, three monkeys, five cats, an eagle, a crow, and a falcon; and all these, except the horses, walk about the house, which every now and then resounds with their unarbitrated quarrels, as if they were the masters of it … [P.S.] I find that my enumeration of the animals in this Circean Palace was defective … I have just met on the grand staircase five peacocks, two guinea hens, and an Egyptian crane. I wonder who all these animals were before they were changed into these shapes.”
That last line, about who these animals were before they changed into these shapes — that’s the entire plot of Detective Pikachu! The conjunction of Pokémon with humanity, in order to allow human beings to inhabit corporeal bodies capable of mysterious evolution and self-betterment, is exactly what evil Bill Nighy is after. And he’s not a Byronic hero. No, he’s just a flat out villain who probably boned a Ditto. Nighy’s control of Mewtwo is what assigns him his worst traits, all of which are derived from humanity’s desire for posterity.
Mewtwo, on the other hand, loves all Pokémon. He even uses his Recover ability to save the eponymous electric mouse in Detective Pikachu. Through the events of the film, he comes to realize that “not all humans are bad.” Perhaps his fondness for humans like Ash and Detective Pikachu’s Tim is comparable to Byron’s affection for animals. Byron nursed his beloved dog Boatswain after it contracted rabies, without so much as flinching at the thought of inheriting the fatal disease from it. He also brought a tame bear to Trinity College in Cambridge to evade their “no dogs allowed policy.” There was nothing on the books that said a bear couldn’t go to Trinity College.
In fact, Mewtwo has become such a heroic figure at this point that in Joseph Jay Tobin’s book, Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, Anne Richards — the Theology Secretary of the Church of England — argues that Mewtwo offers a wonderful example of the value of redemption in Christianity. It has to be said here that Mewtwo technically didn’t apologize to Ash after murdering him in The First Movie, but again: Byronic hero. Also, baby steps. Anyway, the Church of England supports him.
I do, however, think there is one minor detail that absolutely cements the fact that Mewtwo is directly derived from Lord Byron. On several occasions, Byron is said to have called his contemporary William Wordsworth “William Turdsworth.” By the same logic, I think it’s absolutely certain that when Mewtwo complains about Lugia to Mew, he refers to it as “Poogia.”