Mewtwo, originally presented as the last Pokémon in the Pokédex (for both months before people knew better), and probably the most loaded Pokémon to talk about barring Pikachu. Since 1996, it’s been both the de-facto Legendary Pokémon and the de-facto villain of the series.
And d’you know what? Mewtwo’s does a pretty solid job at it.
We’ve had obviously–artifical monsters up until this point, but those seem more synthetic and purpose-built to thrive in specific environments. Mewtwo, on the other hand, feels like it’s in a halfway state, obviously organic, but absolutely not anything that would occur in nature. The gangly limbs with odd, webbed extremities belong to something amphibious or even alien, whereas the shape of its head (and its name) tie it to a hairless cat, but as a whole it stands upright on two legs with the full presence of a malnourished human. Heck, its coloration and shape even give it a clear resemblance to one of the biggest shonen-manga villains of all time. And somehow, this grab-bag of features looks like it all belongs on the same creature.
The end product is that Mewtwo appears simultaneously tortured (not uncommon for fictional ESP-users) and absolutely menacing, from its bony and angled skull to its hungry appearance and the pronounced, armor-like ridges on its upper chest. Its head even used to be bigger, really giving it the look of something that wandered out of an Area 51 experiment or off the pages of a Hulk comic. My favorite visual cue, though, is the odd cord leading from his head to his body, which feels like a call-out to one of a billion body-in-a-test-tube images across science fiction – though it connecting at the nape of the neck feels like a specific call-out to Ghost in the Shell (the film adaptation having notably come out the very year before Pokémon Red & Green).
In short, it’s a lean-and-mean iteration on classic science-fiction monster design, which is exactly the intended effect.
Gameplay-wise, Mewtwo is good. Like, stupidly-good. As in, after nearly twenty-five years in the series, Mewtwo still has one of the absolute highest stat totals in the roster, represents one of the consistently-best elemental types in the game, and has a wide range of potent moves to trounce anything that would normally counter it. Anyone using Mewtwo has already thrown balance entirely out the window.
Mewtwo, as noted, is ubiquitous. It’s the central villain of the two most visible Pokémon movies, is the monster with the most lore built up around it in the original games, is featured heavily in Super Smash Bros. as a playable character, and generally is one of the top-five most recognizable Pokémon in the whole series.
In fact, it’s kind of the closest monster the series as a whole has to a “heel”, considering that most of the games at best feature human villains taking advantage of an otherwise-neutral legendary Pokémon. Mewtwo stands out as one of the very very few who chooses to actively harm humans, running counter to the series’ usual hard stance of “there are no bad pets, just bad owners”.
Mewtwo, on the other hand, has a whole motivation and backstory, putting it into proper villain territory (even if it has yet to be a direct antagonist in the core video games). Whereas Porygon gives us a fun-if-misguided romp through artificial life, Mewtwo was conceived in a much less controlled environment with an immediate tool to probe the intentions of everyone else in the room. All sorts of fun “what is my purpose” and “rage against the creators” stories to be had there.
Interestingly, the series will very rarely pin the responsibility of who created any given incarnation of Mewtwo onto any particular organization despite seemingly retelling the origin every other week. Rather, most stories leave the original team as ambiguous men in stock-movie lab coats, then skip ahead to it being recaptured and taken advantage of by Team Rocket, Clifford Industries, or whoever else is the villain of the piece. Outside of a couple of manga adaptations that place Mewtwo’s creation under Team Rocket’s purview, the non-disclosure order on the project seems pretty thorough.
We do get a whole lot of evidence that points the finger at Silph Co., the same mega-corporation that created the ubiquitous Poké Ball, albeit indirectly. It’s not hard to trace a line from Cinnabar Mansion (where Mewtwo was conceived) to Mr. Fuji – the same kindly old man who curates the Pokémon graveyard in Lavender Town – and then to the Cinnabar Lab that he used to run, which is operated by Silph Co. There are also bits of text here and there that suggest Blaine used to work directly on him with these projects, though the Cinnabar Gym leader himself never brings it up (aside from the Adventures manga, where he’s actively countering the project by the time we see him). It’s about the closest the series gets to a proper mystery that the player can uncover themselves, but the lore is so inconsistent across adaptations that you still get vague impressions at best, be that intentional or otherwise.
Interestingly, aside from the first animated Pokémon movie, and despite the dozens of Pokédex entries that read like boogeyman tales (possibly entered in-canon by an ex-Silph employee trying to warn people away), Mewtwo doesn’t seem to be especially vengeful in most stories where he appears. Nine times out of ten, after razing a research facility to the ground in its escape, Mewtwo goes for the hermetic antihero vibe and doesn’t really interface with society again, even appearing as a protector in a few stories. As noted above, it usually takes someone deliberately approaching and provoking or hijacking an already-escaped Mewtwo for it to become hostile to humans.
Mewtwo doesn’t draw first blood. It Strikes Back, if you will.
It creates this weird dichotomy where overarching lesson is “don’t trifle with things what ought not be trifled with”, but in two different modes. In the backstory, you have a Jurrassic-Park-style moral of trying to interject our way into natural selection (seemingly not an issue with other manmade Pokémon, but consistency is apparently for suckers). In the present, you have the aesop against trying to control or provoke forces greater than yourself (again, consistency is for suckers, because most Pokémon could pretty handily kill a ten-year-old trainer). Kind of odd for the series’ designated bastard to be playing those particular cards, but it makes for an interesting sentiment that even Pokémon’s villainous critters aren’t naturally vitriolic.
Instead, you get the two-for-one of an awesome action-movie villain and the lone rival character that you can team up with. No wonder he was mega-popular with every ten year old at the time, and with certain fighting game players for decades afterward.
It’s something of a technical detail, but the other major discrepancy across various versions of the story is how Mewtwo was “cloned” from Mew. In the original games, the process is called out as Mew being impregnated with a modified embryo, following real-world cloning models as of today. Everywhere thereafter, Mewtwo is grown from hair samples entirely using lab equipment, presumably because the imagery looks way cooler when animated that way. It being so consistent everywhere outside of the original games makes it feel like little more than an early retcon, though it’s an odd choice to not change the relevant text in any of the various remakes of Red & Green afterward.
One last design note to unwind after the backstory: in the long-running Pokémon Adventures manga, Mewtwo is depicted as wielding a giant, two-handed spoon like a warrior’s sword. That creates such a fantastic image that I’m sorely disappointed that it doesn’t seem to be used anywhere else, though it’s ultimately for the better that there’s no more direct imagery to get “actual” psychics riled up.
Mewtwo is one of the greats. It strikes a distinct and imposing image, it has fame even outside the main series, and all-around it’s just a well-conceived design with all manner of fun odds and ends to pull at both visual and historical. Of all the Legendary Pokémon, he’s the Must-Have.
Any and all appreciation for Mewtwo is welcome in the comments!