While narrative has never been much of a priority in the Pokemon games, the series has managed to offer some pretty compelling, or at the very least entertaining, villains. From mob boss Giovanni to the affable Chairman Rose, every one of them has managed to offer something to make them stick out in players’ memories, whether it’s because they have interesting motives or are just fun to hate. There is one unfortunate exception, however, and that’s the main villain of 2013’s Pokemon X & Y: Lysandre.
Recently, Lysandre got to be the main focus of one of the Pokemon Evolutions animated shorts airing on YouTube. But rather than provide new insight to his character or offer a different perspective on his actions, all it really does is remind everyone how he is, to date, the worst villain in the mainline games.
Can You Tell He’s the Bad Guy?
For starters, Lysandre lacks subtlety. Aside from dressing head to toe in pure black while boasting a flaming red hairstyle that makes him look as ominous as possible, his establishing scenes immediately have him share some rather intense dialogue about the chosen making a world a better place. His first conversation with the player includes the unprompted line:
"My desire… is for a more beautiful world!"
Not too long afterwards, he’s seen speaking with region Champion and actress Diantha, ranting about how everything should remain beautiful forever, even outright stating he would "make this world eternal and unchanging." So, from minute one, his status as main villain is super obvious, yet his mad ramblings rarely attract any concern from the rest of the cast.
Admittedly, most Pokemon villains aren’t exactly subtle either, but they’re at least more honest about it. The likes of Maxie, Archie, and Cyrus openly run terrorist organizations and are publicly known as criminals. Giovanni, while a Gym Leader, ran his criminal empire from the shadows and only ever revealed himself before the player. Lysandre, by comparison, is relatively famous in the Kalos region due to owning a huge company and being responsible for the creation of the region’s communication system. Yet he makes little to no attempt to hide his more villainous intentions. The only reason he gets away with it is because other characters write him off as being "passionate."
The obvious argument is that Pokemon is ultimately for kids, who either won’t see the writing on the wall or will feel smart for figuring out he’s the bad guy. But Lysandre’s problems run much deeper than that.
An Imperfect Motive
On paper, Lysandre’s goals are surprisingly hardcore for a Pokemon game. For all his talk about creating a beautiful world, he’s ultimately aiming to commit a near genocide. The issue is that it’s never really explained why he feels eradicating most of the population will bring his ideal world to fruition. The player doesn’t have many meaningful interactions with him throughout the game that help flesh him out, and there’s no environmental storytelling to highlight why he might be pushed into doing this. Kalos as a whole seems to be a lovely place to live in with no suggestions of inequality or that it’s on an inevitable spiral towards its own destruction. Without any tangible justifications for why Lysandre has gone off the deep end, it makes his motivations no different to that of a child throwing a tantrum over not having a toy: He wants it just because.
By comparison, Maxie and Archie from Pokemon Ruby & Sapphire have far more understandable motives, despite their plans being rather stupid. Maxie believed draining the sea and expanding the land mass would make life easier for people and create opportunities for new homes, while Archie wanted to flood the world because he saw the sea as the source of all life. While extremely misguided, you can at least kind of see where they’re coming from. Lysandre’s vision of a "beautiful" and "eternal" world is so generally vague, it's impossible to relate to it. When people talk about improving the world, they tend to offer an overall idea of what they mean by it, whether it be from an environmental perspective or through changes to the systems that govern it. But the world of Pokemon is presented as a near utopia anyway with little reason to justify hitting a global reset button.
It’d be easy to just write Lysandre off as insane, but having your villain be a crazy person isn't a get-out-of-jail-free card to explain why their motives don’t make sense. Even Batman villain the Joker, no matter the portrayal, has reasons behind his madness. Crazy villains can certainly be entertaining (Ghetsis from Pokemon Black & White has this advantage), but Lysandre never quite crosses that line until right near the very end when he attempts to use the Ultimate Weapon to either curse the player with immortality or kill them (depending on which version you’re playing). By that point, Lysandre’s role in the story is over, and you never really learn much more about him outside of other characters commenting on how he totally used to be a good person, promise.
Lusamine Did It Better
What doesn’t help is that the next two entries in the series, whether intentionally or not, kind of repeated Lysandre’s whole shtick in different ways and were far more effective. Lusamine from Pokemon Sun & Moon and Chairman Rose from Pokemon Sword & Shield were also well-known figures in their respective regions and hid darker intentions behind friendly facades. But not only were they much better at hiding it (even though savvy fans quickly cottoned on they were the villains anyway), they offered far more sympathetic qualities, with Lusamine losing her husband and ultimately seeking to fix her relationship with her children and Rose fearing an energy crisis and taking drastic measures to ensure that wouldn’t happen without, you know, attempting a genocide.
In the end, Lysandre lacks any of the qualities a good villain requires. He’s not sympathetic enough to be relatable, he’s not crazy enough to be entertaining, he’s not clever enough to be respected; he is just the bad guy. And when the Pokemon games have demonstrated that they can offer genuinely good villains, it only makes Lysandre’s lameness all the more blatant.