Five Betrayals of Alita’s Character in the Battle Angle Movie

A couple of years ago I wrote a breakdown on the failures of the movie Alita: Battle Angle to properly translate the villain of Yukito Kishiro’s manga (Gunmn in the Japanese, Battle Angle Alita for us English speakers). For a while I considered doing a full breakdown of that adaptation and all the many ways it failed but ultimately I didn’t want to spend any more money or time on a film that fell so short of what I wanted. So I forgot about it. 

Then they decided to rerelease the film in theaters.  

This could be a last ditch attempt to salvage the theater industry by pumping old films back into them. I know many fans of Alita hope this will lead to a sequel. What these people need to understand is that, even if they get a sequel, they will not get what they want. The Alita film does not understand the characters of its source material and it cannot develop them effectively. While Alita and her friends were not horribly betrayed like Nova was I don’t really believe James Cameron can effectively develop the story – this is the man who wrote Avatar after all. Beyond that, I don’t think he wants to develop the story of Alita, I think he is using the visuals Kishiro developed to try and tell his own story that, as I said before, is trite and overplayed these days. If my breakdown of Nova didn’t convince you of that, or you just don’t want to go back and read that post, here are five ways Cameron betrayed the heroine’s character in his film. 

  1. Movie Alita fails to learn. While manga Alita is not a genius like Nova or Ido she does learn and grow from the things she experiences. In fact she quickly picks up on Nova’s headgames and does her best to work around them. She rarely succeeds, as Nova is a truly formidable villain, but she does learn and grow. Movie Alita doesn’t seem to learn her enemies’ gambits at all. In fact, even though Vector’s deal to send Hugo to Zalem proves to be a flat out lie she immediately turns around and trusts that Motorball champions get to go to Zalem, even though this promise ultimately comes from the exact same place. Zalem itself. It makes her look incredibly stupid and shows that she’s not at all the same character as Kishiro’s heroine. 
  2. Movie Alita shows no compassion to her enemies. From the end of her encounter with Makaku, manga Alita showed the ability to form an understanding of her enemies and shows a deep sense of compassion for their circumstances and how they reached the place they did. She still defeats them but rarely does she fail to acknowledge their humanity. There are a few instances where Alita completely dismisses her opponents and just fights them senselessly and when she does it’s a moral failing on her part. Instead it is her acts of compassion, not her acts of violence, that have the biggest impact on the world and ultimately defeat Nova. Movie Alita never shows this connection with or sympathy for the evil people she must dispatch. She is far less humane than she should be. Worse, she executes Vector in cold blood when he poses no threat to her at all. This deprives Vector of his opportunity to grow and transform into a major pillar of society future as Kishiro’s Vector did. In spite of the many failures of the movie elsewhere Vector’s murder is what ultimately convinced me Cameron didn’t understand Alita. 
  3. Movie Alita cannot face the lessons of Motorball. The unfortunate truth is, by transforming Motorball into just another obstacle between Alita and Nova, the movie abandons the lesson Motorball teaches manga Alita. In the manga Motorball was one of the lowest points in Alita’s life. After losing Hugo she dives into Motorball so she can find a way to indulge her violent impulses without running into trouble. Except ultimately Alita does run in to trouble, and leaves the sport after a resounding defeat at the hands of Emperor Jashugan. She’s warned by her former teammate that she’s bad for the sport because she never came there for Motorball but just because she was seeking selfish fulfillment and that makes it impossible for her to be a true Motorball player. This rebuke was a decisive moment where Alita began to overcome her selfish impulses. Add in the low likelihood that Jashugan will decisively defeat Alita if he’s a barrier between movie Alita and Nova, thus depriving her of an insurmountable obstacle, there’s little chance movie Alita will get any of the value Motorball brought to manga Alita. 
  4. Movie Alita will never face her karma. In the manga Alita’s intervention between Zapan and Hugo was fundamentally unjust. Manga Zapan went looking for the spine thief by posing as a victim and trying to capture Hugo when Hugo tried to steal his spine. Manga Hugo never changed direction and thus earned his comeuppance from Zapan. Tearing Zapan’s face off was a grave injustice driven by Alita’s selfish blindness to Hugo’s evil actions. When Zapan and Alita fought again later on Alita was forced to face all the destruction her selfishness caused to both Zapan and her community. By allowing movie Hugo to turn over a new leaf and turning Zapan into a disgruntled rival who hunted Hugo as a sideways way to get back at Alita, the movie incarnation of Alita will not grow through facing the consequences of a significant selfish action. 

WARNING – SPOILERS FOR THE BATTLE ANGLE ALITA MANGA 

  1. Movie Alita cannot accept the Secret of Zalem. It’s a significant manga plot point that Zalem removes the biological brain of its citizens and replaces them with solid state computer chips. Zalemites are not told this substitution takes place. In typical cyberpunk fashion, once they learn this fact most Zalemites suffer mental breakdowns as they grapple with their sense of self and what this substitution might mean about what they are. Many Earth bound humans are also repulsed by this fact. There are three characters utterly unphased by this revelation – Lou (unimportant to this analysis), Alita and Nova. Nova’s sense of ego overrides any sense of humanity in the traditional sense, he’s far too monstrous to bother with the physical pieces that make up bodies, even his own, he’s lost in the intellectual challenges he wants to tackle. Conversely by the time Alita learns the secret of Zalem she’s developed such a sense of compassion for others that she treasures humanity no matter what physical parts make it up. Without the final secret of Zalem to bring out this part of her character Alita cannot reach the zenith of her character or show her ultimate contrast with her villain. And the hard reality is, movie Zalem does not use brain chips. Nova, Ido and the rest all have normal meat brains. How do I know this? Because we see Chiren after she’s been broken down for parts by Vector and her brain is clearly visible. Chiren is supposedly from Zalem. Thus brain chips are definitely off the table and with them the Secret of Zalem. 

SPOILERS END HERE 

Now I know, it’s possible to have two stories start in the same place and end in completely different places. Keep a hero the same and change the villain and you can still tell a compelling story, just with your hero growing in different and new ways. And I suppose that means an Alita sequel could be a decent film, even if it’s got nothing to do with Kishiro’s tale. But my core premise has and always will be, that Alita: Battle Angel should have been a retelling of Yukito Kishiro’s classic cyberpunk manga. Not Susan Collins’ dystopian YA novels. Not Cameron’s Avatar with cyborgs instead of blue people. But the latter two are closer to what we got. As far as I’m concerned Cameron can keep it. 

Character Changes

To recap – we’re talking about building characters. Not the nuts and bolts part of building characters, where you work out their relationship with their parents, where they were born, where they went to school and whether they enjoyed being in marching band. We’re talking about the action, the plot, the drama – how your character reacts to his story and what happens as a result. In other words, what makes the difference between a character who just takes up word count and a character who sticks in your mind for years to come.

First off, we looked at why your character probably shouldn’t want anything to do with the problems that first face them. (Check the comments for the full story on that.)

Then we looked at the art of believable decision-making. Discussing decisions brought us to the edge of this week’s topic: Character growth.

Before we begin, let me note that character growth is of varying levels of importance to different kinds of writers. Authors of novels and screenplays need to have character development if story is their primary goal. On the other hand, in many TV shows, comic strips and even, to a lesser extent, comic books, status quo is god and character development is actually something to be avoided. That said, I feel that this is just one of the weaknesses of those latter mediums in the modern era, so I’m going to assume that if you want to be one of those status-quo-cultists, you’ve stopped reading this already.

As I mentioned last week, the people we know are changing all the time, so we expect the people we see in fiction to be doing the same. Since we only see fictional characters in the context of their stories, they need to change visibly within those stories or they don’t seem believable. (Note that your story may take place over a very short period of time, and you may have to work at making that change seem believable. It’s important to think about these aspects of the story while it’s still in the planning stages.)

So what kind of changes can your characters make? Well, they might make a totally circumstantial change – going from rich to poor, or sick to healthy. They might make changes in relationships, making peace with a person they had previously been at odds with or, perhaps most commonly in modern fiction, falling in love with someone they met on the way. And finally, they might make a moral change, choosing to stop or start doing something because it is the right thing to do, or rejecting previously held standards as confining or misplaced. The best characters will make changes of all three types, although not necessarily of the same magnitude.

For example, a man might wreck a car, make up with his girlfriend while in the hospital and decide to give up smoking so he can take care of himself better (and make saving up for a new car easier). You don’t always have to tie the changes together like that, but there’s nothing wrong with it either.

What’s really important in showing changes is to make it clear that your character’s decisions throughout the story have led up to these changes. In the above example, maybe the man’s constantly avoiding talking out his differences with his girlfriend have put him under so much stress he wasn’t paying attention while he was driving. His insistence on smoking might be one source of tension between the two or maybe they’re both smokers and he’s resisted giving it up so she wouldn’t feel awkward when they were together.

This week’s example is Kuzco, the wacky narcissistic emperor from Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove, a character who showed significant growth and change, even if it wasn’t all in the most believable of ways (how did Kronk and Yzma get back before Pacha and Kuzco?)

When the Emperor gets turned into a llama he’s in real trouble, particularly with his old adviser trying to make sure he doesn’t get back to normal. And it’s highly unlikely that he’ll be able to drag himself through the jungle all on his own. Enter Pacha. He’s got some disagreements with Kuzco, and a generally better view on life, but he’ll let himself be bribed into leading the Emperor back home. It’ll take a number of double crosses and at least one blatant plot hole to get him there, but by the end of the journey Kuzco’s attitude has improved for the better and the differences between Kuzco and Pacha are mostly resolved. Now if only extract of llama could be gotten from the neighborhood parenting supply store…

A challenge for you this week is to go back and reread (or rewatch) one of your favorite stories and write down all the characters who you feel changed, how they changed and what contributed. Once you’re done, you should have a better idea what kind of stories you want to tell about your own characters.