Desty Nova: A Villain Destroyed

Alita: Battle Angel is a movie about cyborgs punching stuff and the nature of the human experience. The story is theoretically a direct, big screen adaptation of one of my top ten favorite manga of all time, Battle Angel Alita. It’s also a very mixed bag.

This is not a complete breakdown of the adaptation, what I thought was good and what I thought was bad, as that would be an undertaking and I’m not sure I’m ready for it. Visually the movie is pitch perfect, but storywise it runs into some deep, deep flaws, tossing aside many of the themes of the source material in order to produce a trite, overused, downtrodden vs oppressors narrative. Nowhere does that failure come through more clearly than in the character of Desty Nova (just Nova in the film). As Alita’s greatest antagonist, Nova was a cruel and capricious character in the manga, and to an extent the film presents him as such as well. But in his adaptation of the manga, James Cameron throws away the questions Nova was trying to tackle and reduces him to a cardboard cutout of a cartoon tyrant rather than presenting him as the dangerous philosophical and moral threat that he should have been.

You see Desty Nova, the manga character, was trying to develop a scientific theory of free will and destiny. To do this, he would find people and offer to help them do anything they desired – unfettered free will – and then observe what happened to them, and whether they could overcome their circumstances – their destiny. In this process Nova was entirely amoral – he was as likely to assist a vicious serial killer like Makaku as a caring brother and conscientious sportsman like Jashugan, and he didn’t really care if he had to do things others might consider amoral to forward his goals. Eventually Nova would become more sadistic and arbitrary in his actions – Makaku and Jashugan seem to have been early and comparatively benign experiments – and he never hesitated to leverage his technical expertise to smooth his way and help himself survive the ever growing horde of people who wanted him dead.

Through Nova’s experiments we get a glimpse at the idea that our own desires can destroy us. He never gives his subjects anything other than what they want, to the extent of his considerable ability. But they invariably wind up self destructing. Makaku gains a robust cyberbody that can survive almost any situation but, with his limited sense of self, he can only understand pain and suffering and only communicates with others through them. He raises trouble until Alita finally destroys him in a tragic act that he perceives as love – affection from the only person who has ever cared about him in any way. Jashugan loves his sister and his sport, but he devotes himself to mastering that sport so fully that he gets his brain remodeled to make him a better player, ultimately leading to his brain shutting down a few years later depriving Motorball of its greatest player and Shimura of her only family. Nova did things for both these men that made their burnouts bigger and more spectacular – but there’s no doubt that they would have wound up in the same place regardless.

But the important thing about Nova is that he was fascinated with free will. He helped his subjects do whatever they wanted, and in turn he did whatever he wanted to get them there. Controlling people was never a part of his character. And Nova was a genuinely curious scientist. He wanted to understand things and answer questions, he didn’t really care about his own status so long as he could satisfy his curiosity. And he loved flan.

The adaptation of his character is practically the exact opposite.

In Alita: Battle Angel Nova is a tyrant. He rules the city of Zalem and oversees a network of servants on the surface to ensure no one there challenges his position. He is capable of controlling the bodies of those servants, completely overriding their free will. And when confronted with Alita herself, the most fascinating experimental subject for Nova of the manga, the foundation of a dozen experiments into free will over the course of decades, movie Nova orders her execution without expressing the slightest shred of interest. Alita is not a way to try and satisfy his curiosity, Nova just wants the power source in her cyborg body so he can make his own position in Zalem secure.

Makaku (or a very similar character with an unpronounceable name in the film) is just a pawn that does Nova’s bidding, we don’t even know why he took up working with Nova in the first place. Jashugan’s part in the story hasn’t come in yet but we do see Nova manipulating the Factory master Vector in much the same way. When these character die it’s a nonevent. They had no meaning, nothing to say about themselves or the nature of Nova’s desires and ambitions. They’re just fuel for spectacle, and props that show Nova is Bad. Hollow shells, nothing more.

It’s disappointing to see something you love translated to a new medium badly. It’s worse to see something that was trying to say something profound boiled down to something trite. In the character of Nova, Alita: Battle Angel manages both.

Heroes and Villains

So there are people we call heroes and people we call villians, and no matter how enlightened and insightful we claim to be, we can’t seem to get away from those labels. So how do we decide which is which?

In the old days, it was white hats and black hats. The good guys dressed so we could recognize them, they were polite to the ladies and they could always stand up to the bad guys no matter how bad the odds. The bad guys, on the other hand, were cowards and lechers. Their wardrobe was just as obvious.

It happened most in Westerns, when everyone wore hats. It worked in gangster movies for much the same reasons. Or look at that great of classic movies, Casablanca. Rick and Victor Lazlo are almost always shown in a white suit, while Major Strasser appears in the traditional black uniform.

But in no medium have heroes and villains been more clear cut than comic books. With every character wearing brilliantly colored costumes that make them easy to identify, villains and heroes were never so clear cut as in the golden age of comics.

Today, people have taken great pleasure in blurring the lines between heroes and villains. To an extent that’s a good thing, because it forwards verisimilitude, or how realistic fiction is. Realistic fiction is good fiction, because it’s more likely to last a long time.

For an example of this, look at Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (or Emma or Sense and Sensibility). In spite of the fact that few modern readers can sympathize with the lives of young daughters of English landed gentry, the books continue to resonate with readers and, in fact, be very funny. Why? Because Austen was an astute observer of human nature, and her larger than life characters reflect people we ourselves know.

However, her central characters are riddled with flaws – Mr. Darcy’s pride, Elizabeth Bennet’s snap judgements, Emma’s inability to understand the intentions of many of the people she meets. This doesn’t make them weaker characters, it makes them more believable ones.

The problem with modern fiction is that it has a tendency to go too far. Central characters in many stories are now self-centered anti-heroes, or cowards who stumble to heroism entirely by circumstance, deliberately shying away from the character traits that life and experience tell us makes people good for themselves and their communities. This is just as lacking in verisimilitude as the white hat-black hat attitude embodied in the old western.

All too often the attitudes that fiction show us make us more fragile and disconnected human beings. Maybe it’s time to push back. If you drop all that in the fire and cook it good, what comes out?

Care to have a look and see?