Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron’s film adaptation of Yukito Kishiro’s cyberpunk manga Battle Angel Alita is just a few months away. A full length trailer was released last week, which gave audiences a taste of what to expect and featured some very welcome reveals, such as the inclusion of Motorball. However, there still isn’t a single trace of the series’ main antagonist, Desty Nova. Despite the director name-dropping him in an interview, I believe the character won’t be a notable or recognisable part of the film.
My reasoning is tied to Makaku, the very first antagonist in the manga, who is the first character to mention and effectively introduce the renegade scientist Desty Nova. In chapter seven, he reveals to Alita that Nova transformed him from a decaying child who roamed the sewers, to a maggot-shaped cyborg symbiote. With this ‘maggot body’ Makaku is able to take over other cyborg’s and pose their bodies as his own.
Ultimately, this serves as a tantilising introduction for Desty Nova. Throughout the following volumes, Alita is drip-fed information on the character, before finally meeting him half-way through the series in volume five. In the manga, Desty Nova is the supreme antagonist. Almost every other villain Alita finds herself against has, in one way or another, been warped, modified, or influenced by him, but given Desty Nova’s late appearance, a prominent role in the film adaptation was always unlikely, as it adapts material from before his main inclusion. However, as a fan favourite character, who is nonetheless crucial to the story, surely a tease or a reference was a possibility.
The problem is that Makaku (and by extension Desty Nova’s introduction) has been removed from the film. The cyborg that bears resemblance to him in the trailers is in actuality Grewcica, an amalgamated character from the 1993 anime OVA. This character is much less complex than Makaku and has no ties to Desty Nova. This is also but one of the inclusions which are sourced from the OVA, rather than the original manga material. James Cameron revealed in the trailer release Q&A that the anime was his introduction to Battle Angel Alita, after a recommendation from Guillermo del Toro. Desty Nova is not included and is never mentioned in the anime. This eliminates what would have been a seamless establishment of the character and his reputation.
But didn’t Robert Rodriguez say that Mahershala Ali was playing Desty Nova in a duel role alongside Vector? That is correct, and his precise statement is as follows:
He plays Vector, who’s famous from the manga [as a black-market dealer who Hugo works for] and then there’s a villainous character called Nova who can, like, ride through other people. He can take over their bodies. So he has to play someone else; that was really fun. We got the actor to come in and do the main role he’s playing, but then you kind of have to create a whole other character with him. I showed his footage to Jim and he was like, ‘It’s a totally different person!’ Posture, voice, the look in their eye: it’s a lot of fun for an actor to do that. One, to play the first character but then have to come up with a second character on top.
I find issue with this description of Desty Nova as a character who can “ride through people” and “take over their bodies.” This seems much more fitting of Makaku’s maggot form over anything Desty Nova does. While Grewcica does not possess Makaku’s body swapping abilities, Robert Rodriguez did say that screenwriter James Cameron had come up with “inventions” inspired by the manga. It’s possible the ‘body swapping’ of Makaku has been incorporated into this Nova character which is performed by Ali, and is thus introduced through alternate avenues entirely separate from the manga.
Yukito Kishiro has stated that the film production retained “respect for the source material” and while there were parts that deviated from the original work, he said “the core of the story is quite in tact.” It seems likely, given that Alita is the core and constant element of Battle Angel, that Desty Nova is rather one of these deviations. Yet, Robert Rodriguez’s statement remains — seven months later — the sole mention of the character in all promotion. His lack of presence seems to indicate to me that he will be absent or, at the very most, reduced to an ambiguous cameo role à la the Emperor part in The Phantom Menace. Whatever the case, the evidence thus far doesn’t suggest a character at all similar or as prominent as his manga counterpart.