Why Desty Nova Won’t be in Alita: Battle Angel

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.

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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.

Alita: Battle Angel — Trailer Impressions

I am currently swamped with deadlines, fighting off procrastination, and trying to whip up thousands of words a day before I succumb to the indolence of the Christmas period, but I had to give myself a break, for something momentous has occurred. The first trailer for the live-action adaptation of Battle Angel Alita has arrived.

Battle Angel Alita is one of my all-time favourite manga series, and I wrote about it over twenty months ago here on my blog. I ended by saying to drop by in a couple of years for my thoughts on the film version, which will undoubtedly be here come July, but before that, I must comment on the trailer.

My immediate impressions are that it looks very promising. I am impressed with the look of almost everything — they have replicated the world and the content of the manga extremely well. I’m eager to see more of the setting, but certain sequences from the trailer seem to match the manga shot-for-shot.

Thus far, the cast are looking quite exceptional. Besides Jennifer Connelly, who I believe is playing an original character, every character is immediately recognisable to me as a fan of the manga. Dr. Ido in the manga is a mixture of somebody very brave and charming, but also rather vulnerable and sensitive. I believe Christoph Waltz will be able to match his temperament considerably, and Mahershala Ali looks as though he may bring a sense of menace to the character of Vector. In the manga, Vector is very sly and often acts a lot tougher than he is, but I am wondering if they will expand his role given the popularity and presence of Mahershala Ali.

Rosa Salazar as Alita seems to be the biggest talking point from the trailer. Long before production began, Cameron teased the possibility of Alita being all CG, and it looks as though they’ve certainly played on that idea to some extent. Her big eyes are the most immediate feature, and something that I didn’t expect to see, but I really love that they’ve given Alita a sort of uncanny look. In the manga, she’s very obviously the main character — she has an extremely distinctive appearance, and her main characteristics throughout are always her big eyes, octopus lips, and buoyant hair. Here’s a comparison I put together (and another at the end of this post).

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I’m extremely pleased about Makaku’s appearance, too. Often during adaptations, it seems as though certain characters are deemed to difficult to work on screen, and are thus changed, but Makaku—who is the first villain in the Alita series—appears just as he does on the page. Some of the special effects do look as though they need more refinement, but as this is just the first trailer, I fully expect them to look better implemented in the final product. There are also a couple of tantalising spots for people familiar with the manga, such as a small glimpse of Ido’s Rocket Hammer.

There are also a couple of changes. It appears as though Gonzu—Ido’s close friend—has been completely replaced with another character, and judging from this trailer alone, it would appear as though Motorball is no longer going to be included. Cameron had previously commented that his adaptation would include elements of the first four books, including the Motorball arc, but either things have changed since handing over to Rodriguez, or they’re saving it for a later reveal. On a personal note, I did feel as though merging four entire volumes would be a bit much to fit into a single film, but nonetheless, I was excited to see some big screen Motorball action.

Nothing too solid is revealed about the plot. Scenes from the manga are in there, but it’s difficult to speculate how closely they’re sticking to the original structure. Two lines in particular—”They will come for you,” which is spoken by Ido to Alita, and “I’d give you my heart,” which is spoken by Alita to Hugo—did throw me off slightly.

Early in the manga, Alita strives to live a relatively normal life, and the only person who is really after her is Zapan, who is played by Ed Skrein in this film. But this occurs much later, even after the Motorball arc, and it seems as though Ido is referring to a group of people, rather than one person.

The second line seems to really nail Alita’s obsessiveness over Hugo, but I don’t recall her ‘heart’ being an object she can whip out and have a look at. No doubt, this is some sort of subtle exposition for later on.

All in all, I am feeling relatively upbeat about this adaptation. I’ve had a look at the larger response online, and it seems rather mixed, but I feel as though they’ve implemented many key aspects of the manga. I found the Death Note and Ghost in the Shell adaptations extremely disappointing because of their disengagement with the source material, but here it actually looks as though the creative team are familiar with Yukito Kishiro’s work. It helps that the project was first devised by James Cameron, and that he remains on board, as he is an enormous fan of the manga, and a project like this needs enthusiasm and passion behind it.

I genuinely hope this is a success, because the world of Alita is so enormous and rich with detail and scope. The manga is one of the essential cyberpunk series, and an adaptation has so much potential. Arguably, the best material and some of the most exciting characters, such as Jashugan, Berserker Zapan, Figure Four, and Desty Nova, are not introduced until after the first couple of arcs, so if the adaptation were to become a trilogy, it has the ability and substance to continually outdo itself with each installment.

Here’s hoping! Alita: Battle Angel is set to be released on 20th July, 2018.

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Manga Talk: Battle Angel Alita

When I read manga, I pay very close attention to panel placement and the fluidity of the artwork, in that is the action easy to follow. Manga can – at times – appear rather erratic, with large jumps between panels and characters who move very suddenly, which is understandable considering authors are very page-limited. Pace is something I imagine every artist of manga, comics or graphic novels grapples with, but when an author nails the pace and fluency of a scene, it’s such a pleasure to read.

50Last night while listening to the grandeur of The Cure, I recalled such a scene; it was in Chapter 22 of Gunnm, otherwise known as Battle Angel Alita.

Battle Angel Alita follows the life of Alita, a female cyborg with tremendous fighting abilities who is rescued from a garbage heap by a cyberphysician. When she recovers, Alita finds she doesn’t remember who she is or where she comes from, thus she begins to piece together the fragments of her past.

The chapter – titled Ars Magna – is the culmination of a two volume long arc and at a point in the story where Alita has self-exiled herself from her new life and adoptive family following a tragedy. Leaving behind everything, she immerses herself in the high-octane sport of Motorball, which is something akin to a murderous, all-at-once relay with just one baton.

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Alita spends much of the arc recruiting members to help defeat the reigning and undefeated champion, Jashugan, and the build-up to this moment is executed with perfection. The racers take their positions in Chapter 21 – there are flashbacks and monologues, the emotional weight is stacked to the Heavens – and everything gets underway in Chapter 22.

The readers are led to believe Alita has a chance; it’s five against one and Alita’s recruits are no pushovers, but from the get-go Jashugan completely dominates. This is where the author, Yukito Kishiro, absolutely nails the pace. Jashugan quite literally plows through Alita’s team and the scene reads in slow motion. Jashugan’s movements are precise, with Kishiro’s artwork and panel placement incredibly fluid. Backgrounds are erased as Jashugan calmly pulverizes the opposing team one by one, with Kishiro effortlessly displaying every key movement in tremendous detail. The reader gets a genuine sense of the action and the movements of each character, which is a phenomenal feat for such a busy scene.

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Alita rushes to the aid of her team and – inevitably – she and Jashugan become locked in a showdown. They fight one on one, with the author continuing to illustrate the action with not only incredible fluency, but tremendous ferocity. Jashugan is painted as all-powerful, in one scene rising from the flames after a seeming defeat. It’s a completely exhilarating chapter in a thoroughly outstanding manga. I cannot recommend Battle Angel Alita enough. It’s such a remarkable work, set in a completely alluring world with some of the most memorable characters and artwork manga has to offer.

I mentioned how I recalled this scene while listening to The Cure. The song that caused the images to surge into my mind was Plainsong from their Disintegration album. The opening instrumentals are particularly stirring; very grand and powerful. I love to listen to instrumental music when I read manga; if you get a piece that fits the tone of the book, it can become wonderfully immersive and not to mention incredibly exciting to follow when you have a master such as Kishiro illustrating each and every scene with elegance and fluidity.

James Cameron has been sitting on the rights for a film-version of Battle Angel Alita for over a decade and said himself that his adaptation will “use elements from the first four volumes”, which includes the Motorball arc. I’m not the type to freak out and fanboy over things, but to see this chapter on film would be an absolute dream. After many years of silence, it was announced a couple of months ago that the movie is finally going ahead, but that Robert Rodriguez would direct with Cameron producing. I’m not all that familiar with Rodriguez’s filmography, but am a little dubious whether or not Battle Angel Alita is really his style, but hopefully under the guidance of Cameron – who is a longtime fan – they’ll do it justice. Check back here in a couple of years for my thoughts!

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