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Alita: Battle Angel proves giant blockbusters can be too small to succeed

What two flops tell us about the state of big-screen spectacle

Alita: Battle Angel - close-up of Alita 20th Century Fox

James Cameron’s vision for Alita: Battle Angel was larger than just one movie. In combination with the dimensions of his other passion project, the Avatar series, the amount of time Alita spent in gestation is proof enough of Cameron’s ambitions. Shortly after the success of Titanic in 1997, Cameron acquired the rights to Yukito Kishiro’s manga Gunnm, or Battle Angel Alita, and spent the subsequent two decades bringing the story to the big screen, fielding questions every year as to when Alita would finally begin production.

Now that it’s actually hit theaters (under the direction of Robert Rodriguez), franchise-hungry fingerprints are visible all over Alita — but more likely than not, that appetite will go nowhere. However, where Alita (Rosa Salazar) is the last of her kind, Alita is the latest series starter to stumble rather than hit a stride.

[Ed. note: This article contains spoilers for Alita: Battle Angel.]

Rosa Salazar as Alita in Alita: Battle Angel, getting ready to angrily throw a punch.
Alita (Rosa Salazar), doing what a battle angel does best.
Image: 20th Century Fox

Early on, Alita establishes that the only way for the citizens of Iron City to ascend to the sky city of Zalem is by competing in and maintaining a winning streak playing the fake sport Motorball. Over the course of the film, Alita recovers a good chunk of her memories, experiences robot puberty, falls in love, and comes into her own as a fighter, but it all comes perilously close to becoming incidental as the film ends with her establishing herself as a Motorball star.

That “tune in next week to see what happens next!” finale — plus the surprise casting of Edward Norton as Nova, the film’s big-bad, who resides in Zalem — overtly positions the movie as a series starter. The problem therein is that a sequel isn’t guaranteed (the Alita box office forecast is fairly dismal), and that such an ending undermines the movie it’s supposed to launch.

Then again, how do you end a movie that serves as a beginning? In a landscape where franchises reign, it’s a question that’s become increasingly difficult to answer. The option to ensure that each film of a series can stand on its own and doesn’t leave anything hanging isn’t off the table (and is arguably the best path to follow), but it’s become the exception rather than the rule. The quest for the next Star Wars, the next Fast and Furious, the next Hunger Games is never-ending, and baking in a cliffhanger ending is, in theory, a way of incentivizing people to talk about the would-be series and demand a sequel. (When the Fox show Lucifer was canceled after its third season, co-showrunner Joe Henderson actually tweeted out that ending the season on a cliffhanger had been an attempt to coax the network’s hand.)

Tom Hardy facing off with Venom.
Tom Hardy facing off with Venom.
Photo: Sony Pictures

In practice, the gambit hasn’t yielded much success, though this isn’t to say that every potential first installment has flopped. Venom, for instance, did exactly the opposite, riding virality to box-office success and a greenlit sequel. But besides yielding more breakout moments, Venom is also a recognized Marvel Comics property (though only MCU-adjacent, as Sony owns the Spider-Man universe rights and distributed the film). Marvel’s success in building a cinematic universe is unparalleled; the world of the Marvel films is so insular that it doesn’t matter that most of the studio’s movies require prior knowledge of a least a few others within the same sphere.

By contrast, Alita, while based on a relatively well-known manga, doesn’t have the same existing hooks in the zeitgeist. And though it contains outsize characters and ridiculous moments, it resists being broken into easily digestible chunks. It’s too full of idiosyncrasies, and while not overly self-serious, counters memeification through earnestness.

So it goes, too, with last year’s Mortal Engines, which cribs from essentially the same playbook. It’s a first installment that will never have a second, based on a modestly successful existing property, with a now-tragically optimistic open ending. The pity is that both films are wildly ambitious, putting every single dollar of their multi-hundred-million-dollar budgets up on screen for audiences to see in ways that defy the either anodyne or excessively grim trappings of most other franchise films.

Both Mortal Engines and Alita: Battle Angel are almost startlingly bright, eschewing darkness — or at least any sense of visual incoherence — to deliver on stunning, eye-popping set-pieces, and action that’s as thrilling for how clearly it’s shot as for how singular each moving piece is. The traction cities that dominate the landscape in Mortal Engines bear some passing resemblance to the Frankensteinian contraptions in Max Max: Fury Road and the lumbering castle in Howl’s Moving Castle, but they’re still decidedly unique. The robots in Alita similarly outstrip any comparisons that would be made of them, particularly when they jump into action on the Motorball course. Both films even manage not to get bogged down with exposition, despite having to set up entirely new universes with a fair amount of lore behind them.

Hugo Weaving as Thaddeus Valentine and Patrick Malahide as Magnus Crome in Mortal Engines.
Hugo Weaving and Patrick Malahide butt heads in Mortal Engines.
Universal Pictures

As the scramble for profitable franchises continues, the larger, gloomier prognosis would seem to be that blockbusters without a markedly strong existing presence have less and less of a place in the mainstream market. The last few big franchises — Harry Potter, The Hunger Games — were cultural phenomena before movies entered the picture. The titanic size to which houses like Marvel and (to a lesser degree) the Wizarding World of Harry Potter have grown has inherently shifted the landscape, altering audience expectations and, to a certain degree, appetites. (Would Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies be a success if they came out now?)

That said, the bottom line seems to be that films like Mortal Engines and Alita are big enough to greenlight, but small enough to fail. It’s the hope of a franchise that justifies the budgets behind both films, but seemingly either a lack of enough of an existing fan base or an excess of imagination (or perhaps both) that have prevented them from finding a significant audience.

It’s that second hypothetical that makes it particularly wrenching to condemn Mortal Engines and Alita to the metaphorical garbage heap, joining other non-starters like the 2018 Robin Hood or the 2017 The Mummy. There’s actually something to be said for Christian Rivers’ and Robert Rodriguez’s films beyond providing foundations for future cash cows, and yet, they’ve suffered the same fate.

A glimmer of hope remains for Alita in the overseas market, but otherwise, the best hope for it and Mortal Engines is the kind of cult status achieved by other sprawling fantasies like Jupiter Ascending or Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. That’s not a complaint — at least, not completely. There’s still something heartening in the fact that a movie so ambitious and wild would get made at all, and I can at least look forward to seeing it in a theater again at some future midnight screening devoted to the weird, wonderful, and overlooked.

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