Why Alita: Battle Angel and Captain Marvel Are Worth Comparing

*This post will be spoiler-light on both films. No major plot points will be discussed in detail

Unless one managed to subvert all corners of the Internet, news of the controversy surrounding comments made by Brie Larson, the star of Captain Marvel likely caught the ears of millions with a presence online. With a campaign to bemoan the film on Rotten Tomatoes and the #AlitaChallenge briefly dominating on social media, Captain Marvel and Alita: Battle Angel found themselves pitted against each other on the basis of a small cultural war. Featuring female protagonists, there was a strange tension that sought to prove rather than understand.

When a friend invited me to watch Alita: Battle Angel on the Friday of the release of Captain Marvel, I could not resist the temptation to watch both films in order to compare the two. Was there merit in the challenges that arose to avoid one film for the other?

Weirdly enough, I struggle to determine a complete answer myself. Without question, releasing these films a year apart in different circumstances would not grab my attention to compare the two. Yet I must admit that both films hold interesting positions within the cinematic space that are worth discussing within a larger context.

Alita: Battle Angel and Captain Marvel could not be further separated in execution and vision. One embodies the essence of risk, attempting to establish new foundations for a compelling universe rarely portrayed on the big screen despite the inevitable side effects. The other is rooted in convention, dependent on its past successes to maintain a safety net despite the redundancies that accompany it. Both remain distinct cinematic experiences that within the year of 2019 prompt an interesting question that has persisted since the inception of entertainment: does originality necessarily warrant greater quality or attention against the standard?

 

Alita: Risk-Taker

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Alita: Battle Angel is based on Yukito Kishiro’s manga Gunnm (or Battle Angel Alita in English). It is widely known to be a passion project that James Cameron, the director behind box office phenomenon Titanic and Avatar, has wanted to realize on the big screen for years, even registering a domain name for the film back in 2000.

And as expected of a James Cameron production, it cannot be understated that Alita: Battle Angel is a visual marvel on every front of its production. Had it been available in IMAX 3D for viewing at the time, I undoubtedly would have opted to watch that version.

Set within the futuristic depot of Iron City. Rustic architecture dwarf the isles with deceptively high-end technology sprawling from building to building. The dense population of the city indicates an inability to adjust the infrastructure to create efficient means of transportation, or a societal disregard for the environmental sustainability of their surroundings. Interesting sights fill the vision, from a guitarist that utilizes a two-handed metallic arm to play a guitar with two sets of strings, to the various robotic dogs that occasionally roam the streets amidst regular animals.

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Despite its worn aesthetic, there is a mystical spirit to the junkyard worth uncovering in its entirety. Even a simple change from the morning to the evening unveils an aura of danger in the streets, with Hunter-Warriors tracking down cyborgs to earn their keep.

I should quickly note here, the fight cinematography is fantastic. I was worried at first because the use of CGI indicated that some of the action would become frantically artificial, difficult to keep track of. Yet I was floored by the impressive techniques on display to create authentic bouts between Alita and her adversaries. The opportunity to witness the exhilaration of Motorball nearly justifies a single viewing on its own.

And atop them all? Zalem: a sprawling metropolis of great presence, strangely grappled into the sky. Junk descends from the gaping hole within the center of the mighty utopia, presumably dropping the technologies and materials deemed “outdated” by the highest authorities. Amidst the fantastic world building featured in the details, this characteristic happens to be the most intriguing personally. If someone like Alita was thrown into the scrapyard despite her combative potential, what threats await those who embark on a journey to Zalem? It is continually (and rightfully) portrayed as the end goal for those with the greatest aspirations.

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Unfortunately, it appears that much was sacrificed in other essential areas of filmmaking in order to accomplish those feats. Of particular note was the borderline-atrocious scriptwriting that often lacked punch. One of the biggest issues lies with the incoherence between the circumstances and dialogue. Certain moments that could have carried emotional weight are marred by a lack of relevance that highlight some lack of thought to the integrity of the narrative.  It is so poor that even the best delivery from the actors can manage to sound forced. Without spoiling too many details, a moment where a character is on the verge of death had me laughing because of the out-of-touch comments made by another character, which ironically contradicted a notion established earlier within the film.

However, there are instances where the corny dialogue is used to some great effect. There is a scene where Alita attempts to inspire a gang of Hunter-Warriors within a bar with a triumphant speech that for some audience members is quite cookie-cutter, and her acquaintances immediately dismiss her rhetoric upo hearing it. This remains a prime example of dialogue that carries a clear intention: to highlight the arrogance of the Hunter-Warriors and note Alita’s more childish beginnings as she enters a realm of hunting unfamiliar to her.

To clarify, I hold the purpose of the scriptwriting to be of much greater importance than the delivery. The movie Eighth Grade best underscores this concept: dialogue between the characters is clearly supposed to be awkward in the service of creating an authentic middle school atmosphere. My personal gripe with Alita: Battle Angel specifically lies with intent because there were enough strange instances within the screenplay that I actively questioned which lines of dialogue were written that way with purpose and which were written on late notice.

Of course, scriptwriting does not limit itself to character interaction and dialogue though: it is integral to the progression of the narrative. Alita: Battle Angel struggles to cover much ground in the midst of its extensive world-building, establishing several avenues of setup without the necessary payoff to stand on its own. This is particularly baffling given that the source material is largely unknown to general audiences, and the film certainly did not have the prospects to become another breakout hit. Perhaps with a longer runtime and refocused script, Alita: Battle Angel might have captivated audiences on its basis as  production rather than intrigue alone.

There is significant doubt in my mind that Alita: Battle Angel gets a sequel in the near future even if it manages to recoup costs, which remains doubtful despite exceeding its $170-$200 million production cost (this excludes costs related to marketing and advertising). While I would be torn to say that the quality of the film truly warrants one compared to , it is nevertheless saddening. Especially with live-action adaptations of Japanese manga to the big screen, no attempts have managed to garner success with audiences without major adjustments to the source material (i.e. Edge of Tomorrow). I cannot help but compare Alita: Battle Angel to the live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell: they are fantastic displays of visual spectacle hampered by the burdens of establishing itself for future installments.

For advocates of Alita: Battle Angel, the best one can do to further support the film is through multiple screenings or purchasing the eventual DVD release. For a film that manages to accurately and beautifully depict its setting with the best treatment possible in cinema, it is deserving of a second chance to shine.

 

Captain of the Marvel Conventional Universe

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The idea of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is utterly genius, creating an interconnected lore of superheroes across film and television that prompts the exploration of multiple stories and characters. This premise immediately resonated with audiences, and with the breakout success of The Avengers, the MCU cemented itself as the one of the most successful franchises in cinematic history.

But as the film releases continues to accumulate, it becomes more and more difficult to replicate the novelty or previous installments, requiring filmmakers to pursue new routes to maintain the spirit of the MCU, which has been attempted occasionally to great success or subtle failure.

Of course, there are no major incentives to broaden out of the comfort zone that the MCU has established, and unfortunately Captain Marvel became the victim of what otherwise could have been a compelling origin tale of the most powerful superhero in the franchise, but not necessarily because of a lack of quality.

In fact, I would assert that Captain Marvel is the most average movie within the MCU.

Set within 1995, the movie is chronologically the second in the MCU, between the first Captain America and the first Iron Man films. As a result, Captain Marvel is relatively disconnected from the burdens of the other installments, as the concept of a “superhero” is still foreign at this point within the timeline. This allows the film to redouble its focus on the story of Carol Danvers becoming Captain Marvel without too much compromise, and it is successful in crafting a fine narrative arc of rediscovery and capability.

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It was doubly refreshing to return to a time where CGI-laden fights did not plaster every inch of the movie. With the exception of the final battle, there was a greater effort to focus on more grounded action, be it within a moving train or file storage room, which I believe unintentionally reinforces some of the subtler messages of the movie. Carol Danvers holds tremendous power, but through circumstance or authority is discouraged from unleashing it. Therefore, the moment where she rekindles her individual strengths is probably the best moment within the film; she is not becoming more powerful as much as she is embracing her latent abilities.

Aside from that, the other qualities of the film follows the route one would expect from an MCU film: cheeky one-liners populate the script, villains are standard-fare, introduce some set-up, make tiny connections with other films, etc.

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But at this point, some of these patterns are becoming a burden. Let it serve as a reminder that Captain Marvel is the twenty-first film to be released in MCU to date. And it retains several conventions that often plagued the films from Phase One. And movies like Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers: Infinity War exist. And despite what I said earlier, Captain Marvel is burdened by the meta implications of its release in 2019 before Avengers: Endgame.

Aside from its existence as the first female-led superhero film within the MCU, there is absolutely nothing about Captain Marvel that feigns originality. This is partially because the film itself is nothing to write home about, but more so because nearly eleven years of the MCU precede it. If I had to sum it up quickly, Captain Marvel would have benefitted from a release in Phase One. While her character’s presence was conspicuously absent until Avengers: Infinity War, the landscape of superhero films at the time would have been more conductive to the film’s reception.

 

Moving Forward

Against the constructed odds of the Internet, the propagated competition between Alita: Battle Angel and Captain Marvel managed to inspire new questions. We have one film that is particularly novel in its adaptation with cutting-edge visual production, but is justifiably slammed for its failings within the narrative and scriptwriting. And the other is painfully safe in its execution against the rest of its companions, but is harmlessly fine without too much detriment.

So under these circumstances, it is nearly guaranteed that preferences will be split depending on one’s taste and background with such films. But the precedents that the two movies represent prompt discussion about the future. Here’s the reality: convention sells while innovation hesitates. Captain Marvel has everything needed to be a commercial hit, whereas Alita: Battle Angel has major hurdles to overcome (some of which are self-inflicted).

While there are certain aspects of each film that I gravitate towards, I could not adamantly express a confident assertion of the film that I found superior, ultimately because of what each film individually represents to me. Perhaps that dilemma will absolve itself one day, but in the meantime I will continue to reflect upon the matter.

I am not here to advise you to watch one film and not support the other. Rather, I find tangible merit within Alita: Battle Angel and Captain Marvel to be viewed for reasons other than the experiences that the filmmakers intended for the audiences.

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