‘Alita: Battle Angel’ and Writing for The Franchise Instead of The Film

by Chris Wager
Alita: Battle Angel

“Franchise.” That’s the magic word that causes all Hollywood execs to start comically drooling like Homer Simpson looking at a pink frosted donut.

I imagine that anyone green-lighting movies is hoping to strike gold on the next big franchise. The thing that people seem to forget is that most franchises are accidental. They usually are started by some small, lower-budget film that speaks to the general audience in unexpected ways. The Fast and the Furious was a street racing film with a tacked-on undercover cop story to give it some B-movie substance. No one intended or planned for it to be a billion-dollar franchise that now centers around heists, big-time stunts, and now it includes shockingly little street racing.

Why hasn’t Hollywood realized that you can’t force a franchise? Even Marvel, the now king of franchise and universe building, started with a relative unknown at the time in Iron Man. They even took a gamble on themselves by self-producing the movie without the Hollywood machine fully behind it. Ten years later we all know that the gamble paid off. At the time though, it was a far from a safe bet. However, at least Iron Man was a solid movie in its own right that could stand on its own.

image via Wired

Alita: The Franchise That Will Never Be

This brings me to this past weekend as I sat down and watched Alita: Battle Angel, James Cameron’s passion project since 2003 that finally released using his script with direction by Robert Rodriguez. This film suffered from the most frustrating and preventable of all issues. A script that focused on the potential franchise and not the single film.

(Below could be considered MILD SPOILERS on the structure of Alita: Battle Angel and a few other films that have suffered from the issue of writing for the franchise.)

I understand the appeal of a franchise in the terms of creating a living world, and the job security that comes with a successful brand. However, the first film in a potential franchise should focus on what this world is, and who our heroes and villains are in a standalone, concise story. Alita: Battle Angel beautifully builds a world and characters that we want to spend more time with (except for Hugo, I don’t need more time with him). It was the story where Alita really stumbled out of the gates.

Unfulfilled Promises

Alita: Battle Angel is simply a promise of what will come if we show up for this one and stick around to see what tricks the creators have up their sleeves in a few years. There is nothing in the film that could be considered a standalone or satisfying story. There is no real compelling villain, or climax that means anything in the long run, just a few obstacles to keep the characters busy with very few implications.

After what ended up being the big climax action scene in the arena, I realized this film wasn’t going to deliver anything that it had promised throughout its runtime. Everything was being saved for a sequel, that now after a lackluster box office we will probably never see.

Who looked at this script and thought this was a good introduction to a mostly unknown source material? Did anybody actually ask someone what this movie was about? There was no plot. Really think about it. This movie was simply world building and character development, with a couple of fun action pieces to trick us into thinking we were watching a complete movie.

image via MovieWeb

Movies Have to Stand on Their Own

Why write a movie for the franchise and not the movie? A movie should be written with everything stuffed into the script. Then a sequel should be an exciting opportunity to expand and do bigger and better things with your characters. The only exception is if you are working on a beloved franchise that is too big to fail, (which only Lord of the Rings springs to mind as actually being that, and even that was a gamble). Otherwise sequels should only be worried about after you prove that the first one can be a hit.

Christopher Nolan put his all in Batman Begins. Nothing was left out of that movie. It focused on the villains he introduced and gave us the world building and character motivations in one film. It wasn’t until the last shot that he teased what a sequel could contain if the film proved to be a success. If Batman Begins had flopped and never got a sequel at least we would have a film that is watchable on its own.

Not Learning from The Past

With Alita we are left with the first part of what was a probably a planned five movie series or more that, again, we may never get to see.  Who is going to watch Alita again? It doesn’t stand up on its own.

This reminded me a lot of Warcraft, a big-budget adaptation of a non-mainstream source material that built a gorgeous world but nothing else. Both of these films provide no closure and are not capable of being a standalone story. They both held back in hopes of giving us the goods in future installments.

In a Hollywood that is now built on nostalgia, why are we holding back anything that could be considered somewhat original or fresh? Why are these film makers getting paid millions of dollars to make half a movie?

image via denofgeek.com

Can Writing for The Franchise Ever Work?

As a creative person I want to put everything I can in a project and then look at the next one and see how I can put all I can into that project. If the opportunity comes back to revisit a world then it should be revisited because there is a new way to look at it, not simply because we left stuff out of the first installment in hopes of making a sequel to begin with.

If they would have adapted one story from the manga series, in which Alita: Battle Angel was based on, I think we could have a franchise on our hands. Instead they made a part of a larger story, which no one was familiar with. They were then unable to advertise in a compelling way to convince anyone that this movie wasn’t anything more than crazy visuals. Which, once again thanks to Marvel, we see all the time anyway.

So instead, we are forced to struggle to figure out what was special about this movie. How should a fan explain this movie to their friends in hopes of getting more people in the theater?  Why should anyone give this unproven, and unknown world a chance? What is the story of this film? Not the world or potential stories that could happen, but what was the point of this film? There really wasn’t one, which makes for a very unsatisfying experience. Even more unsatisfying in the aftermath of a poor showing at the global box office.

What If…

What’s ironic is that Alita had a beautiful world and memorable characters that could have turned out to be a heck of a franchise to follow if it ended up on the winning end of the box office. On the James Cameron flip side, Avatar was a beautiful world and made a ton of money but it failed to leave an impression on anyone. And guess which one has four sequels in the pipeline! Should be interesting to see how those fare.

The verdict is still out if Alita: Battle Angel will make enough worldwide gross to warrant a revisit to Iron City. At this point, however, it seems that the curse of writing for the franchise strikes again. Here’s to the dark, gritty reboot in three years. I hope they include a story this time.

alita: battle angel

image via Slash Film

Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on Alita: Battle Angel? Comment down below!

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Daena May February 22, 2019 - 6:39 am

You are the only person I have heard say Avatar was a huge spectacle but was unable to leave a lasting impression. I knew I wasnt alone. Also, Alita sounds terrible. I think the problem seems to be more that Hollywood should stop looking at manga and anime for source material. Of course there are several other reasons why a movie is crap, but they dont seem to understand the crux of most either. It hard to adapt something when you dont understand the soul of the story. Could be why they just spent all their time on plot points and mindless action.

Olaf Lesniak February 21, 2019 - 11:09 am

I pretty much disagree with most of the things you said. Alita is something original, fun that and contains sets of tied up threads. At times it didn’t feel self-contained not because it was saving up things for later, but because it didn’t opt to find more directions that would flesh it out. The problem isn’t necessarily writing for a franchise but writing a stronger story.

Nick Kush February 21, 2019 - 11:15 am

I liked this movie just fine but I think it’s pretty clear that they were intentionally saving things for the sequel and hoping you would come back for more, especially with a sudden tease of Edward Norton playing Nova lol! (Still, I found this movie super weird in a good way and I’d probably recommend it to other people.)

Olaf Lesniak February 23, 2019 - 2:56 pm

The character of Nova appears to the same extent in the manga volume that this movie is adapting.

Nick Kush March 4, 2019 - 10:53 am

See I feel like that argument is such a crutch for movie adaptations. Why does something being the same in the original source material as well as the movie automatically make it good? Sometimes things just don’t translate, and those cliffhanger-ish endings work a LOT better in novels and comics when there’s more space to flesh things out. Sure, fan reverence in film adaptations is always smart, but honestly, I felt pretty cheated by the end of this movie because it was pretty slavish to the manga in this way (even if I still somewhat liked it).

Nick Kush February 21, 2019 - 9:52 am

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