James Cameron Actually Made Alita: Battle Angel Twice


It took James Cameron almost 20 years to make a feature film about Alita: Battle Angel, but the Academy Award-winning director actually did a trial run for Alita with his 2000-2002 TV series Dark Angel. Directed by Robert Rodriguez (Sin City) and produced by Cameron, the visionary Alita: Battle Angel was released in 2019 and starred Rosa Salazar, who provided the voice and mo-cap performance for the titular cyborg warrior living the post-apocalyptic Iron City in the year 2563. But Salazar was the second Latina actress Cameron cast as a futuristic action heroine; in 2000, he gave Jessica Alba her breakthrough role as Max Guevara in Dark Angel.

Cameron and producer Charles H. Eglee borrowed a great deal from Alita when they created Dark Angel for FOX in 2000. In the late-1990s, Guillermo del Toro introduced Cameron to Battle Angel: Alita, the popular manga by Yukito Kishiro that was first published in 1990. The Terminator and Aliens director began developing a feature film adaptation of Alita in 1999. a project he would push back several times, especially when he commenced production on Avatar. But Alita was never far from his mind and Cameron “borrowed” many of Battle Angel: Alita‘s concepts for Dark Angel, including the derivative title (which is never uttered in the TV series). Sadly, despite James Cameron’s pedigree, Dark Angel only lasted two low-rated seasons on FOX while Alita Battle Angel wasn’t anywhere close to the box office smash Avatar was, and it may not get a sequel.

Related: Dark Angel Season 3: Why The Show Was Canceled

Dark Angel and Alita: Battle Angel are clearly sister projects cut from the same mold. In Dark Angel, Jessica Alba played Max AKA X-5 452, a genetically-engineered super-soldier who lives in post-apocalyptic Seattle circa 2020 after she and a dozen other transgenic children escaped from a government facility called Manticore. Max, a young, female action heroine gifted with superpowers, was a clear forerunner to Rosa Salazar’s Alita, a young, female action heroine who learns she’s a Berzerker, an elite cyborg super-soldier from Mars. Both Max and Alita struggle to get by in their broken worlds; Max’s Seattle is a dangerous city surviving a decade after terrorists set off a nuclear device over the United States. The EMP wiped out all electronics and turned America into a third-world country. Max’s Seattle and Alita’s Iron City are both grimy cyberpunk locales and both heroines exist at street-level, mingling with a menagerie of motley characters.

Alita’s villain is Nova (Edward Norton), the all-powerful and feared figure who rules Zalem, the floating city hovering above Iron City. Nova is basically everywhere and sees everything; known as “the Eyes Behind the Eyes”, he can possess cyborgs, see through their eyes, and speak with their voices. For Dark Angel, Cameron reversed the idea of the villainous Eyes Behind the Eyes to create Logan Cale (Michael Weatherly), a crusading cyberjournalist and Max’s love interest who operates as the mysterious Eyes Only. Through his informant net, Eyes Only sees crimes everywhere; Logan and Max work together to fight injustice and help the helpless.

Max’s adventures, which included fighting other transgenic super soldiers like herself, echo Alita becoming a Hunter-Warrior, i.e. a cyborg bounty hunter. Both Max and Alita are superior hand-to-hand combatants but they both also have weaknesses: Alita copes with amnesia while Max had a chemical imbalance in her brain that requires tryptophan to prevent seizures. Meanwhile, Alita’s Iron City is dominated by a dangerous sport called Motorball, which Alita herself plays both professionally and on the street. In Max’s hip-hop-dominated Seattle, Jam Pony’s bike messengers outdo each other with bicycle stunts and other pseudo-sports. Finally, neither Dark Angel nor Alita: Battle Angel had a satisfying ending and left their stories hanging.

Dark Angel was 20 years ahead of its time; itself a visionary sci-fi universe like Alita, Dark Angel deals with what are hot topics today like government corruption, police brutality, and Max’s quest for transgenic rights can be seen as a substitute for black and LGBTQ+ rights. Alternately, Alita is pure, eye-popping sci-fi escapism. Yet, despite a two-decade gap between Dark Angel and Alita Battle: Angel, neither project truly captured the public’s imagination or have left a strong cultural imprint. Perhaps both Dark Angel and Alita: Battle Angel are simply victims of ironically poor timing and they each arrived too soon for their moments. This must be a disappointment to James Cameron, who has now tried twice to adapt Alita: Battle Angel for a world that wasn’t quite ready for Max and Alita.

Next: Alita: Battle Angel Should Get A Sequel On Disney+ (As A TV Series)