SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains major spoilers for Alita: Battle Angel, now open in theaters everywhere.
While Alita: Battle Angel certainly boasts an impressive main cast, including Academy Award winners Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali, the live-action manga adaptation also features a surprise appearance by a former Marvel Cinematic Universe actor in a small but pivotal role.
Edward Norton portrays the nefarious scientist, Nova, who secretly orchestrates much of the film's plot. He also possesses the ability to transfer his consciousness into other bodies, allowing him to directly control his subordinates, including Ali's Vector and Jackie Earle Haley's Grewishka, at certain points of the cyberpunk action movie. While the character doesn't physically confront Alita at any point of the film, his presence is felt throughout as he tasks hunter-warriors to track her down and kill her for her cybernetic core.
Living in the privileged floating city of Zalem, Nova directs Vector and his criminal syndicate to harvest human parts and cybernetic components from the citizens of Iron City, directly below the skybound metropolis and populated by the less fortunate. Through flashbacks, Alita begins to remember that she was sent on a mission by the United Republic of Mars to infiltrate Zalem during the great, apocalyptic war three centuries ago and kill Nova though unsuccessful before being scrapped and losing her memories.
As Nova's obsession to hunt Alita intensifies, the two interact through Nova's proxies, with Norton's character revealing himself as the true antagonist of the entire cyberpunk story. The film ends with the two swearing to destroy each other once and for all as Nova observes Alita moving up through the Motorball ranks in the hopes of reaching the final champion position to return to Zalem and confront the villain face-to-face.
While Norton's sneering antagonist is revealed as the true mastermind behind the villains of the adaptation, there's also a winking meta-contextual element to Nova's role. Alita: Battle Angel has been the passion project for producer and co-writer James Cameron for nearly 20 years after first reading Yukito Kishiro's manga series, having being recommended it by Guillermo Del Toro. Originally attached to direct, Cameron would take on a producer role instead, working on his Avatar franchise while Robert Rodriguez helmed Alita in his place.
With a reputation for micromanagement in projects he's attached to, Nova is likely a sly nod to Cameron's active role in the production, despite not being a director and a guiding constant presence in the film. While directed by Rodriguez, Cameron's influence is felt through the film, not unlike Nova's role in steering the greater machinations within the adaptation. Also, with Norton visibly aged for the role and sporting a stark white hairstyle, the character's true form slightly resembles Cameron himself to underscore the comparison.
While it's unknown if the manga adaptation will get a sequel, expanding the background by Nova and giving him and Alita a chance to finally confront each other in-person, the brief, silent appearance of Edward Norton in the film is a genuine surprise and amusing cameo while offering a clear direction for potential follow-ups to go. And, with Cameron taking on a much more hands-on role than most producers, it has provided Rodriguez with a nod to his silver-haired collaborator.
Directed by Robert Rodriguez, Alita: Battle Angel stars Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Keean Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Lana Condor and Eiza González. The film opens on February 15.