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Kickboxing Director Lexi Alexander Uses Activism To Bust Out Of 'Movie Jail'

Lexi Alexander is the only woman to have directed a major comic book superhero film.
Aaron Goodwin
Courtesy of Lexi Alexander
Lexi Alexander is the only woman to have directed a major comic book superhero film.

There are six giant superhero movies out this year: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Captain America: Civil War, X-Men: Apocalypse, Doctor Strange, Deadpool and Suicide Squad.

Now guess how many are directed by women.

If you guessed zero, you're correct!

Only one woman has ever directed a major comic book superhero adaptation for the big screen. Her name is Lexi Alexander and the film was Punisher: War Zone, from the Marvel comics universe. Punisher was a flop when it first came out in 2008, but has since gained a small but passionate fan base. (Some comic book fans may also remember 1995's Tank Girl, directed by Rachel Talalay, but that film's based on a smaller, independent British comic.)

Alexander is half German and half Palestinian. She has long, glossy, dark hair and the athletic carriage of a kickboxing champ, which she happens to be. She first came to the U.S. about 20 years ago to work as a stuntwoman, and later trained Marines in hand-to-hand combat at Camp Pendleton. It was an era when charismatic, chiseled European martial artists (Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren) pummeled their way to stardom. For a while, it seemed Alexander might follow that path — except she hates acting.

"I don't like people telling me what to do," she says wryly. (Alexander does take acting seriously, though — she studied the Stanislavsky method to make herself a better director.) Alexander is sprawled in an office chair at her home in Los Angeles. Next to her is the stern-faced punching dummy she trains with every morning.

Hollywood's 'Movie Jail'

Alexander's first film, the 2002 short Johnny Flynton, tells the story of a boxer trying to find balance; it was nominated for an Oscar and jump-started her career. Next came 2005's Green Street Hooligans, about British soccer fans, and then Punisher: War Zone in 2008. All three were studies in male violence.

"She is the greatest," says Scott Derrickson, who directed Doctor Strange, a Marvel movie scheduled for release this November. Derrickson describes Alexander as a stylish director who's ahead of her time, especially when it came to her control of Punisher: War Zone's considerable violence.

"You take it in and it's very visceral and in your face," he says. "Real world violence is something she's thought about a lot ... and she's participated in it and she knows what it feels like to hit and be hit."

Punisher: War Zone was the worst-performing Marvel Comics adaptation ever. Alexander thinks that's partly because of a lousy release date and poor marketing. Today, the film's outspoken fans include comic Patton Oswalt (who enthusiastically celebrated the movie on an episode of the podcast How Did This Get Made) and film critic Walter Chaw.

After Punisher: War Zone, Chaw says Alexander shared the fate of many female directors when she landed in what's known in Hollywood as "movie jail." "You better not stumble, because if you stumble — the way she's perceived publically to have stumbled in Punisher: War Zone — we're never going to give you another movie again," he says, ventriloquizing the Hollywood status quo. Other "movie jail" inmates have included Penelope Spheeris, known for Wayne's World; Karyn Kusama, known for Girlfight; Kimberly Peirce, known for Boys Don't Cry; Allison Anders, known for Gas Food Lodging; and Mimi Leder, known for Deep Impact. Even Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow did time after her 2002 movie K-19: The Widowmaker had a disappointing box office performance.

'Please Dox Me'

Lexi Alexander fought back by becoming an activist. She's campaigned for fair use in intellectual property, a bold move for someone in an industry obsessed with copyright and piracy, and she spoke up about Hollywood's treatment of women and minorities long before this year's Oscars controversies. And because of her connections with fans of comics and marital arts, Alexander's activism reached people who weren't necessarily thinking about either of those topics.

"The biggest influence Lexi has had on me is just raising my awareness," Scott Derrickson says. "I really didn't understand some of the basic statistics and basic realities of sexism in Hollywood and how few women get available directing jobs. I first realized from her Twitter feed it's like 9 percent." (That statistic is comes from researchers at the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.)

Women who speak out on these issues are often trolled and doxed by online bullies (a form of harassment in which their private information is circulated on the Internet) but Alexander says so far that hasn't been a problem. "Please dox me," says the former kickboxing champion. "You don't even need to dox me — I'll give you my address and wait for you by my doorstep."

Recently, Alexander has campaigned for Hollywood to make Arab and Muslim superhero movies. Like so many other people of Arab and Muslim descent, she's disturbed by the negative stereotyping of more than a billion people into swarthy, barking terrorists. She also feels it's a missed opportunity to fight real terrorists — terrorists who use the powerful and false narratives of ISIS recruitment videos to target disempowered, unemployed young men.

In the meantime, Alexander has stayed busy. She's directed episodes of TV shows, including Arrow and American Gothic; she's slated to make a feature film about a troubled wrestler; and she's working with Pakistani playwright Wajahat Ali and novelist Dave Eggers on a new idea: a TV show about a Muslim cop in the NYPD.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.