Article Thumbnail

‘Punisher: War Zone’ Director Lexi Alexander Never Met a Hollywood Obstacle She Couldn’t Roundhouse Kick

Alexander was the first woman to helm a combat-heavy comic book movie, but it landed the promising young stuntwoman-turned-filmmaker in director’s jail for years. Here’s how she fought back

Welcome to MEL’s “Women of Action” series, a week-long deep dive into five landmark action films made by female filmmakers. Far too often, writers have fixated on what women look like in the action genre — instead, I’ll be unpacking the creative influence that these five filmmakers have had behind the camera. As such, every day, I’m taking a look at one female filmmaker who has made a groundbreaking action film, as producers, auteurs, upstarts and finally, as breakthroughs, and attempting to outline their creative influence and impact on the genre, in some of the most notable (one way or the other) action films ever made. 

Today’s installment focuses on the always candid Lexi Alexander, who spoke to me about her experiences in Hollywood and the ways in which she’s taking on the sexism facing female directors in the industry, fighting injustice with the same ferocity she brought to the ring as a martial arts champion.

The German-Palestinian Alexander is a former world kickboxing champion who grew up in boxing gyms and dojos, traveling the world first as a champion martial artist, then as Princess Kitana in the Mortal Kombat world tour. Chuck Norris himself sponsored her visa to come to Hollywood, where she found work as a stunt woman and took acting classes, but soon had her sights set on the director’s chair. Her first film, Johnny Flynton, a 38-minute short about a small-town boxer starring Dash Mihok, was nominated for an Academy Award in 2003, and her debut feature, Green Street Hooligans, starring Elijah Wood and Charlie Hunnam as a pair of football hooligans getting into scraps in the streets of London, was the toast of SXSW 2005, winning both the audience and jury awards. 

But Alexander is probably best known for being the first female director to helm a Marvel Comics adaptation, the gleefully brutal 2008 film Punisher: War Zone, which flopped upon release and promptly landed the promising young filmmaker in director’s jail (though the film has found a die-hard fandom in the years since). Taking sexism in Hollywood head on, Alexander has fought back, becoming involved in an ACLU gender-discrimination investigation against the major movie studios. Her fighting background has informed all of her filmmaking, and it’s made her a sort of unicorn among directors. It’s natural that she’d fight back against sexism in the industry — she’s a fighter, it’s what she does. 

Alexander was deliberate in how she initially presented herself as a director, making her first short film a drama about a boxer, and Green Street Hooligans about a fighting footballer firm in London. “I knew no one wanted to hire ‘chick flicks’ women, which is also wrong,” she admits. But she wanted to demonstrate her expertise and her life experiences in competitive martial arts. “I actually stood in the ring, I know what it feels like, so here’s how I’m gonna show you that I’m actually good at this.”

Despite the splashy success of Green Street, though, it took a while for Alexander to line up her next directing gig, which came in the form of a sequel to the 2004 film The Punisher. Star Thomas Jane and writer/director Jonathan Hensleigh (the husband of producer Gale Anne Hurd) had walked when development stalled on their proposed sequel, and Lionsgate set their sights on Alexander, who wasn’t sold on the script and kept turning it down. But her agents pushed her to do the project, saying they hadn’t been able to find her another directing job since Green Street. “‘Why don’t you do this one so you can get these other ones?’ This is always how they get you,” Alexander says. “Nobody tells you, ‘But if it bombs, we fire you,’ which is exactly what that agency did.”

Lionsgate kept courting her, even when Alexander ditched a meeting right after the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, in which 32 people were murdered. The gunman, Seung-Hui Cho, had a huge Punisher poster hanging in his dorm room, and had posted photographs posing in a similar manner as the gun-toting comic book character. 

The studio was persistent, which puzzled Alexander, as she professed her inexperience with comic books, saying, “I’m into Asterix & Obelix and TinTin, European comic books if anything, but I’m not a DC/Marvel person.” “We always have to beg for jobs,” she says, “but the one time we walk in and say, ‘Look, I don’t know anything about American comic books,’ they talk you into taking the job.” The gig, “wasn’t necessarily my dream choice,” she admits, “and I also thought it was weird that I was their choice.” 

After a few more years in the business, and dozens of similar offers, Alexander has an understanding of why Lionsgate wanted her: The hope that a female director would somehow offset accusations of grossly glorified violence. “Anything that could potentially come off too violent, I get so many offers, I’m turning them down,” she says. “It’s usually something that people will think, ‘Maybe this is going to be interpreted as too misogynistic,’” adding, “they think I’m the counter remedy.” With Punisher: War Zone, she says, “I was supposed to soften it up. These are things I only understood later.”

But a job’s a job, and Alexander began the process of learning all things Punisher, motivated by the fear that female directors aren’t allowed to mess up (as evidenced by Karyn Kusama following the failure of Æon Flux, the focus of this series’ previous installment). “Being a former athlete, I threw myself in it,” she remembers. “I had Marvel send me over three different boxes of all the Punishers ever published, and I read them over a weekend. Then I dove into the chatrooms, and I read everything. I pretended to be somebody else, and talked to the guys and asked them, ‘What didn’t you like about [2004’s The Punisher]?”

In the Punisher: War Zone director’s commentary, Alexander and cinematographer Steve Gainer discuss every aesthetic choice made on what is ultimately the most stunningly gorgeous film in which a man punches his fist through another man’s face.  The movie, quite frankly, is artful as fuck. They describe the lighting choices, what was achieved in camera on the fly, the location challenges. Alexander points out every shot that is a direct replica of a comic book panel, something she took pains to execute, even while shooting on location on a $35 million budget (pennies, for a comic book film) in Montreal in the middle of winter. 

She made a film that was as close to the source material as possible, going for an over-the-top, wild (but not campy) tone. As she describes in the PWZ commentary, she kept pushing Dominic West (fresh off his much-loved run as Jimmy McNulty in The Wire), playing the disfigured villain Jigsaw, to go bigger in his performance. Alexander wasn’t afraid to let some stunt doubles unleash their martial arts skills, or to include cheeky, irreverent moments, like when The Punisher, Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson) shoots a “parkour guy” in mid-air with a grenade launcher as he’s performing a flip off the roof. Alexander says in the commentary that she knew audiences were sick of parkour in action films, and that this was a tongue-in-cheek reference to that — an intentional moment of levity where she hoped audiences would laugh out loud and pump their fists.

When the film was about to be released, just weeks before Christmas 2008, Alexander panicked when she saw the press list full of “posh critics” (as she says), for the two screenings to be held simultaneously in New York and L.A. She suggested to the marketing team that they create a booklet to be distributed at the screenings, as an easy reference for the comic book. She remembers thinking, “I don’t think they’ll get this movie unless we show them that almost every frame is taken directly from the source work.” Most critics savaged the film, and it currently sits at 29 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. One critic said Alexander should go to prison for her violent imagination, a quote she now uses in her reel. “I use it because I think it’s hilarious, but how do you not know that I didn’t come up with this?” she wonders incredulously. 

Once the comic book-versed bloggers and critics reviewed it, Alexander says, “none of them gave it a bad review, they all recognized what it was.” Nevertheless, the film bombed at the box office, and Alexander was fired by her agents, her career taking the brunt of the consequences for what mostly amounted to misguided marketing and release. 

In hindsight, Alexander is a bit rueful about how the film’s reception affected her career, though she stands by the work. She admits, “I kind of regret that I came to the comic book movies too early. I should have passed on that and figured out how to make a living without taking a job if nobody offered one that I actually liked, and then hopefully I could have gotten an offer from Marvel when they were the new Marvel.” Alexander says she had a positive experience working on the film with Marvel honcho Kevin Feige, before he was the biggest thing in Hollywood. With a tinge of regret, she says, “Now he’s huge, I’m barely coming back from director’s jail. … I actually think if he would have just known me for Green Street, he would have liked me, and hired me, and I would have worked with him directly and it would have worked much better.”

Despite this, Punisher: War Zone has found its audience and achieved a certain cult status. Comedian Patton Oswalt described his love for the film on the podcast How Did This Get Made in 2011, and Alexander says Kevin Smith and Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson are also fans. She knows the film continues to find its audience because Lionsgate keeps releasing new, upgraded home entertainment versions on Blu-ray and 4K. “I look at the residual checks, and I know that this movie — had it been properly marketed and properly released, not on Christmas, it would have been huge,” she explains. “This isn’t a movie that people don’t like. This is a movie that people pirated and then told everybody about. It’s not because this is a movie nobody wants to watch.” 

Still, the effects that its box office failure had on her career can make the cult appreciation after the fact hard to swallow. “Patton once told me, if they would have done this release right, it would have been Deadpool before Deadpool was Deadpool,” Alexander says. “It’s horrible to hear that. On the one hand, it’s nice that some people out there are saying it, but I thought I’d never get out of director’s jail.”

Punisher: War Zone is undoubtedly influential. It’s one of the only Marvel films that has its own style and personality, and it’s become the template for the style of all the Marvel television shows — not that Alexander ever gets the credit, except from the fans. “Every time Netflix has a Marvel show that stole the look of Punisher I get 100 tweets at least,” she says. 

In the years after Punisher, struggling to find work as a director, Alexander almost gave up. She was close to becoming a combat zone journalist in Gaza or Syria, with her combat skills and fluency in German, Arabic and English (she ruled out teaching karate as a backup plan as she would age out of it too quickly). She bought a camera and signed up for a seminar in Washington, saying, “Nobody would hire me, it was the end of my career, so I thought, ‘Okay, I’m just going to throw myself into any war zone.’” 

Then, she got a call from Greg Berlanti’s company to meet about directing an episode of Arrow (she’s directed episodes of Arrow and Supergirl, and has gone on to direct episodes of Limitless, American Gothic, How to Get Away With Murder, Taken, S.W.A.T. and L.A.’s Finest). Alexander hypothesizes that Berlanti was interested in diversifying the directors on his shows due to pressure from the ACLU complaint started by director Maria Giese, who had contacted Alexander to become involved. This complaint triggered an investigation from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission into Hollywood hiring practices. “The EEOC having talks with studios means they’re going around saying, ‘You’re this close to a major discrimination lawsuit, do you want to change something?’” Alexander explains. “It’s not that they did it of their own free will — there’s a very big, powerful government agency having talks with them saying, ‘You can’t continue this.’”

A lot of female directors who’ve had difficulty getting features off the ground find themselves paying their bills in TV as a way to work in their chosen profession (Alexander name checks Tank Girl director Rachel Talalay as an inspiration, and as a director who she’d like to see make more features). But TV can be a challenging environment for women, too. Alexander explains that film directors brought in to helm an episode or two of TV are walking onto a set where showrunners have creative control, and established crew members are already in place. That new director may have bumped the assistant director and director of photography farther down the list for directing their own episodes. The specific challenges of being a female director working in TV, meanwhile, were outlined in this Wired profile of Alexander, in which writer Brian Raftery picked up on passive aggressive undermining and sexism from the crew toward Alexander on the Toronto set of Taken the TV show. Through no fault of her own, she says that the profile still has consequences on her career — NBC declined to hire her again after the piece came out.

Alexander’s specialty and experience in martial arts has made her something of an anomaly, not just among female directors, but directors of any gender. “A showrunner once said to me, in the middle of a bus, with all the other crew members, ‘You know why you’re perfect Lexi? Because you’re a woman and you know how to do action,’” she remembers. “I wanted to embrace the compliment, but at the same time, I also know this is bullshit.” 

“It’s just assumed that boys are born with the action gene and girls have to somehow gain it,” she continues. “But it’s not a gendered thing. This shouldn’t be a thing that women have to do to become action directors.”

I pose the question to Alexander, “Why do women make movies about men?” hypothesizing that Green Street Hooligans captures something about the catharsis of violence for the young intellectual played by Wood; that Punisher: War Zone and Johnny Flynton are about the burdens that violent men carry; or that Kathryn Bigelow has an uncommon eye for men and their interpersonal relationships. She’s typically candid in her answer: “I think those films all got green-lit because they’re about men,” she says. “I could pitch you 15 great biographies about the greatest women nobody’s ever heard of. I’ve pitched them all, and nobody wants to buy them.” 

She’s almost certainly right. For female filmmakers who want to keep working, it has historically been hard to make films about women, while also being a woman. But we also live in a patriarchal world, and Alexander admits, “Even my writing was more about guys, because that was how I saw the world. I saw people being interested in male fighters. Even though my teammates respected me, the cameras were always on them.”

“I’m always in awe of Karyn Kusama, who figured out how to make a great movie about a female boxer [Girlfight] — that she could figure it out, that was a solid movie,” Alexander says. “I was, for like two minutes, attached to the Hilary Swank boxing movie [Million Dollar Baby]. Clint Eastwood — we were both at CAA at the time — literally walked into the agency and walked out with the script. There wasn’t even a comment like, ‘Oh Lexi, sorry about that.’ But it was Clint Eastwood and he won an Oscar and she won an Oscar, can you even complain?”

Though her long-gestating Chris Benoit movie Crossface has been canceled, Alexander is still fighting, and there is good news on the horizon: She’s writing a martial arts film to direct for Netflix, and she is typically, hilariously uncensored about her take on martial arts films, too, which people have bugged her about for years. 

“I always try to explain to people that martial arts is really difficult to do, they always turn out kind of B or even C movie potboiler-ish,” she says. “It’s acceptable to make boxing movies, where it seems to be an honorable thing to get into the ring and box, but when it’s mixed martial arts, there always needs to be some brother who got killed first, or some kid who’s in the hospital, and the guy’s only fighting to raise money for the leukemia kid, or the brother got killed in the previous fight. Every martial arts movie has to have a major fucking horrible reason why this person is getting in the ring,” she says, which is why they all too often have the potential to be regarded as “dumb shit.” 

But she thinks she’s cracked the code: “Finally I felt like I came up with a kind of scenario that is sci-fi-ish. I always try to come up with what is an original scenario where you can see people do martial arts.” On the plus side, she adds, “The guys are fighting but the women have all the power.” 

And so, Alexander remains the scrappy fighter she always has been, even now. She started as a fighter, and has continued to be one as she navigates the treacherous world of Hollywood, especially in light of COVID-19 and the effects on the industry. “Women, people of color, we’re still considered the risk hire, so now our industry is in a crisis, suddenly we’re not the ones they want to hold onto,” she tells me. “We’re not being judged by our craft, our skills, our talent, it’s still not a level playing field.” 

In other words, Alexander isn’t putting her dukes down quite yet.