Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017)
With Patty Jenkins’ blockbuster adaptation of the lasso wielding Goddess of truth having recently set the box office alight — its wonderful star Gal Gadot delivering a deeply moving portrait of the Amazonian princess — timing couldn’t be better for Angela Robinson’s film about the inspiration behind the Wonder Woman. Praised by critics and fans for its honest portrayal of female power, chiefly the ways in which it showed how a woman’s insight and strength can sway the hearts and minds of those around her, it’s hard to believe that the character at the center of it all was originally conceived by a Harvard psychology professor slash inventor named William Moulton Marston (played by Luke Evans), intended as a feminist role model for young women in the ’40s — the comic initially generated to promote his ideas on DISC theory (a method of identifying predictable actions and personality traits within human behavior).
Opening in the early 1940s, when comics were viewed as propaganda and condemned by religious/ community leaders, concerned parents, educators and even teenagers, the now-famous DC comic book coming under fire for its scandalous imagery and questionable themes of fetishism and bondage — most of which were deliberately injected by architect Marston and reflected his own polyamorous relationship — the film begins with a wraparound that sees the professor defend his kinky creation (a lady superhero who runs around wearing a bathing suit) to Josette Frank (Connie Britton) and other representatives of the Child Study Association of America, who are concerned about the twisted S&M that’s being sold to their children. As our protagonist explains his story, the clock winds back to 1928, when William was a Harvard lecturer working alongside his brilliant wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston (Rebecca Hall), who was teaching at Radcliffe College at the time — Harvard denying her her Ph.D. due to the sexism of the period.
Enter Radcliffe student Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) — the niece of birth control activist Margaret Sanger — an eager student who signs up to assist the Marstons in their ongoing experiments on human interaction, the striking blonde aiding William and his wife in perfecting the lie-detector test (the inspiration behind Diana’s Lasso of Truth, no doubt). Working closely with Olive, William begins to fall for his beautiful assistant (even though she was engaged at the time), Elizabeth shrewdly warning the young associate (who she hired in the first place) not to have an affair with her hubby, despite claiming that she doesn’t experience sexual jealousy. During a final test for an early version of the lie-detector (complete with masochistic straps and restraints), Olive’s true feelings come to light, results revealing that she had fallen in love with both William and Elizabeth. After breaking her engagement off, Olive decides to move in with the Marstons, the trio embarking on a passionate journey — complete with tastefully shot orgies and erotic frolicking — that leads to the creation of one of the most enduring female icons of all time, Wonder Woman.
Written and directed by Angela Robinson, D.E.B.S. (2004), Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is at its best when it’s exploring the Marstons’ unconventional relationship (which got them banished from academia), along with their pent-up desires, and how these helped fashion the character of Diana of Themyscira. There’s a scene that sees the couple spy on Olive at her sorority’s ‘baby party’ — for their research on dominance and submission, of course — where new, potential sisters dress up like infants and are spanked with a paddle by their superiors, Olive’s sadomasochism hinted early on. The apex, though, takes place in the backroom of a specialty shop — run by Charles Guyette, aka The G-String King (JJ Feild) — where Marston takes his two muses for a backstairs rope-play course. It’s here where Wonder Woman’s iconic costume is first assembled, Olive backlit by some striking cinematography by Bryce Fortner, Ingrid Goes West (2017), wearing a variation of the famous costume, the bracelets (or silver wrist cuffs), and the tiara. Through these sequences (whether true or fabricated), it becomes clear how some of the comic’s more outlandish elements came to be — the red-white-and-blue burlesque outfit, for example, the Lasso of Truth and even the hidden island of Amazons. Those after a more nitty-gritty account of Diana’s construction, however, might come out feeling a tad disappointed, Robinson only highlighting a few of the character’s influences.
Given the unorthodox stranger-than-fiction nature of the biopic, parts of Professor Marston and the Wonder Women do feel a little by the numbers or rushed. For one, the whole ‘interrogation’ framing device has been done to death, the back-and-forth sometimes slowing down momentum. Then there’s the third act, which introduces comic book visionary Max Gaines (Oliver Platt), the then publisher at National Periodical Publications (now DC Comics), who first prints the unusual material in December 1941, filmmaker Robinson skimming particulars of the threesome’s financial success and their life in the suburbs, where they moved to try and raise their extended family.
Performances are strong all-round, with compelling leads Evans, Hall, and Heathcote wholly selling their sensual chemistry as the throuple at the center of the story. Luke Evans, Beauty and the Beast (2017), mixes burly masculine energy with intelligence as the titular professor, a man who believed that women were more loving and nurturing and, that if they ran the world, it would be a better place. Rebecca Hall, Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), and Bella Heathcote, The Neon Demon (2016), are also great as the clever, coquettish, bold and charismatic women in his life, the contrasting actresses complementing one another nicely, their combined traits making up the contemporary Wonder Woman.
While far from perfect, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women works best as a glimpse into the expansive story behind the formation of one of the most recognizable pop-culture icons of our time, the film also shedding light on equality and acceptance (allowing people to love who they choose to), subjects that are still topical today. One thing’s for certain, after learning Professor Marston’s story, people may see Wonder Woman in a whole new light.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Mr. Movie