What with DC/Warner Bros’ “Wonder Woman” a runaway smash hit ($411 million domestic and counting), folks with more than a passing interest in the character’s weird origin would do well to check out “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women.”
Writer/director Angela Robinson’s smart, elegantly acted and deeply sexy film looks at the life and career of “Wonder Woman” creator Dr. William Moulton Marston -- oddball psychologist, inventor of the lie detector, enthusiastic feminist, serious bondage fan and even more devout polyamorist -- and his singular family.
Marston lived much of his life with wife and intellectual collaborator Elizabeth Holloway Marston (a lawyer who was easily his equal at a time when very few women had advanced degrees) and their younger lover Olive Byrne, who, by coincidence, happened to be the daughter of a suffragette and niece of American birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger.
Together, as Marston notes at once point, they made the perfect woman -- both served as inspiration for Wonder Woman, the Amazon with the magic lasso that makes criminals tell the truth.
But we are far ahead of ourselves: Robinson opens “Marston” with what looks like a wartime paper drive (which is where millions of Golden Age comics went). But no, turns out it a public burning of comics, including Wonder Woman. Martson (played by Luke Evans aka the British Joseph Gordon Levitt), observing from a distance, looks as if his child is being set aflame and there’s nothing he can do about it.
Robinson goes almost full flashback with “Marston” -- our man reminsces on his life while being grilled by Josette Frank (Connie Britton), head of the Child Study Association of America, about all of the bondage
the comic strip into which Marston tried to cram his DISC theory of human psychology, the idea that human behavior is a cycle of dominance, inducement and submission (good) or compliance (not great). Marston believed that humans functioned best when they submitted, willingly, to a loving authority.
ut writer-director Angela Robinson's biopic goes far beyond that to examine the unconventional relationship of Marston, his wife and his mistress, who lived together. Its non-stop feminist message can get a little heavy-handed at times, but the story pushes all the right buttons for women viewers and hopefully for a good number of little boys, too.
Coinciding with the recent release of Warner Bros.’ Wonder Woman, this well-crafted indie beautifully cast with Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall and Bella Heathcote as the loving trio of forward-thinking intellectuals should stand a fighting chance of going beyond niche and LGBTQ audiences to a bigger marketplace. It is being released this fall by Annapurna Pictures in the U.S. and internationally by Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions, following its Toronto bow.
Prof. Marston teaches psychology at Radcliffe, where he propounds his DISC theory, that all human behavior can be traced to a form of. Played by the magnetic Evans (Beauty and the Beast) as a younger and sexier version of the good professor, he projects enthusiasm in front of an all-female class that has an element of seduction in it. This doesn’t escape his arch wife Elizabeth (British actress Hall, who starred as the TV reporter in Christine.) Witty and sharp-tongued, she reminds him she’s the more brilliant member of the couple (he doesn’t disagree) and that Harvard's sexist politics have crippled her own career in psychology.
When his attention fastens on a pretty blonde student, Olive Byrne (Fifty Shades Darker’s Bella Heathcote), the sophisticated Elizabeth pretends she is untouched by sexual jealousy. “I’m your wife, not your jailer,” she tosses off. Alone with Olive, however, she sternly warns the girl she had better not go to bed with her husband in startlingly modern, uncensored language and a typical confrontational style that Hall pulls off extremely well.
Belying her look of waifish innocence and purity, Olive turns out to be an even more daring rebel than the Marstons. She comes from a line of notable feminists: her aunt is birth control activist Margaret Sanger and her mother fought for women’s suffrage, ironically abandoning Olive in a convent school to devote her life to the movement. She is ripe for recruitment as a teaching assistant and guinea pig for the Marstons’ research on human psychology. Recalling Masters and Johnson’s famous study of human sexual response two decades later, they are shown peeping voyeuristically at a sorority ritual in which Olive spanks an unruly newbie.
“People are happiest when they submit to a loving authority,” believes Bill Marston, who later stumbles onto the world of bondage and S&M in a Greenwich Village specialty shop belonging to a gentleman known as the G-String King (JJ Feild in a suave cameo). In a beautifully shot scene that stirs Marston’s imagination (as it will stir the audience’s fantasies), Olive dons a silver burlesque costume, thigh boots and a tiara. Backlit against a golden light with large bracelets flashing at her wrists and a thick bondage rope looped over her hand like a magic lasso, she is a thrilling foretaste of the future Wonder Woman.
As the professor sagely remarks, wearing costumes and role-playing are the stuff of everyday life, where we are bound by much stronger chains. When Bill, Elizabeth and Olive face up to the fact they love each other, the hardest part isn’t becoming a sexual triad, but having the courage to live together under the critical eyes of conventional society. The birth of children brings additional complications.
Olive and Elizabeth are fascinating freethinkers in a day when sex was all but taboo, and it is obvious that they were the models for Bill's superheroine. Intercut with the story about how the threesome moves to the suburbs to raise their extended family are Bill’s adventures writing the Wonder Woman stories and their first publication in December of 1941. According to the film, the comic strip was outselling Superman at one point.
This may have been partly due to his generous use of sexual images that depicted the iconic Amazon binding and spanking women, which soon got him and his publisher into hot water with the censors. Robinson’s screenplay keeps returning to his grilling by the influential moral gatekeeper Josette Frank (Connie Britton), director of the Child Study Association of America. Bill rebuts her every question with intelligence and passion, never stooping to pious lies or deception to make the comic strip’s violence, torture and S&M more palatable. His Wonder Woman is the powerful, liberated woman of tomorrow, he insists, and his young readers must learn to respect her.
Robinson covers a lot of material here, rarely stopping to pause and enjoy the weather. There’s little poetry in the growing feelings between Elizabeth and Olive and Bill, and less passion in the hurried seduction scenes which can seem perfunctory. Many rough edges are smoothed by the strong acting and well-done tech work.