Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (United States, 2017)

October 12, 2017
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women Poster

A combination of fanciful conjecture and historical fact, Professor Marston & the Wonder Women represents not only a historical primer on sexual repression during the first half of the 20th Century but unlocks the code to “understanding” what Wonder Woman (the character) is all about. Since I’m not a great believer in coincidence, it’s unlikely that the development of this movie happened in a vacuum. Nevertheless, although Angela Robinson’s bio-pic and Patty Jenkins’ superhero adventure share a character’s name, there’s little other common ground. That’s because the Wonder Woman of 2017 bears little resemblance to the comic book superhero created by William Moulton Marston in the 1940s. Today’s Wonder Woman has been power-washed for mass consumption. Gone are the elements of lesbianism and BSDM that permeated the original storylines. Then and now, Wonder Woman is an icon of feminism, but the focus is different. Marston’s conception of sexual equality was founded on ideas about free love and a psychological theory that involved domination and submission. Modern Wonder Woman is seen as a good role model for girls. Strength and beauty are the only obvious mutual threads.

Professor Marston & the Wonder Women uses a clunky wrap-around structure to anchor the storyline. In it, Marston (Luke Evans) defends his vision of Wonder Woman to children’s book expert Josette Frank (Connie Britton) during a 1945 interview. Frank, concerned that some of the themes and images in Wonder Woman may be inappropriate for young viewers, grills Marston, who regales her with his philosophy. This results in a narrative presented in flashbacks that start as far back as 1928 and come up to the movie’s present-day. Aside from providing Marston an opportunity to employ voiceover narration, there’s little point in doing things this way.

When we first meet Professor Marston, he’s teaching a psychology class at Tufts University while working on a primitive version of the lie detector. His wife, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), is his assistant. He preaches a so-called DISC (Dominance, Inducement, Submission, Compliance) theory. A student, Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), is captivated by the husband-and-wife couple and applies for a teaching assistant position. After she is accepted, Elizabeth warns her away from her husband but an attraction develops among the three and they begin a polyamorous relationship. Once word of this leaks out, it results in a scandal and the already-complicated situation is compounded when Olive announces her pregnancy. The resulting dynamic, which might be right out of the TV series Big Love (with a dash of lesbianism thrown in for good measure), leads to Marston’s development of Wonder Woman, whom he bases on both of the females in his life, Elizabeth (with her fiery disposition and combative attitude) and Olive (with her quiet determination and physical beauty).

At times, the movie seems conflicted. There are long passages in which Marston explains his psychological theories; in these scenes, the film wants to make a statement about feminism and its relationship to sexual expression and equality. But there are other instances when there’s a titillating, playful quality that borders on exploitation cinema – hey, these two women and one man are having sex together, so let’s show a little… I hasten to add that’s not a bad thing – it creates an erotic dynamic – but it’s an odd fit for the more erudite aspects. The film gets pretty deep into the BDSM stuff, at times seeming a little like a more substantive, less explicit Fifty Shades of Grey. (It’s worth noting that Robinson was a writer and director for True Blood and The L Word.)

Although Professor Marston & the Wonder Women is historically accurate in a broad sense, it takes a lot of liberty with the details. For example, we know that Olive’s sons and Elizabeth’s children were all fathered by William and that Olive and Elizabeth lived together before and after William’s 1947 death, but nothing definitive is on record about the nature of their relationship. Were they sister-wives who enjoyed separate sexual relationships with William or were they lovers? The film takes the latter view but it’s a speculative perspective. On the other hand, the overview of DISC theory and Marston’s philosophy about Wonder Women are true to the facts.

Rebecca Hall gives a standout performance – something so good that it’s worth remembering when end-of-the-year citations are issued. Her Elizabeth is a force of nature – untamed, conflicted, and compulsively watchable. Bella Heathcote has a more refrained character but her portrayal is no less effective. Unfortunately, Luke Evans proves to be the weak link. Possibly miscast, the actor, who is best known for playing over-the-top villains in Beauty and the Beast (Gaston) and the Fast and the Furious series, is a poor fit for Marston. In trying to mute his screen presence to fit a restrained character, Evans ends up fading into the background and proves unable to hold his own in scenes with Hall and Heathcote.

Overall, I enjoyed Professor Marston & the Wonder Women for its prurient and intellectual elements. It’s a fun film that breezes by and, despite any liberties it takes with history, offers a valuable look at Wonder Woman’s real origin story. For adults with curiosity, this makes for an offbeat companion piece to the big-budget blockbuster.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (United States, 2017)

Director: Angela Robinson
Cast: Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote, Connie Britton, Oliver Platt
Home Release Date: 2018-01-30
Screenplay: Angela Robinson
Cinematography: Bryce Fortner
Music: Tom Howe
U.S. Distributor: Annapurna Pictures
Run Time: 1:48
U.S. Release Date: 2017-10-13
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content, Profanity, Nudity)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1