Decades ago, superhero comics were looked down on as trash. During that same time period, romantic relationships between anything other than one man and one woman were regarded as freakish illnesses. A new movie about the life and loves of the man who created Wonder Woman shows how artistic and sexual prejudice threatened the early days of Diana’s existence.
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With the climax of a very well-executed comics run and a history-making motion picture adaptation, 2017’s proven to be a banner year for DC Comics’ Amazon warrior. Just as Diana mania is cresting, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women looks back at the life and times of the character’s principal architect, William Moulton Marston. Directed by Angela Robinson, the film uses details from Marston’s life to illuminate the psychological goals he had for the character and the real life women he drew inspiration from.
The film opens in 1928, when Marston (Luke Evans) and wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) were professors at Harvard Radcliffe College. He’s a lecturer and researcher advancing his DISC theory of psychological engagement and dynamics, which posits that women would be better leaders because of essential differences between the genders. Meanwhile, his smarter, more talented wife finds her career goals stymied by sexism. She can’t get a degree from Harvard—only Radcliffe—despite doing the same academic work. When they take on student Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) as a research assistant, the polyamorous love triangle that ensues changes the Marstons’ lives forever.
The most fun parts of Professor Marston and the Wonder Women are when the real-world elements of the threesome’s lives become fodder for the creation of Diana of Themyscira. Even if you’re someone who’s familiar with the kink-inflected ingredients of Wonder Woman’s genesis and early adventures, it’s still amusing to see the pieces fall into place—for instance, Olive’s wrist jewelry inspires the Amazon warrior’s bullet-deflecting bracelets, and Marston’s work on the lie detector informs the character’s famous Lasso of Truth. Lore deconstruction aside, it’s even more meaningful to see how risky it was for Byrne and the Marstons to make their stifled inner desires an actual reality.
Living 76 years after the character’s creation, it can be easy to forget or be ignorant of just how close-minded public attitudes were about sex and gender roles. But the movie uses as inquiry by a children’s media watchdog group as a framing story, giving Marston an uptight foil to rail against.
Robinson’s movie spins a whirl of saucy, risque, and ingenue tones over its runtime, but it can’t help but feeling tame overall. Even when you factor in the themes of dominance and submission, the film’s big melodramatic turns flare up and resolve in entirely familiar ways. The lifestyle being lived in the Marston household gets met with predictable pearl-clutching when discovered, and the three adults crumble at the seeming unsustainability of their love life. The film dodges any of real-life complications created by Marston’s heavy-handed self-promotion, like how much claim he actually had to the creation of the lie detector and whether it could be trusted.
The proceedings are lifted by snappy, seriocomic moments throughout; Hall in particular infuses the interactions with the tart energy of 1940s rom-coms. Robinson generates a genuine wave of awe that washes over viewers in the montage that shows Wonder Woman comics taking the world by storm. I wish that the movie had more of the dynamism seen in those moments. Flaws aside, this does feel like a story about three lives lived in defiance of restrictive ideas of propriety and the repercussions that they had to face. Their perseverance and happiness in spite of it all manages to feel heroic, adding another layer of mythology to the creation of Wonder Woman.