Professor Marston & the Wonder Women (2017)

  • Time: 108 min
  • Genre: Drama
  • Director: Angela Robinson
  • Cast: Luke Evans, Bella Heathcote, Rebecca Hall


Details the unconventional life of Dr. William Marston, the Harvard psychologist and inventor who helped invent the modern lie detector test and created Wonder Woman in 1941. Marston was in a polyamorous relationship with his wife Elizabeth, a psychologist and inventor in her own right, and Olive Byrne, a former student who became an academic. This relationship was key to the creation of Wonder Woman, as Elizabeth and Olive’s feminist ideals were ingrained in the character from her creation. Marston died of skin cancer in 1947, but Elizabeth and Olive remained a couple and raised their and Marston’s children together. The film is said to focus on how Marston dealt with the controversy surrounding Wonder Woman’s creation.


  • To qualify for Aristotle’s preferred “poetry” (i.e., fiction) a story has to resonate beyond the particulars of its one-time occurrence (“history”) and capture a universal truth. A “history” details what happened to have happened once. The more significant “poetry” implicitly begins with “Once upon a time…,” which means both Never and Always. Poetry based on history will respect the historic particulars but serve a wider truth. Its aim is the dynamic that happens over and over — especially in the time the story is retold. A historic fiction is not just about Then but about Now.
    So which label gets Professor Marston and the Wonder Women?
    As a history the film provides several fascinating insights. Marston is an intriguing pioneer in the new discipline of psychology, particularly in his invention of the lie detector, his nonconformist lifestyle and his DISC personality theory. That divides human emotions into Domination, Inducement, Subservience and Compliance. The plot advances through those stages too, as announced on his blackboard.
    Marston’s story also provides insight into the creative process. A variety of elements from his psychological theory, his feminism, his political idealism and the strength he draws from his two lovers feed into his conception of the Wonder Woman comic series. For example, the constraints of his lie detector meld with his fascination with bondage to make her lariat the stinging instrument of truth. Living with two such self-sufficient women helps him imagine the Amazon’s independence and resourcefulness. His sense of the abuse of women seeps into her predicaments and torments.
    The narrative is structured as Marston’s defence of that comic against the puritanical assault on the adventurous new medium, for its allegedly pernicious effects upon the young. The critics are disturbed by the supposedly innocent medium’s complexity and disturbing depths. Here the film catches the emergence of an influential and ambitious new popular culture form and its persecution by censors and book-burners. To these reactionaries the comics and academia, cultures low and high, are equally dangerous and to be suppressed.
    Marston’s wife Elizabeth embodies the emergence of women in academia. She has a doctorate from Radcliffe but can’t get its (Big Brother) institution Harvard to accept it as equivalent to theirs. Her analysis of the campus exchange between two young women and a man is an exciting flex of a perceptive mind. When Marston is fired from his university she helps finance the new family by working — as a typist. Her headstrong will and stevedore swearing make her the 20th Century New Woman, even if she sounds more representative of the tail-end of the century than its midriff.
    The beautiful Olive, who becomes both Marstons’ lover, begins as the typical student, open to seduction by her prof. (Those were the days.) She blossoms into the character strong enough to stand up for herself and even to initiate a lesbian relationship with the more experienced and very formidable Elizabeth. With a women’s rights advocate for a mother and the legendary Margaret Sanger for an aunt, Olive embodies the early force of feminism. All that makes the film intriguing as a retelling of history. The anachronism of Elizabeth’s fluency of f-words may — rather than be a mistake in tone— lay the film’s claim to be happening beyond its characters’ time and place, to be poetry. So, too, the break from the linear timeline to the flashback structure. The story is told across and over time. And in the highly artificial scene of the lovers’ first sexual threesome, over the 1928 orgy we hear Nina Simone’s 1965 Feeling Good. The scene is happening then but also across time, i.e., now.
    There’s another, similar ripple in that scene. Against all practicality and probability, they “do it” in the vacant college auditorium, disporting themselves with theatrical costume and props. That’s unlikely to have been how it really “happened.” Likelier a discreet speed home and a more propulsive pace.
    But it works as poetic metaphor. It suggests that the characters’ behaviour here was not instinctive but with some role-playing, self-conscious performance. All three were acting in an uncharacteristic way there because their instincts were tempered by their “masks” of nonconformist spirits. When they first manage a trois they are tentative, playing it as roles. Once they’re into it, living it, they make erotic use of role-playing and costumes. To the outside world they now play the role of a conventional domestic relationship. The implausible maskery in the first orgy is a metaphor for their psychological wariness at that time and their public concealment later. Marston explains that his Wonder Woman has to wear a mask and pretend to be a secretary in order to be able to live out the freedom of her more powerful nature.
    Whatever its fidelity to the Marston story, the film’s key themes are remarkably current today. Women continue to struggle for equality, professors for academic freedom, popular culture to be taken seriously and thought about as well as enjoyed. The neighbours’ vicious puritanism still reflects American opposition to same-sex marriage, indeed, to any unconventional lifestyle. We still struggle to determine who/what we are and how we can fulfill ourselves. So this film is about Now as much as Then. Good.
    Then there’s that sting at the end, that reminds us our revolutions are never complete. When Olive and the Marstons finally admit their mutual love and need and stop complying with the oppressive norms, they reunite, forever. Even Marston’s death doesn’t separate lovers Olive and Elizabeth. But Olive sets two conditions for her return. She demands a new stove. And she wants weekends off from looking after their children sp she can go to a salon or read a book, have time to herself. Even the arch feminist carries the traditional subdued woman’s role.

  • Though many will find fault with its elastic handling of facts, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is a nonetheless highly compelling look at how Wonder Woman, the most famous and enduring female superhero of all time, came into being. More significantly, it’s an observation of a relationship that is still as unorthodox today as it was nearly a century ago.

    When audiences are first introduced to William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans), he’s already under fire for his creation, having been called to defend himself and his work before the Child Study Association of America in 1945. The committee, led by Connie Britton’s Josette Frank, note that the comics are replete with scenes of bondage, spanking, torture, homosexuality, and other sex perversions that are wholly inappropriate and abnormal for its readers. Yet, “what is normal?” posits Marston as the film flashes back to 1928 as the professor addresses his students at Radcliffe as he introduces his DISC theory, explaining that all human relationships break down into the interplay between dominance, inducement, submission, and compliance.

    He takes a shine to one of his students, Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), whom he enlists as an assistant to aid him and his wife, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), in their research. Elizabeth, who never hesitates to remind her husband that she is the more brilliant mind of the two, recognises her husband’s attraction to the pretty young blonde but does nothing to discourage it, professing she has no sexual jealousy and stating, “I’m your wife, not your jailer.” Yet the neurotic and compulsive Elizabeth’s condescending attitude towards Olive, whom she believes to be nothing more than beautiful, is altered when she learns that Olive is descended from two of the most famous radical feminists in the world, though Olive is quick to point out that her mother Ethel Byrne and aunt Margaret Sanger were too busy with the movement to have any sort of presence in her life.

    The couple are undeniably drawn to Olive who, in turn, possesses feelings for both husband and wife. The trio’s obvious closeness becomes the talk of the campus and scandalises Olive’s fiancee, who insists she sever all personal ties with the couple. Yet Olive can’t and, despite Elizabeth’s own efforts to distance herself, it’s evident that their emotions are too strong to deny and the three embark on a polyamorous relationship, which would soon come to embrace dress-up and bondage. Writer-director Angela Robinson does not shy away from the sexual nature of the trio’s relationship – one of the most exquisitely erotic sequences feature the couple spying on Olive paddling a sorority sister during a hazing ritual; Marston noting how the sight turns on his wife and Olive, watching Elizabeth watch her, herself becomes aroused – but her gaze never veers into the salacious or exploitative.

    For Marston, these two muses would combine to create the perfect woman, whom he would initially christen Suprema the Wonder Woman before Max Gaines (Oliver Platt), the publisher at National Periodical Publications (known today as DC Comics) would shorten it to Wonder Woman. Elizabeth and Olive were clear influences, whether it be in Diana Prince’s intelligence or Wonder Woman’s gold cuffs (inspired by the cuffs Olive wore), and Marston would inject elements from his own life in the comics. If reality refused to listen to his beliefs and denied he, Elizabeth, Olive, and their children the chance to live their lives as they wanted, then Wonder Woman was his opportunity to promote his personal agenda in a medium where, like S&M, “fantasy is possibility.”

    Professor Marston and the Wonder Women has its faults to be sure but, in many respects, those faults are ones that have plagued the character of Wonder Woman herself to this day – how can a scantily clad woman obviously a product of the male gaze be a feminist icon? How can a man and two women who lived with and loved one another and practiced domination and submission be heralded as forward-thinking, boundary-shaking people when one could argue that they are all merely taking liberalism to its most extreme degree? Though one can understand the back-and-forth narrative structure, the film works best when it dials down the heavy-handedness with which it delivers its message, especially since Evans, Hall and Heathcote all do excellent work in conveying how the extraordinary can be borne out of the ordinary.

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