FILM REVIEW – PROFESSOR MARSTON AND THE WONDER WOMEN. With Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote, Connie Britton, Oliver Platt. Written and directed by Angela Robinson. Rated R for strong sexual content including brief graphic images, and language. 108 minutes.
This is the year of Wonder Woman, no question. This year’s “Wonder Woman,” which featured a stunning debut by Gal Gadot in the title role, is one of the biggest hits of the year. Gadot returns in the role later this year in “Justice League.” And then there’s PROFESSOR MARSTON AND THE WONDER WOMEN. The title is no cheap trick to cash in on the success of the other films. Professor William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) was, in fact, the creator of the comic book character. So here’s the obligatory warning:
PARENTS – THIS IS NOT A COMIC BOOK MOVIE FOR KIDS!
Professor Marston, who at one point was a psychology professor at Radcliffe, had some provocative ideas involving dominance and submission in human interactions, and a very unconventional lifestyle. He and his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) brought another woman, Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), into their relationship. The fact that she was a student of Marston’s may be surprising. The fact that she was involved with both William and Elizabeth may be even more surprising, especially given the time period (1920s-1940s).
The film is framed by protests beginning in the late ’40s against the popular Wonder Woman comic book which Marston began in 1941. A superheroine was unusual enough, but Marston’s stories regularly featured such things as bondage and spanking, not to mention that Wonder Woman was an Amazon who came from the all-female society on Paradise Island. For those examining the not-so-subtle subtext of these comic book adventures, this was nothing short of scandalous.
To her credit, writer/director Angela Robinson doesn’t shy away from the trio’s unconventional explorations, but also doesn’t treat it in a titillating or salacious manner. It’s simply who these people are, while also – believe it or not – being the inventor of the modern lie detector and serious explorers in the then new academic field of psychology. Of course, when their unconventional lifestyle is discovered, they pay a price from losing jobs to being ostracized by neighbors to Olive moving out of the house along with her children with Marston.
As a work of fiction, this might be hard to believe, but it’s true. While the Wonder Woman comic was “cleaned up” after Marston’s death, she was reclaimed as a feminist icon in the 1970s and a number of recent books have explored her history and brought the original comic book stories back into print. Of all the superhero origin tales – real or fictional – this one may be the most extraordinary.
The three leads all excel in their roles, with Evans sincerely earnest, but not humorless, as Marston, a man who truly believed in his ideals and saw Wonder Woman as a means of sharing them with the world. Heathcote’s Olive is all dewy-eyed innocence, at least as first, but shows Olive changing as she emerges from being the student to an equal partner. Hall’s performance may be the standout as she is in turns smart, sexy, jealous, open-minded, and making it clear that she’s nobody’s fool. She doesn’t give into Marston’s unconventional ideas, she becomes a willing participant who will see to her own needs as well.
It’s hard to believe that “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” is being given a wide release rather than being treated as an art film for select venues, but that’s the case. If you’re interested, see it soon. Even seventy years after Marston’s death it’s still hard to see his beliefs being readily embraced by mainstream audiences.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.