Wonder Woman is having her big year, and it’s not a moment too soon. In a political season that is almost as bleak as nuclear winter for the rights and dignity of women, Dr. William Moulton Marston’s creation of an Amazon princess turned fascist-destroyer is still what he always posited her to be: psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should rule the world. But what about Marston himself?
As Professor Marston and the Wonder Women goes to great lengths to show, the man and women who breathed life into Princess Diana of Paradise Island is every bit as compelling as the superhero herself—albeit their costumed dress-up is not nearly so mainstream. But that is both the strength (and one of the few weaknesses) of writer-director Angela Robinson’s film. Arriving in sleek and unfussy Hollywood period piece wrapping, Professor Marston is a conventional love story about a fascinatingly unconventional set of lives. A set comprised of William Marston, his wife Elizabeth Marston, and who could be best described as his second wife, Olive Byrne. Together, they gave the world a story that will live for the ages while hiding behind their own masks for far too long
Framed around an interview between Marston and one of his many arch-nemeses—Catholic censors—Professor Marston spans much of the 1930s and ‘40s, and follows the journey of some rather untraditional family values that can nevertheless seem awfully wholesome when seated next to you at the dinner table. Picking up when William and Elizabeth are at the precipice of their greatest height and fall in academia, Marston (Luke Evans) is a professor at Tufts University when he becomes enamored with (and lustful for) one of his students, Miss Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote).
His wife and intellectual equal, if not superior, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) initially feigns disinterest in her husband pursuing his biological needs. An iconoclast by necessity, Elizabeth has a Master’s from Radcliffe (the female equivalent of where only her husband was allowed to pursue a PhD, Harvard) and helps the good doctor in laboratory experiments, as opposed to staying in the kitchen. And as the film begins, they’re on the verge of major breakthrough: inventing the lie detector test. Hence how the deceptively wilting Olive Byrne becomes one of their first test subjects.
As things get complicated, Elizabeth’s early anger with Bill eventually gives way into a shared admiration for Olive, the forgotten child of a pair of historic feminist crusaders. More surprising still, this love for Olive is reciprocated to both parties, allowing all three fall into a kind of super-nuclear family. Granted this also pushes Bill and Elizabeth permanently off the academic ladder. But that’s alright, as Bill has the germ of an idea of being a writer and incorporating his passion for women—two women—into his stories. Well them, plus his thing for ropes.
The Wonder Woman creation myth is one of the most intriguing and eye-opening in comic history. Much of the truth about the apparent domestic bliss achieved by one man and two women (they told neighbors that Olive was a widowed relative) has only become public knowledge in the last few decades, just as has the feminist roots of Olive Byrne and her influence on Marston have become more well-known.
Yet Robinson curiously chooses not to focus on the salacious aspect of the man who invented the lie detector test while also being obsessed with bondage, then going on to dream up Diana Prince’s “Lasso of Truth.” Even when things get steamy in this movie, it’s treated as the most natural thing in the world, because it is natural for the truth found in these three highly educated people.
The choice also, however, leads to some rather straightforward storytelling that leans a little too often on biopic shorthand, from the passage of dates to the use of contemporary music for on-the-nose montage crosscutting. Nevertheless, these cut-and-dry narrative choices reveal curiously divergent tangents. As all three participants in the love story are extremely intellectual, most of their moments of passion and transcendence comes with cool, analytical consideration.
There can be nothing perverse about a polyamorous romance, but there is something slyly amusing and unsettling at the sight of their confessional declarations occurring while two-thirds of the triangle are judging the final corner’s answers via lie detector test. This especially backfires on Bill when his wife first asks if he is in love with his student, and the kindly professor discovered his wife is not quite as free-spirited as he had hoped.
As the players, all three give strong turns, with Evans cutting a figure as the most studly tweed-wearer you’ll ever witness. But as Marston was as much a showman as he was a rejected member of the northeast intelligentsia, there’s something appropriate about him having the kind of strapping charisma that all the characters in his comic books (and their eventual films) would come to enjoy. Heathcote is also suitably reserved and inward-looking as the “submissive” in the triumvirate that comes to dominate the other two’s decisions. But the one to walk away with the picture is Hall in a fiercely erudite turn.
Despite being the most forward-thinking of the three, and a woman who would become a breadwinner in the 1930s, she is the most reluctant to face the social fallout of forbidden love. In a movie that knowingly seeks comforting gloss to calm viewers into the Marstons’ sense of normal, there is nothing moderate about this perceptive performance. Hall’s fire and the overall rarity of mid-20th century lives lived to their fullest—behind locked doors—gives Professor Marston and the Wonder Women enough magic to elevate a fleet of invisible jets. The film too often can cordon off its queerness, removing sharp edges other filmmakers might throw themselves on, but the move also leads to a warm and ultimately affectionate film that shines a light on a remarkable story.
An irresistible movie about women and forward-thinkers driven by the superpower of feminism, Professor Marston makes the persuasive case that Wonder Woman has the greatest origin story of them all. And we’re not referring to Paradise Island, folks.
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women opens on Oct. 13.