2017 has unquestionably been the Year of Wonder Woman. With her first feature film emerging as the Biggest Movie of Summer 2017 and settling multiple records, including Highest Grossing Film by a Female Director (Patty Jenkins), Wonder Woman has never been more iconic and popular with mainstream audiences. With the new film Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, Princess Diana of Themyscira adds another unique accolade to her 2017 list of accomplishments: a film about her creator and her origins releasing in the same year as her first solo blockbuster film.
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is the story of William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans), the Harvard Radcliffe professor of psychology who created Wonder Woman, and his unconventional life story being married to two women, Elizabeth Holloway (Rebecca Hall) and Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote). As director Angela Robinson’s film tells their story, Marston and Elizabeth took on young Olive Byrne as their teaching assistant in 1928 and the three entered into a polyamorous relationship. A man living with two wives would remain questionable in 2017, but it was even more taboo in the 1930s and 1940s. Upon discovery of their relationship, they were expelled from Harvard Radcliffe, but Marston, with his wives serving as inspiration, would go on to create Wonder Woman, destined to become the greatest female superhero ever. Yet, Marston’s penchant for blatantly inserting his ideas of bondage and submission into Wonder Woman comic books would draw ire and controversy that followed him until his death in 1957.
While the Marston family has called the verisimilitude of Professor Marston into question, viewed in accordance with Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, Professor Marston offers a unique lens that enhances the blockbuster starring Gal Gadot in some interesting ways:
UNDERSTANDING WONDER WOMAN’S ORIGINS
When we watch Superman: The Movie, Man of Steel, or any of the Spider-Man films, the question of what inspired their superhero costume rarely comes up. Professor Marston provides the origin of not just the character of Wonder Woman, but why she dresses the way she does and what significance her weapons and accessories have.
Wonder Woman’s iconic bracelets were inspired by silver bracelets worn by Olive Byrne. Her chosen fashion accessory became a pivotal component of Wonder Woman’s look as well as her signature move of blocking bullets with her bracelets – Marston took something seemingly mundane and made it a hallmark of his superhero creation. As Professor Marston depicts it, Wonder Woman – who was designed to somewhat physically resemble Olive – gained her star-spangled bathing suit costume and tiara because Byrne donned a similar outfit at a boutique that sold burlesque clothes and paraphernalia.
As a psychologist and writer, Marston taught what he called DISC theory, the principles of Dominance, Inducement, Submission, and Compliance. DISC theory lent itself not just to his personal relationships with Elizabeth and Olive but to his work in helping create the polygraph, or lie detector. The polygraph forms the basis of Wonder Woman’s signature weapon, the Lasso of Truth, which magically compels a person to tell the truth. The golden lasso is used copiously throughout Wonder Woman; the Amazons use it on Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) when he crashed on Themyscira, Trevor uses it on himself to convince Diana that he is indeed taking her to the front of World War I so she can find Ares, and Diana uses it on the evil General Ludendorff (Danny Huston). There are numerous instances in Professor Marston of himself, Elizabeth, and Olive engaging in bondage with a rope, including when they are using the polygraph machine.
In the film, Marston’s creations, including Paradise Island, a secret island inhabited only by Amazon women who engage in all manner of games involving bondage and submission, as well as Wonder Woman’s villainous enemies, who also habitually use bondage as a method of torture, are so controversial, Wonder Woman comics ended up being gathered and burned. The film uses a framing device where Marston is forced to defend the content of his comics – which he intended to instruct children, especially young boys, to submit to a loving authority. Marston argued Wonder Woman is first and foremost a product of love.
WHY WONDER WOMAN HAS BEEN IMPROVED
Professor Marston‘s closing title cards noted that after Marston stopped writing Wonder Woman,, the kinkiness and erotic content was removed from the comics. While this betrayed Marston’s original concept for the character, it ultimately helped Wonder Woman endure for over seven decades. The kinkiness of Wonder Woman remains inherent, from Lynda Carter’s wholesomely sexy TV portrayal in the 1970s, to all the hyper-sexual ways Wonder Woman was drawn in the comics of the 1990s. In time, however, the noble and heroic aspects of Wonder Woman’s character emerged and are what ultimately have taken hold: her compassion, her courage, her fierceness in battle, and her capacity for love.
Wonder Woman eschews many of the ideas Professor Marston likely would have wanted to see in the movie – at no point is Gal Gadot’s Diana ever tied up or forced into submission, for instance – and Patty Jenkins’ film is better off for it. Paradise Island remains a haven inhabited by women, but in Jenkins’ Themyscira live powerful, courageous, and loving Amazon warriors. The kink factor is abandoned (unless one uses their imagination) and is besides the point. The Amazons of Wonder Woman are paragons, not just of femininity, but as examples of the best of humanity – with Wonder Woman herself the best of the best.
Wonder Woman defeats Ares because she comes into the peak of her own power as the daughter of Zeus and the godkiller, but what’s truly important in the climactic battle is that after a moment of doubt, she reaffirms her commitment to save and protect humanity out of her unshakable belief in the power of love. This is what truly sets Wonder Woman apart from other superheroes. Wonder Woman is no revenge fantasy for a crime perpetrated; she fights for the world because she loves the world and everyone in it. “It’s not about what you deserve, it’s about what you believe.”
As the old adage goes, if you don’t know where you came from, you won’t know where you’re going. Professor Marston shows us how far Wonder Woman has come and for the better.
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