In 1928, Dr. William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) is a professor at Radcliffe College teaching psychology and further researching his theory of DISC assessment, which centers on the four behavioural traits of dominance, inducement, submission, and compliance. Along with his wife, Elizabeth Marston (Rebecca Hall) – who completed all the work to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University, but was refused the degree due to her being a woman – Dr. Marston also works to develop a functioning lie detector. During one semester, Dr. Marston and Elizabeth take on a teacher’s assistant, Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), who they both are fascinated by and eventually become infatuated with – despite her being engaged to another man.
After rumors of Dr. Marston and Elizabeth’s relationship with Olive spread throughout campus, furthered by Olive breaking off her engagement and revealing she’s pregnant, the three leave Radcliffe and begin living together. Once Olive’s son is born, she and the Marstons decide to live together and pass their relationship off as something less taboo in mid-20th century society. Dr. Marston struggles to make a living as a writer, and eventually turns to comic books in the early 1940s with his idea for a new female superhero who embodies all his, Elizabeth’s, and Olive’s ideals of feminism. However, the comic’s themes and depictions of bondage draw criticism and Dr. Marston is forced to attend a hearing to discuss the comic’s origin with Josette Frank (Connie Britton) from the Child Study Association of America. Through this story, Dr. Marston reveals how Wonder Woman came to be.
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is based on the real creator of one of DC Comics’ most famous superheroes, Wonder Woman, and the women in his life who inspired the Amazonian warrior goddess Diana. The film is written and directed by Angela Robinson, who has worked a great deal in television, writing and directing episodes of True Blood and The L Word, and helmed the 2004 action film D.E.B.S. In addition to creating Wonder Woman, Dr. Marston and Elizabeth also created a working lie detector, with Elizabeth making the breakthrough of developing the systolic blood-pressure test, which plays a key role in the movie. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women deftly blends a beautiful tale of romance with the story of Wonder Woman’s origin and her feminist ideals.
From the standpoint of learning about the creation of Wonder Woman, Professor Marston is a fascinating study in how Dr. Marston combined elements of the women in his life – Elizabeth and Olive, mainly – with inspirations from all around him. Robinson steeps the film in imagery and references to all aspects of the early Wonder Woman character, from her loose basis in Roman mythology to the lasso of truth being inspired by Dr. Marson’s work developing the lie detector. In particular, Dr. Marston’s learning of how BDSM validates his DISC theory and becomes a part of both his personal life as well as Wonder Woman makes for a truly engrossing origin story. And, Dr. Marston’s aim to use his Wonder Woman character as, essentially, propaganda to teach young girls and boys how to embody the feminist ideals of the era proves to create some surprisingly fun drama when it antagonizes the parents of those children reading the comics.
However, while Professor Marston is ostensibly a story about how Wonder Woman was created, her actual creation and Dr. Marston’s fight with the Child Study Association of America and similar organizations are more of a frame for the true story art the heart of the film. That would be the relationship between Dr. Marston, Elizabeth, and Olive, with the main conflict arriving in how they struggle to fit their relationship into a society that believes them to be unconventional and abnormal. This main storyline hits all the major plot beats of a typical romance so Professor Marston is, in that regard, actually quite conventional. However, what makes the film subversive is its use of this classic story structure for a tale about a healthy and loving polyamorous relationship that goes through some of the same struggles as any other relationship, in addition to dealing with the societal pressure to be “normal” – and that tale is both moving and beautiful.
The budding relationship, consummation, and domestic partnership between Dr. Marston, Elizabeth, and Olive is equal parts romantic and sexy without ever crossing over into being objectifying of the women involved. With Robinson behind the camera, there is no trace of the male gaze in the sex scenes between Dr. Marston, Elizabeth, and Olive. As a result, they feel more honest and take the relationship between the three main characters to a deeper level of understanding. While their relationship is portrayed as a fantasy, it isn’t framed as a trite sexual fantasy, but as the desire to be true to oneself in a society where anything honest beyond what’s accepted as normal is repressed or overtly antagonized. Robinson’s deft work behind the camera – and, no doubt, with the script – helps to create real, palpable sexual tension between all three main characters that stems from love and feels earned within the scope of the film, making it all the more compelling.
To be sure, the captivating performances of Evans as Dr. Marston, Hall as Elizabeth, and Heathcote as Olive bring this story and these characters to life on the screen. Hall is perhaps the most magnetic of the three leads, giving Elizabeth a vibrancy that makes an exceptional argument for her being the true star of the film. Evans, meanwhile, is fantastically charming as Dr. Marston, and Heathcote’s Olive is quietly powerful in her self-assuredness, making it easy to understand why both Dr. Marston and Elizabeth become enraptured by her. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women also features small but memorable turns by Britton as Josette Frank, the woman leading an investigation into the Wonder Woman comic, and Oliver Platt as comic book publisher Max Gaines. But, this movie belongs to Evans, Hall, and Heathcote, and their performances are more than enough to weave a compelling tale.
All in all, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is a spiritual followup to Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman and will no doubt entertain moviegoers who are interested in learning about the creation of Diana Prince during the early 1940s. But, of course, Professor Marston falls much more into the drama and romance genres, excelling in both regards to tell the story of Charles Moulton and his new kind of superhero. The film may not be for everyone, but it is a beautiful romance story, compelling character drama, and an historical look at the origins of Wonder Woman – and, as such, will appeal to any moviegoer interested in such topics. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is by no means an entirely perfect film, but it does excel in telling the story it aims to tell while embodying the ideals of Wonder Woman.
Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It runs 108 minutes and is rated R for strong sexual content including brief graphic images, and language.
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