How the su­per­hero got her whip

Pro­fes­sor Marston And The Won­der Women (15)

Sunday Herald Life - - FILM REVIEWS - By Demetrios Matheou

USU­ALLY when we talk of su­per­hero “ori­gin” sto­ries, it’s along the lines of how Peter Parker ac­quired his spi­der pow­ers, Bruce Ban­ner turned green or Bruce Wayne, aka Bat­man, be­come the world’s grump­i­est man. But this un­con­ven­tional and ap­peal­ing film re­veals a real-life ge­n­e­sis – how the char­ac­ter of Won­der Woman ac­tu­ally came to be writ­ten. Its story is al­to­gether more dar­ing, more fun and more emo­tional than any­thing you’ll find in a comic fan­tasy. This has al­ready been a good year for the world’s best-known fe­male su­per­hero, with the crit­i­cal and box of­fice suc­cess of Won­der Woman. Aside from be­ing a rare su­per­hero block­buster to sport a fe­male lead, the film’s fe­male di­rec­tor, Patty Jenk­ins, smashed a glass ceil­ing in her pro­fes­sion.

So it’s apt that an­other woman should be be­hind this one. Writer/di­rec­tor An­gela Robin­son is best known for risqué tele­vi­sion, from sexy vam­pire drama True Blood, to les­bian drama The L-Word and the gigolo com­edy Hung. It’s not sur­pris­ing that she should be drawn to­wards a taboo­break­ing love tri­an­gle – be­tween a psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor, his aca­demic wife and a fe­male stu­dent – and their dar­ing ex­plo­ration of un­der­ground sex­u­al­ity, which even­tu­ally in­spired a fic­tional hero­ine who epit­o­mised the fem­i­nist prof’s ideal, em­pow­ered woman, bondage ac­ces­sories in­cluded.

In 1928 Wil­liam Moul­ton Marston (Luke Evans) be­gins teach­ing at Rad­cliffe, the women’s lib­eral arts col­lege, as­sisted by his wife El­iz­a­beth (Re­becca Hall). A charis­matic and en­thu­si­as­tic lec­turer, Marston ad­vances his DISC the­ory, which iden­ti­fies four traits he be­lieves drive hu­man in­ter­ac­tion – dom­i­nance, in­duce­ment, sub­mis­sion and com­pli­ance. He also de­lights his stu­dents with the view that the world would be a far bet­ter and more peace­ful place were it gov­erned by women, not men. El­iz­a­beth is ev­ery bit her hus­band’s equal, if not smarter. Cyn­i­cal and sharp-tongued, she also ap­pears to be the dom­i­nant per­son­al­ity. When Wil­liam en­gages a beau­ti­ful stu­dent as­sis­tant, Olive Byrne (Bella Heath­cote), it’s El­iz­a­beth who steers where they go next – and the cou­ple’s pro­gres­sive think­ing and com­mon at­trac­tion to the younger woman lead all three to a sur­pris­ing re­la­tion­ship.

This is a pe­riod when Amer­i­can so­ci­ety was at its most re­pressed. As the three form a fam­ily unit, both women hav­ing chil­dren by Marston, and ex­plore their sex­u­al­ity through the world of S&M, they will be os­tracised and re­viled. But the pro­fes­sor is in­de­fati­ga­ble, creat­ing Won­der Woman partly as a means of sup­port­ing his fam­ily and partly to push his fem­i­nist ideas through the pop­u­lar medium, “into the thump­ing heart of all Amer­ica”.

Robin­son weaves her story with so­phis­ti­ca­tion, whether min­ing the con­tra­dic­tion be­tween the zest of the re­la­tion­ship and the big­oted scorn heaped upon them, or join­ing the dots be­tween Marston’s DISC the­ory and his own re­la­tion­ships, or show­ing his ideas feed­ing into his comic book cre­ation – both the ac­cou­trement of S&M and the Marstons’ in­ven­tion of an early lie de­tec­tor shap­ing Won­der Woman’s cos­tume and strat­egy.

The film’s fram­ing de­vice is the back­lash against the comic book in the 1940s, with Amer­ica’s ar­biters of so-called de­cency fo­cus­ing less on the role model of a pow­er­ful, in­de­pen­dent woman, and more on the sto­ries’ man­i­fes­ta­tions of bondage and spank­ing. They’re not in­ter­ested in Won­der Woman as an en­light­ened form of pro­pa­ganda, but merely want Marston, as his be­lea­guered pub­lisher puts it, to “cut the kink”. The ac­tors are ex­em­plary as they nav­i­gate the script’s com­edy, trans­gres­sion and bit­ter-sweet ro­mance. Hall is par­tic­u­larly fine, giv­ing one of her feisti­est, fun­ni­est, flesh and blood per­for­mances.

Bella Heath­cote and Re­becca Hall in Pro­fes­sor Marston And The Won­der Women

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