One man’s heroine habit
“Wonder Woman” made $821 million worldwide, so the timing seems ideal for an intimately connected origin story.
The comic book superheroine’s creator, freethinking psychologist William Moulton Marston, introduced Wonder Woman (initially called Suprema) in December 1941. In spirit as well as accessories, the bondage-prone island dweller, dreamed up by Marston as “psychological propaganda” for a more enlightened American society, owed crucial elements of her now-legendary persona to Marston’s everyday life.
In that life, Marston served as one-third of a triangular relationship with his wife and research partner, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, and with Olive Byrne, teaching assistant-turned-loverturned-longtime partner to both. The freely fictionalized “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women,” written and directed by Angela Robinson, delves into this true story.
It’s a lively and absorbing picture, intelligently sexy, tastefully salacious but serious enough to stick. The film benefits from Rebecca Hall as Elizabeth, effortlessly in period, swigging bootleg hooch out of a science lab beaker and delivering a withering glare like no one else. If they gave out Nobel prizes in withering glares, Hall would have a houseful.
The timing of this Annapurna Pictures project
ideal, with one massive caveat. In America, even with all the edgily explicit storytelling on TV, you can say goodbye to half your film’s potential profit by offering a nonjudgmental depiction of a fully functioning
Robinson’s film begins in 1945, with a prologue depicting children and their clean-cut parents rabidly burning copies of “Wonder Woman” in protest. Marston is under questioning from fellow psychologist Josette Frank (Connie Britton) of the Child Study Association of America. Wonder Woman comics, she charges, are full of “sex perversion”: images of bondage, discipline, spanking and intimations of homosexuality.
Marston, played by Luke Evans, doesn’t deny the more obvious stuff. But his publisher, played by Oliver Platt, makes it plain: “We gotta cut the kink!” Hopping in and out of the 1945 scenes, “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” goes back to 1928, with the Marstons at Radcliffe College. Marston’s pet theory of behavioral psychology — the DISC theory of dominance, inducement, submission and compliance — has attracted some attention, though his books have not sold well.
One look at his new student, Olive, played by Bella Heathcote, and Marston’s a goner. He knows it; Elizabeth knows it; soon, Olive knows it too. Elizabeth is likewise attracted to her. The Marstons sneak into Olive’s sorority one night and witnesses a spanking ritual. Director Robinson treats some of this material a touch solemnly, but the writing and the performances recognize the humor in the way these three arrive at an understanding.
Eventually they move in together, and both women have children by Marston, and the film becomes a tricky sort of biopic, juggling censorship debates, free speech issues and the terrors of the American patriarchy. At the same time, the script tries, and generally succeeds, in sorting out everyone’s feelings, jealousies and yearnings for a forbidden life.
At one point on the soundtrack, the Frank Sinatra version of “East of the Sun” underscores a cozy domestic scene with husband, wife, lover and kids. “We’ll nix the squares!” goes the refrain. It captures this disarming film in a nutshell. These three nixed the squares, all right, and figured out their very own design for living.
Luke Evans, center, plays the creator of “Wonder Woman,” with wife (Rebecca Hall, right) and lover (Bella Heathcote).
R (for strong sexual content including brief graphic images, and language)