The true story behind “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women,” which tells the tale of the creation of the Wonder Woman comic, is so fascinating and titillating that even some of the film’s clunky moments can’t stop it from being highly watchable.
If you’ve always loved the comic, always loved the television show or just started to love Wonder Woman after her utterly charming, warm and powerful big-screen debut last year, you will perhaps be shocked to learn that Diana Prince sprang from an intellectual’s lifelong devotion to feminism, polyamory, psychology and kink.
Wonder Woman did not inadvertently become a feminist icon; she was deliberately conceived to spread the gospel of women’s rights through a palatable, kid-friendly medium. And if you ever noticed a suspiciously high incidence of bondage scenarios drawn in those early pages, well, this was also not a coincidence.
Professor Marston (Luke Evans, who played Gaston in “Beauty and the Beast”) was a Harvard professor of psychology who espoused a theory of human behavior based on dominance and submission. He published books and papers on his theories and taught classes at Harvard and Radcliffe on the subject.
It is in one of these classes, assisted by his equally intellectual wife, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), that he meets Olive (Bella Heathcote). Grinning like a howling wolf from a Tex Avery cartoon, he enlists the very attractive student to assist them with their research. To make matters more interesting, Olive is not just a pretty young student, but happens to be the niece of Margaret Sanger, the pioneering feminist who opened the first birth control clinic with her sister, Olive’s mother, who ironically gave up Olive to be raised by nuns in a convent.
With such revolutionary blood in her veins, Olive blossoms under the tutelage of the Professors Marston, allowing them to spy on a sorority spanking ritual and working together to develop the lie detector test. The first half of the film is the strongest, especially because of Hall’s commanding, arch performance as Elizabeth Marston, a brilliant woman frustrated by society and challenging herself to play along with her husband’s wandering eye. When the desirable Olive reveals which Marston is really tempting her away from her stolid fiancé, the married couple delve into a threesome, which eventually grows into an unconventional but functional family.
When a film features this much sex plus comic books, it’s weird that it should feel too long, but it does. There is something uneven in the pacing, and I think the problem stems from a format that structures most of the film through scenes of Marston defending the Wonder Woman comics to a government panel about decency and children, headed by Connie Nielsen, who actually does make some valid points about all the bondage depicted in the Wonder Woman comic books. This saddles us with flashbacks to the film’s strongest scenes, and buries the lead when it comes to the creation of the comics. Plus it’s really corny to have Marston coughing so conspicuously and prophetically throughout.
Even though “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” sagged in places, it’s undeniably fascinating, and it’s fun to note details such as Olive’s penchant for wearing wide bracelets and trace the connection to Wonder Woman. When you consider the comic book icon, whose image graced the first-ever issue of Ms. magazine, was a very graphic love letter from a man with a very graphic love life, to the two women who shared his life and bore his children, it is really very sweet in a really rather unconventional way.
“Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” is currently available to rent.