Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote
US theatrical: 13 Oct 2017
UK theatrical: 10 Oct 2017
Finally, the erotic superhero origin story that we’ve all been waiting for!
Well, not exactly, but Professor Marston and the Wonder Women will certainly have Captain America squirming in his skivvies. Writer-director Angela Robinson doesn’t shy away from the sordid and subversive details surrounding Dr. William Moulton Marston, the man who created the Wonder Woman comics in 1941. Robinson gets big performances from her cast, including an award-worthy turn from Rebecca Hall. A firecracker first half eventually fizzles, as things take a melodramatic turn in the film’s final act, but this is a clever and provocative look at love, sexuality, and the lies that preserve our fragile happiness.
It should shock no one that the man who envisioned an Amazonian princess that binds people with a golden lasso might have a few “issues”. Dr. Marston (Luke Evans) is every girl’s favorite psychology professor at Harvard Radcliffe in 1928. He’s handsome, brainy, dashing, and always eager to support the academic curiosity of his beautiful young students.
But to call Marston a womanizer is to oversimplify his motivations. He doesn’t want to sexualize or seduce women; he wants to understand them. His respect for them is genuine, and first-time director Robinson never judges him for his sometimes questionable behavior. In fact, there’s a refreshing lack of judgment in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women that allows Robinson to dissect the behavior in question rather than sensationalize it.
Marston’s devoted partner in the quest for knowledge (and titillation) is his wife and academic assistant, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall). Elizabeth was liberated before liberation was cool. She curses like a sailor, interrupts her husband incessantly, and is every bit his intellectual equal. Hall is absolutely brilliant in the role, exuding a no-nonsense toughness and trembling vulnerability that recalls some of the best work of Frances McDormand.
When the gorgeous and intelligent Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) volunteers to be their research assistant, it isn’t long before both Marston and Elizabeth are lusting for something that polite society simply won’t allow.
“D.I.S.C.: Dominance. Inducement. Submission. Compliance.”
For Marston, DISC is the perfect paradigm to explain human behavior; our overwhelming desire to submit both mentally and physically to a loving authority. For Robinson, DISC provides an ingenious structure and thematic backbone for her film. She subdivides the film into chapters, interweaving portions of the trio’s life to illustrate DISC. As Marston, Elizabeth, and Olive pass through each stage of emotional gamesmanship, they grow together, rip apart, and finally discover a fabricated compromise that they (and their Puritanical neighbors) can tolerate.
The film’s first half simmers with erotic intensity and subversive humor. The three characters stage an intricate dance of intellectual seduction; conquer the mind and the spirit shall willingly follow. Robinson includes several vignettes with Marston and his female assistants quizzing one another on a rudimentary polygraph, the questions becoming increasingly sexual with each encounter.
“Are you in love with Olive Byrne?” Elizabeth asks her devoted husband, knowing damn well what the answer will be. That Olive is present during these thinly veiled interrogations only adds to the excruciating anticipation. It’s a perverse foreplay that allows a genuine chemistry to build between the three leads. When they finally succumb to their calamitous temptation in what will surely be the sultriest scene of 2017, you aren’t sure whether to cry or smoke a cigarette.
After the consummation (this is not a spoiler; Marston, Elizabeth, and Olive cohabitated as lovers for many years), the film suffers from an inevitable emotional hangover. Yes, there is still plenty of sexy time, but it lacks the same urgency and dramatic tension. Marston’s kinks become more ambitious and fetishistic, prompting him to find a creative outlet for his budding curiosity. Witness the birth of Suprema the Wonder Woman! One particularly cheeky montage finds the trio’s bondage games directly incorporated into the pages of the popular children’s comic book.
Unfortunately, the machinations of Wonder Woman’s rise are less interesting than the eroticism and intelligence of the film’s first half. Like most superhero origin stories, the disappointments, triumphs, and motivations of the hero-in-waiting are far more engaging than anything they do while hidden behind their superhero persona.
Robinson, clearly feeling the pressure to include most of Marston’s (and Wonder Woman’s) essential life milestones, rushes through the film’s final act. This necessitates an over-reliance on melodrama and emotional shortcuts. Particularly egregious is Tom Howe’s cringe-inducing score, which telegraphs every emotional epiphany like a cloying metronome. A frustrating conflict arises between this disappointing obviousness and the subversive, trailblazing message that Robinson worked so hard to articulate. It makes for an uneven film that flirts with greatness only to falter at the end.
Still, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is a fascinating study of three dynamic, intelligent people struggling to make sense of their forbidden feelings. Marston’s inspiration to create a fictional amalgam of Elizabeth’s strength and Olive’s purity helped to shape a generation of impressionable young women. Whether those inspirations run directly counter to the feminist ideals they helped to spawn is the stuff of late-night debates. For those just looking to get a little hot and bothered, however, this film will do nicely.