Professor Marston & the Wonder Women movie review: secret identities (#LFF2017)

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

A sweet, romantic story about the polyamorous triad that created a beloved superhero… and about the power of comic books to speak to our inner lives.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): love the cast; desperate for stories about women
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
female director, female screenwriter, female coprotagonist
(learn more about this)

Sorry, all you dudes who may have been expecting something salacious and debauched from a movie about the guy who created Wonder Woman for DC Comics. Cuz you’ve heard that he was into bondage and somehow managed to convince his wife to bring another woman into their lives and their bed: woo-hoo, threesome! But Professor Marston & the Wonder Women isn’t perverted, and it’s not pornographic, not even of the softest-core type. And this ain’t Fifty Shades of Grey, either. Thank Aphrodite. This is a sweet story about people who are in love with one another — yes, each of the three of them is in love with the other two; it isn’t just some guy with both a wife and a mistress who know about each other — and are devoted to one another. This is a story that is all about how ridiculously normal and domestic and nice they are. There are some lovely romantic scenes that are sexual in nature, but there’s nothing, you know, indecent here, and all of it is built on women’s choice and consent and pleasuretweet at every step. Even the stuff that some people might consider “kinky” is presented as just perfectly fine and nothing to be ashamed of. So sorry.

“I think we definitely need a blonde to balance us out...”
“I think we definitely need a blonde to balance us out…”tweet

Actually, lots of the details of the domestic life of William Moulton Marston — comic-book-writer pen name: Charles Moulton — his wife, Elizabeth, and their unofficial cospouse Olive Byrne are unknown, for obvious reasons: who ever really knows what goes on behind other peoples’ closed doors? So Professor Marston writer-director Angela Robinson has taken the liberty of extrapolating and imagining from what we do know. And that’s just fine. Because this is as much an ode to the power of superheroes and comic books to speak to our inner lives and hidden desires as it is a straightforward docudrama about the creation of Wonder Woman. Maybe it’s even more the first thing. Whatever the details of his life in a long-term relationship with two women, Marston’s Amazonian princess clearly wasn’t inspired only by the strength and intelligence and personal fortitude of those two women, but by the reality that, however they lived and whatever they were doing in the privacy of their home, the propriety of the day demanded that they literally have distinct public and private alter egos. The Marston-Byrneses could no more be upfront about who they really were than Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne or Diana Prince could be.

The Marston-Byrneses could no more be upfront about who they really were than Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne or Diana Prince could be.

Robinson — who’s been a TV director on shows including True Blood and The L Word since her last feature, 2005’s Herbie: Fully Loaded — structures the film as a series of flashbacks as Marston (Luke Evans: The Fate of the Furious, Beauty and the Beast) is forced to defend himself and Wonder Woman to Josette Frank (Connie Britton: American Ultra, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), head of one of those organizations that wants to censor stuff in order to protect children. (The film opens with gleeful kids and teenagers tossing comic books onto bonfires, presumably at the behest of Frank and her ilk. This is happening as America is fighting book-burning fascists in World War II. She doesn’t seem to appreciate this irony.) Frank is deeply concerned — so very deeply concerned — about Wonder Woman’s skimpy costume, and the fact that she gets tied up a lot, as well as the usual comic-book violence. So William enacts for her a performance as the respected psychology professor who wants to give comic-book readers a strong heroine while sneaking in an undercurrent in feminist ideas… which, come to think of it, was itself pretty radical for the 1940s. But it’s nothing next to the fuller truth that he reminisces on, and that the film flashes back to: how he and his wife, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall: The BFG, The Gift), a lawyer, came to adopt Olive (Bella Heathcote: Fifty Shades Darker, The Man in the High Castle), one of William’s students at Radcliffe College (the then all-male Harvard’s satellite for women), as their partner and lover.

How Wonder Woman deals with men who deny her personhood and agency.
How Wonder Woman deals with men who deny her personhood and agency.tweet

Now this is an origin story!tweet How Elizabeth rankles at Harvard’s sexism in refusing to give her PhD; she won’t accept one from Radcliffe, and why should she, if the two schools are supposedly equivalent? How Olive struggles to free herself from the chains of conformity — such as an engagement to pretty, bland Brant (Chris Conroy: Two Night Stand) — and accept that she, too, craves the “unconventional life” she pegs Elizabeth as longing for. How William sees their frustrations and empathizes with the limitations placed upon them as women. (Robinson slyly makes the suggestion that the fact that Wonder Woman is constantly being tied up in the comics is not bondage innuendo meant to titillate but a metaphor for the constraints that hinder all women… one that Wonder Woman constantly breaks free of.) How the Marstons’ invention of the lie detector — Elizabeth was William’s intellectual and working partner, too — became Diana’s golden lasso of truth. (The scene in which the three of them test the lie detector is a marvelous endorsement of the idea that being honest with yourself about what you want is an excellent first step toward being happy with your life.)

Accidentally modeling a superheroine...
Accidentally modeling a superheroine…tweet

The sexual role-playing the triple enjoy here? Some of it looks like what we’d call cosplay now, when fans dress up as their favorite pop-culture characters partly as a way to appropriate their power. It’s an ironic anticipation of that that inspires Wonder Woman’s look in the comics: Olive tries on an Amazonian warrior getup for a bit of kink as she and William and Elizabeth start to explore this side of their shared sexuality. (The chunky bracelets she always wears become Wonder Woman’s wristbands.) The performances by Evans, Heathcote, and most especially Hall are full of a tender adventurousnesstweet as their characters tiptoe their way through building a relationship for which there is no cultural model… and in that they are like Diana, outcasts in a world they don’t know quite how to fit in to, with a different understanding of justice and kindness and acceptance, and they can’t even let other people know why.

This is a terrific companion to Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Womantweet of earlier this year. It’s a happy coincidence that both films have been released within months of each other — Professor Marston has been a project years in the making — but perhaps that heralds a new recognition of the values of the superhero, which are also those of the people who created her. Their success, professionally and personally, in living what they believed with integrity and honesty, is a terrific endorsement of Wonder Woman herself.

viewed during the 61st BFI London Film Festival

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