Review: Professor Marston and The Wonder Women (2017)

An intriguing look into the lives of the man and women, who invented the lie detector test and then went on to create a cultural icon.

This year has been a very important year for Wonder Woman, Patty Jenkins’ sensational and critically acclaimed Wonder Woman broke box office records for a female directed picture and has got the ball rolling for future comic book movies led by female characters. As well as this the DCEU’s other big release this year Justice League (in cinemas now) has also, according to some, been carried by the character’s appearance and many are in fact saying that Wonder Woman has become the saviour of the DCEU. However, outside of this page to screen world of franchise building, this thoroughly interesting Bio-Drama looks at the man and women behind the super heroine and gives us all a very different take on the material.

A creation of American Psychologist William Moulton Marston (played here by Luke Evans), Wonder Woman became a legend in comic book lore but this film goes beneath the heroism and fantastical ideas and delves into the psychoanalytic meaning engrained into the character’s adventures and looks at a tale of taboo love shackled by its era. The crux of the story is how Marston and his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) hire a young teaching assistant Olive (Bella Heathcote) to aid in their pioneering invention of the lie detector test but the three come to form a deeply personal passionate bond that is not considered the societal norm. Keeping their love a secret, the three soon come to put their theories about human pleasures to the test, through the secretive exploration of fetishes and BDSM.

The historical accuracy of this true life origin tale has been called into question but unlike the Fifty Shades tosh, this is far from a superficial flesh fest and actually gets to the core of a world so often broadly covered (if at all). There is a beating heart beneath the bodice of this fascinating dissection of human desire and Angela Robinson really tells quite an engaging story about love and its many unique forms. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women may not suit all tastes but it is a compelling look at a subject that was genuinely a new discovery to this writer as it is, I would dare to wager, to a great many other potential general audiences. The sexual symbolism and kink-inspired narrative devices/illustrations of Wonder Woman’s early comic book outings have been analysed before but never by a film that so generously avoids generalisations and instead revels in the complexities of its central three-way connection.

Looking into the S&M, spanking, lesbian and bondage imagery that populates Marston’s creation, the story is relayed via constant flashbacks as Marston testifies before an appalled figure from the Child Study Association of America (CSAA) to defend his work from censors and cancellation. This may be a story that goes way back to the ‘20s and ‘40s but it is quite amazing how relevant the film feels, with dialogue perfectly reflecting the era (the CSAA representative refers to Lesbian relationships as a psychological disorder) and yet content that also mirrors the contemporary state of the world, a world still debating such issues. This is just a very interesting watch, that informs you of a comic origin that surprises and compels, presenting a very effective drama about three individuals coming to terms with their societally rejected feelings.

Indeed the actual story is less about Wonder Woman and more about the submissive ideals and three individuals behind her creation but the film, despite some lags in pace, continues to grab your attention thanks to inspired aesthetic moments (the image of Olive adorned in gear that would be the brainchild for Wonder Woman’s attire is quite a striking visual), psychologically complex emotions and a trio of spellbinding performances. More could have been made of the professional reaction to Marston’s ideas and the actual comic books rise to stardom, which is only really shown here through montage and Marston’s handful of scenes with a – once again – underused Oliver Platt as comic book kingpin Max Gaines. That being said Robinson truly succeeds where she needs to and that is with the central characters and their impassioned lives together.

Marston is an enigmatic figure of his time and Evans confidently embraces the characters upfrontness and openness, while not shying away from his rage against the attitudes of his fellow man. Bella Heathcote is most excellent as Olive, a character that optimises submissiveness initially but comes to harness an inner resilience and defiance as the plot advances. Although, the best performance just might be that of Rebecca Hall who, as Elizabeth, is a very frank speaker and at one with her femininity and the strength within it, yet her performance also allows for an inner delicateness to trickle out and a fear of her own desires and how they will affect her family.

As we say, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is perhaps not a perfect all around look at the comic book, TV and now movie icon herself but it is an incredibly fascinating coverage of love in its many wild forms and the remarkable minds behind the lasso of truth and bracelets of submission.

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