Monday 7 September 2020

Movie Review: Professor Marston And The Wonder Women (2017)

A biographical drama, Professor Marston And The Wonder Women explores the role of psychology, sexuality and feminism in the creation of an iconic comic book hero.

In 1945 Professor William Marston (Luke Evans) is being grilled by a morality committee headed by child advocate Josette Frank (Connie Britton) about the barely concealed scenes of eroticism and bondage in his hugely successful Wonder Woman comics.

Flashbacks to the 1920s reveal Marston teaching psychology at Radcliffe College and developing his theory about the role of Dominance, Inducement, Submission, and Compliance (DISC) in relationships, especially between men and women. A staunch feminist, Marston is married to the whip smart and equally blunt Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), herself studying for a doctorate. The couple take on attractive student Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) as a research assistant.

Sexual sparks ignite between all three, and soon they have a tool to help disclose their most intimate thoughts: William and Elizabeth invent the lie detection machine, Olive participates as a test subject. and admits to being in love with both Marstons. The trio eventually agree to live together in a polyamoric arrangement, and the combined strengths of both women inspire William to create Wonder Woman.

Based on real events (although this is disputed by Marston's descendents), Professor Marston And The Wonder Women is a story of one man and two women ahead of their time. Director and writer Angela Robinson creates an invigorating human drama fueled by empowered women, equality between intellectually compatible partners, and almost open polyamory, a scandalous proposition for the time.

The threads connecting the graphic comics themes with Marston's psychology theories emerge through his interrogation by self-appointed guardians of morality. Marston's personal kinkiness is certainly reflected in his art, but Wonder Woman's commitment to the truth and her covert integration within the world of men to exert her influence are grounded in his beliefs that women are better leaders, whether they act dominant (Elizabeth) or submissive (Olive).

The film suffers from a few emotional u-turns, Elizabeth in particular instigating more than one head-snapping reversal. Robinson's pacing in the final act also wobbles: many years, children and incidents are crammed into too few minutes. The unconventional family's struggle in a non-welcoming society and Wonder Woman's societal impact both lose in the competition for screen time.

But buoyed by inquisitive performances from Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall and Bella Heathcote, Robinson is free to mix the eroticism of burgeoning love with inspiration drawn from sexual creativity. Wonder Woman's emergence from the bowels of a kink shop harbouring the mixed souls of two strong women is a fitting climax.

A superhero-inspired story for adults, Professor Marston And The Wonder Women revels in real-world heroism: unbound love and curiosity, a quest for truth and honesty, and a celebration of women's varied strengths.

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