"We need 50% less kink!"
Although in production for some time, this biopic made a timely arrival, hitting the movie theatres a few months after Wonder Woman, the first successful female superhero film and the best so far in the fledgling, faltering DC cinematic universe. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women gives us the story-- or, at least, a story-- behind Wonder Woman, her creator, and his wives.
Over the course of writer/director Angela Robinson's account, William Moulton Marston and Elizabeth Holloway invent the lie detector1, seduce a student, welcome her as a third partner, lose their jobs, find depth in pop culture, and scandalize the neighbours. Marston's most lasting contribution to our world, however, isn't his psychological research or his advocacy for feminism and polyamory, but his creation of Wonder Woman, and the film explores the superhero's origins in her creator's private lives. "Based on a True Story" remains as slippery a phrase here as in any other Hollywood production, and Robinson takes substantial liberties.
Even the best historical and biographical dramas must shape their source material, of course. Professor Marston conflates events that occurred years apart, such as the early complaints about Wonder Woman, which mostly addressed her skimpy outfit, and the later comic-book-burnings, which started after Marston's death. The film barely acknowledges World War II; Hitler exists mainly as one of Wonder Woman's adversaries. Despite an excellent, lived-in, visual depiction of history, there's a sense of unreality about the historical details. That, of course, may be inevitable.
A biopic also must find a center. In a shocking development, this one chose sex. I don't have a problem with that, per se. But we don't know the truth about the Marston househould. The three shared a house. Marston fathered children with both Holloway and Olive Byrne. The legal couple went to work; Byrne assumed the traditional wife and mother role. The women remained together after he died. But they never discussed their sex life, and we do not know if the three ever shared a bed, or if the women were involved sexually, notions the film assumes and explores in detail. And, whatever BDSM elements appear in early Wonder Woman, neither the Marstons nor Byrne ever discussed whether that formed part of their sex life. The film makes sexual experimentation central. The existence of Marjorie Huntley, who sometimes lived with the group, even after Marston's death, gets ignored entirely. Tellingly, the threesome's descendants would neither cooperate with nor endorse the film.
Simply dealing with these elements as the film presents them: I'm relieved the threesome's sexual experimentation comes across as normal. The scenes, alas, lack passion. Fortunately, they have a goofy joyousness that makes some amends. Other scenes prove more problematic. A key moment, where the Marstons arrange to view a creepy sorority ritual, clearly intends to be voyeuristic. It also intends to be more, but the voyeurism overshadows everything else.
As for Wonder Woman, herself: even in Marston's era, she was far more than the much-discussed bondage scenes and sexual overtones. They were present, but less often than this film and the comic's critics suggest. The comic also promoted female athleticism, for example, and stressed a number of positive values. Overemphasizing the sexual side and treating it positively seems only somewhat more enlightened than overemphasizing the sexual side and demonizing it. Marston and the Wonder Women were about many things.
These people were true originals—more than a little odd—but the biopic follows an overly familiar format. We hear the story mostly through flashbacks during an interview with Marston. The development of a relationship and family, the connections between the protagonist's life and pop-art, and the obvious story beats echo a thousand other movies depicting far more ordinary lives.
Much like the DC Cinematic Universe, this film comes alive when Wonder Woman arrives. The first meeting between Marston and comic-book pioneer and publisher M.C. Gaines is fictionalized2, but I laughed out loud, as two conflicting personalities find common ground in a bizarre but iconic super-female. The origin of Wonder Woman's outfit in fetish gear worn by Olive Byrne may be the film's invention, but it works surprisingly well, bridging private life and public art.3
The film also benefits from generally strong acting. Rebecca Hall as Elizabeth Holloway Marston transcends the material, giving a powerful, nuanced performance. Whether that performance bears any resemblance to the woman being presented remains an open question.
In the end, we have a pretty good film with a pretty poor claim of having lassoed the truth.
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In a 2014 interview with the Smithsonian, Byrne Marston, a son of William Moulton Marston and Olive Byrne, expressed his belief that his father saw the bondage elements metaphorically. "I never saw anything like that in our house," he said. "He didn't tie the ladies up to the bedpost. He'd never have gotten away with it."4
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Written and directed by Angela Robinson
Luke Evans as William Moulton Marston
Rebecca Hall as Elizabeth Holloway Marston
Bella Heathcote as Olive Byrne
Oliver Platt as M.C. Gaines
Connie Britton as Josette Frank
Monica Giordano as Mary
JJ Feild as Charles Guyette
Chris Conroy as Brant Gregory
Maggie Castle as Dorothy Roubicek
Alexa Havins as Molly Stewart
Sharon Kubo as Kate
Allie Gallerani as Sara
Christopher Jon Gombos as Fred Stewart
Stacy Fischer as Linda
Ken Cheeseman as Dean Liddy
Tom Kemp as Harry Peter
Abigail Wurster as Radcliffe Sorority Pledge
Jessica Rockwood as Bondage Class Student
1. It’s more strictly correct to say that Marston modified an existing invention to make it useful.
2. The idea of Professor Marston wandering into the rundown digs that were the early DC offices hits the right comic note, but that's not what happened. Gaines hired Marston as a consultant after reading some comic-positive comments Marston made in the popular press. Marston later proposed Wonder Woman, and Gaines-- true to character-- gambled and won.
3. Byrne wore bracelets-- they're visible in any photo of her that shows her arms-- that inspired Wonder Woman's.
4. Quoted in Jill Lepore,"The Surprising Origin Story of Wonder Woman." Smithsonian Magazine,October 2014. Smithsonian.com. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/origin-story-wonder-woman-180952710/.