“Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” is a remarkable movie that tells the true queer origin story of the iconic feminist superhero Wonder Woman. Written and directed by Angela Robinson (“The L Word”), the film brings a fascinating piece of American cultural history to compelling cinematic life. It’s a passionate exploration of the human mind and heart and a fierce condemnation of prejudice and prudery.
The professor is Dr. William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans), an unconventional but respected psychologist and inventor. It’s 1928 and he’s teaching at Radcliffe and fighting Harvard to get his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) the academic credentials she deserves. They both acknowledge she’s much smarter than he.
Marston has developed the controversial DISC theory which proposes that all human interactions can be broken down into four behaviors: dominance, inducement, submission and compliance. He also believes that women are the superior sex and that men should submit to their “loving leadership.”
Their lives begin to change when they hire Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), one of William’s students, to be their research assistant. Byrne was the niece of Margaret Sanger and the daughter of Ethel Byrne, two fiery birth control advocates.
The three begin to discover that they have deep feelings for each other along with an interest in BDSM and role play. They form a romantic triad but soon discover that real life is more complicated than Marston’s theories. Marston loses his teaching position, Olive becomes pregnant and Elizabeth is forced to work as a secretary to support the growing family.
Inspired by his psychological theories and their role play, as well as pair of Olive’s bracelets, Marston began to develop the character of Wonder Woman, a champion for freedom and justice. He convinces editor M.C. Gaines (Oliver Platt) to publish his comic book.
Wonder Woman quickly becomes popular and controversial. It attracts the attention of Josette Franks (Connie Britton), executive director of the Child Study Association of America; scenes of her interrogation of Marston are very effectively interspersed throughout the movie.
Robinson tells this amazing story with incredible skill and passion. Her inventive script is full of interesting and well-developed characters and she subtly captures the evolution of the polyamorous relationship from the perspectives of all three partners. The dialogue is natural and unforced; Robinson effortlessly captures a rich variety of moods from the thrill of creation to the depths of frustration and from the joys of banter and teaching to the heat of sexual passion. Her direction is supple and beautifully paced.
A great example of Robinson’s work is the scenes that show the Marstons developing an early version of the lie detector. Working from Elizabeth’s observation that her blood pressure rises when she becomes emotional, she and William develop a working prototype of the machine. To test it, the three quiz each other about their evolving feelings for each other. The scenes are a great celebration of creativity and intellectual inquiry that are also emotionally exposed and deeply moving.
Robinson gets robust support from her cast and creative team. Along with Editor Jeffrey M. Werner, Director of Photography Bryce Fortner executes a beautiful visual palette for the movie. Production Designer Carl Sprague and Costume Designer Donna Maloney create a lovely period feel for the movie.
The entire cast turns in strong and nuanced performances. Hall is witty, brilliant, supportive and deeply vulnerable as needed. Marston turns in a powerful performance as the professor who translates his unconventional theories from text books to comic books. And with her raw emotions and blazing honesty, Heathcote is radiant.
Even among indie movies, “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” is extraordinary for its serious and sensual exploration of a polyamorous relationship, as well as for its celebration of creativity and intellectual discourse.