Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017)
It seems that 2017 is the year of Wonder Woman. With the spectacular success of Patty Jenkins’s version of the iconic superhero, now seems as good a time as ever to examine the past and future of the character, what she means to female representation onscreen, and to feminism at large. To this end, Angela Robinson’s Professor Marston and the Wonder Women goes back to the man who created Diana Prince, and the women who inspired her. It also successfully gives the lie to any dude-bro masturbatory fantasies that claim that Wonder Woman is, by design, a thing to be objectified, ogled, and fetishized. There is so much more to her, and so much more to those behind her creation.
Robinson’s film deals in far more detail with Marston’s personal life than it does with the actual creation and popularization of the character that made him famous. The film opens with the burning of Wonder Woman comics as Marston (Luke Evans) faces off against a “decency panel,” led by Josette Frank (Connie Britton). As Marston defends his creation against accusations of perversion, the film flashes back to the late 1920s. Marston is employed at Harvard and teaching classes in psychology at sister college Radcliffe alongside his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall). The pair have an intense, combative relationship, made more intense by Marston’s immediate attraction to his new student Olive (Bella Heathcote), the niece of Margaret Sanger, who becomes the couple’s lab assistant. Over the course of a fraught relationship, the trio wind up falling in love, exploring BDSM, and constructing an unorthodox and loving home life.
Olive at first appears to be a wide-eyed ingenue, excited to be working with a well-known pair of academics, but gradually becomes essential to the lives of the Marstons. Marston and Elizabeth have invented a version of the lie-detector, but it’s only with Olive that they are able to discover a way to get a base reading. They treat her almost as a guinea pig, observing her interactions with men, with her sorority sisters, and with themselves as a way of studying human psychology and giving credence to DISC theory (a concept involving the interplay of dominance, inducement, submission, and compliance). But soon Olive enforces her own right to have a voice in the relationship, and the pattern of sexual attraction and jealousy develops as it becomes increasingly clear that the three of them have fallen in love with one another.
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women manages to depict the depth and complexity of a polyamorous relationship without making it into a puerile act of titillation. Much of this has to do with the gaze of the camera, which eroticizes all three of the leads without making them at all voyeuristic. The gaze here has never been more feminine, rejecting voyeurism for engaged pleasure–yes, even in the BDSM scenes. Robinson’s camera avoids titillating glimpses of breasts or asses, instead dwelling on the complexity of emotions being exchanged among three very different but complementary people. None of this is told exclusively from Marston’s perspective, and there is never the sense that the two women are performing roles for his pleasure. They are all performing for each other’s pleasure, changing sexual and gender roles as it suits them at the time, indulging bondage fantasies that echo the Marstons’ psychological theories.
There are so many places where this film might have stumbled, so many opportunities of turning Marston into a letch, Elizabeth into a harridan, or Olive into a seductive ingenue, sacrificing character for objectification. But the strength of the script, the trenchant gaze of Robinson’s camera, and the performances of the actors means that there is no moment left untapped of potential. Professor Marston creates believable characters enmeshed in a set of contradictory emotions and desires that are difficult to navigate without harming others, yet likewise cannot be denied. Rebecca Hall is the standout, mining her acerbic characterization of Elizabeth for depth of feeling, a woman accustomed to power and domination thrown through a loop by her growing love for Olive and her continued love for Marston.
Wonder Woman doesn’t actually come into the film until quite late in the proceedings, although comic book imagery pops up every once in a while to indicate where Marston will eventually get his character from. The basic idea is that Wonder Woman/Diana Prince is an amalgam of Olive and Elizabeth, what Marston considers to be the perfect woman. Yet there is never a sense that he has simply mined them for their characteristics to construct a fantasy. Rather he wants to put everything that they are into her, to express through her the heights to which women can and should aspire. There’s a healthy dose of sexual “perversion” here, of course – much of it coming from the trio’s increasing interest in bondage – but that is less important to Wonder Woman than her complex relationship to female power and, most importantly, love.
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women stumbles in places, with pacing and plot beginning to lag in the second half of the film. Having a set up a dynamic set of relationships, Robinson doesn’t seem quite certain what to do to bring together the disparate elements that are supposed to inform Wonder Woman’s creation. Marston, Elizabeth, and Olive create their own polyamorous utopia within modern society, but the push and pull of the relationships, especially when social mores threaten, begins to suffer from emotional whiplash that grows more annoying than heartbreaking at times. The use of the decency panel as a sort of interstitial narration feels like a forced reminder that this whole story is really about the creation of Wonder Woman, even though that’s probably the least interesting element of the narrative.
But for its momentary weaknesses, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women has so much to recommend it that it’s hard to fault it for occasionally lacking in proper pace or a somewhat confusing plot arc. At the heart of the narrative is a story about three people deeply in love with each other, attempting to navigate fluid sexual and gender roles at a time when those roles were rigidly, even violently, enforced. That so few films are able to depict human sexuality with such eroticism without objectification speaks more to the failings of modern cinema than anything else. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is unique of its kind. God, how I wish there were more films like it.