PROFESSOR MARSTON AND THE WONDER WOMEN
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women notedly came out five months later in the same year as the big screen version of Wonder Woman (2017). The film was written-directed by Angela Robinson who made an impressive splash a few years earlier with D.E.B.S. (2004), a witty lesbian spoof on Charlies Angels (1976-81). This was followed by a none-too-successful venture into the mainstream with the Lindsay Lohan-starring Disney film Herbie: Full Reloaded (2005). Robinson has not made a film in the twelve years in between, although has been working as a director, writer and producer on tv shows like The L Word (2004-9) and True Blood (2008-14).
Professor Marston hits all the major beats of William Marston Moultons life his devising DISC theory; his invention of the lie detector; the polyamorous relationship between he, his wife and assistant Olive Byrne; his being fired from his job at Harvard Radcliffe; the creation of Wonder Woman. I dont know enough about Marstons life to be able to say how accurate this although it should be noted that Marstons granddaughter Christie disowned the film in an interview at BigFanBoy, stating that there was no same sex attraction between the two women, rather that they loved both Marston but not each other. Notedly, Angela Robinson chose not to contact the Marston family but rather to write her own interpretation of events (a dubious prospect when dealing with real-life people and passing the results off as a biopic). Christie also points out that the burning of the comics we see in the opening scenes did not happen in Marstons lifetime but some years after as instigated by the infamous Frederick Wertham and that Wonder Woman was not the primary comic-book singled out. There are many aspects of Martons biography that are not touched on his brief career as a writer in Hollywood; his somewhat unorthodox experiments in sexuality, eroticism and sexual identity; the fact he was originally hired as a consultant by M.C. Gaines rather than simply walked into his office and pitched Wonder Woman to him as the film has happen; that his firing from Harvard Radcliffe was one of several academic fallings-out, including being fired from the American University after being accused of fraud. The biggest point that becomes obvious especially when you look at the photos of the real-life people that play out over the end credits is that Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall and Bella Heathcote look nothing like their real-life counterparts and are clearly played up as a more Hollywood-handsome version of the historical players.
Angela Robinson engages in the same schematic game that most biopics of famous writers/creators do of creating little aha moments where we see all the major ideas of a body of ideas in an artists oeuvre being inspired. The academic name for this is euhumerism. We see the same thing play out in other films like Ed Wood (1994), Finding Neverland (2004), Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond (2014), In the Heart of the Sea (2015), Goodbye Christopher Robin (2017) and outrightly fictionalised works such as Kafka (1991), Shakespeare in Love (1998) and The Brothers Grimm (2005). Here we see Marston playing with a glass model plane knowing it will become Wonder Womans invisible plane; when Bella Heathcote emerges in tiara, fetish gear and holding a rope, it becomes the embryonic image of Wonder Woman; the analogy between the lie detector tests and Wonder Womans lasso of truth is made several times; while there is much parallel drawn during the ethics committee scenes between key aspects of Marstons biography and Wonder Woman leaving Paradise Island for Mans World, developing a secret identity and so on.
What has clearly attracted Angela Robinson, herself a lesbian director, to the material is the transgressive relationship at the heart of it. Here though one has to fault Professor Marston and the Wonder Women as being on the tame side. The initial love scene between the three principals is all gauzy photography and quick, soft-focus cuts with an eye more towards the censor than evoking any passion. The later scene where the three are engaged in dress-up and tying up one another with a rope has a giggly silliness to it that may well be the opposite one to what was intended. Robinson does a good job in bringing out the fact that the original Wonder Woman comics under Marstons creative control had an emphasis on erotic and BDSM elements. On the other hand, her handling of these aspects are tame, especially in comparison to the mainstreaming of the subject in the recent Fifty Shades of Grey (2015). We get a couple of rope-tying scenes but there is no sense of what it is that any of those involved get out of it. Robinson at least dips her toes in but the failing of the film is that it at one point accuses Marston of being a natural submissive nowhere do we actually see him acting in a submissive position to either of the two women.
Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman is an okay biopic. It held my interest, if it never lit the imagination like some of the great biopics Dillinger (1973), The Elephant Man (1980), Bugsy (1991), The Aviator (2004), The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford (2007), Gods and Monsters (2008), Ludwig II (2012), Steve Jobs (2015) to name some personal favourites. One of the things that boost the film considerably is a top-line cast. All of the three principals get right into character and give excellent performances. I am increasingly impressed with Rebecca Hall more and more she comes out as a latter-day Emma Thompson with everything she does. She plays here with just the right kind of haughty self-certainty and awkwardness that makes the role undeniably interesting and steals the stage from the other two.