Professor Marston and the Wonder Women Review: A Boring Telling of a Story Truly Stranger Than Fiction

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The great commonality between superheroes and sex is the exchange of power. That’s been true since Superman put his underwear over his tights and repeatedly kept Lois Lane from danger. Comic books were once thought to be mere children’s tales, but look at where we are in the culture now. The X-Men are an allegory for oppressed minority groups while Iron Man was introduced to filmgoers as an arms dealer making bank off the wars in the Middle East. Children’s tales these are not. But there was one recent adaptation that took a superhero to the absolute root of their existence, as well as the genre’s. This summer’s Wonder Woman wasn’t just a box office smash, it was an inspirational call to action for many. And now, with Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, we’re seeing the inspiration behind the inspiration.

If you know anything about early Wonder Woman comics, you know that bondage and submission was a recurring motif. But psychologist William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans), known also for an early prototype of the lie detector and for his work on DISC theory, argued that submission is just one of many possible ways of achieving pleasure, and he decided to explore that through the lens of a female superhero. He just also did it in 1941, when the actions of Harvey Weinstein were more than just typical and so-called radical feminists were trying to escape the bonds of men.

But Marston wasn’t just breaking down walls  with strong-willed women on these colorful pages, the film tells us. He was also in a consensual polyamorous relationship with two women: his feminist wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston (Rebecca Hall) and a student turned teacher’s assistant to the professor Olivia Byrne (Bella Heathcote). Together, through strength and kindness both respective of both their personalities, and that which they inspired in each other, they make up Wonder Woman as we know her.

The film’s script, by director Angela Robinson, is written in a way that the two women practically wink their Wonder Woman-ness directly at the camera. For how fascinating a true story this is, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is emotionally overblown like the most cliche of Hollywood biopics. You can almost feel Robinson pushing her cast to hold each of the film’s many tearful scenes as long as they possibly can to trick the audience into feeling something. It doesn’t help either that this is a film partially about the celebration of kink culture while also being too afraid to cross that line itself. We’re the producers worried after Wonder Woman’s success this summer that the kids would want to see this one too? Because for a story involving a lot of whips and chains, things are kept pretty tame.

It also must be noted that the film’s conversations about feminism, and what this iconic character was back then, almost always end with a character storming out of the room feeling as though they or their family has been insulted or is in danger. Okay, but are we actually going to talk about how the first female superhero’s chief weakness was being tied up? Not here, apparently, and the film is too glossy and one-note in its intent to ever question Marston as anything other than an innovator. He was that too, but the conversation about his legacy is so diluted here.

Still, there’s no denying that this is an amazing story. One of most famous cases of modern polygamy also resulted in the creation of inarguably one of the most influential women in all of fiction? It’s true what they say, that you can’t make this stuff up. But what we can do now is look at the past with introspective eyes and wonder what it was really like for these people. How did the two women feel about Wonder Woman’s sexual origins? What was their response when faced with more constructive arguments against them than “this is smut?” It’s a profound disappointment that Professor Marston and the Wonder Women doesn’t seem to have any interest in the answers. It did, however, remind me of how great of a film Wonder Woman is. Grade: C+

By Matt Dougherty

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