Feel free to put your claims of opportunism aside; there’s no way the makers of the intriguing biopic Professor Marston and the Wonder Women could have possibly known that Patty Jenkins’ telling of the Wonder Woman story was going to be the enormous critical and financial hit that it was. And in a way, that’s a good thing. This film centers on the creator of the Wonder Woman character, the psychologist Dr. William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans from Beauty and the Beast and The Hobbit movies), and doesn’t feel the need to lean into the modern telling of the Amazonian heroine, instead focusing on her mixed-bag origins that somehow found a sliver of middle ground between feminism and bondage.
More importantly, Marston’s real-life story makes it clear that Wonder Woman was actually an amalgam of the two strong women in his life—his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) and one of his students at Harvard, the defiant Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote). Here, Byrne is portrayed as learning to shed the shackles of conventional love and relationships for a deeper and more open experience with the Marstons. The film does a surprisingly convincing job of not portraying Marston as simply a womanizer by pushing the female characters to the foreground of this polyamorous arrangement and making it clear that he is serving their needs as much as they are the muses in his life.
Writer-director Angela Robinson (D.E.B.S., Herbie: Fully Loaded) frames this partly fictional story as an extended flashback sequence being recounted by Prof. Marston at a 1945 meeting with a censorship board (with a chief inquisitor and fellow psychologist played by Connie Britton) about the violence and sexual nature of his comic book, which he wrote under an alias. During the course of his testimony, he manages to walk through portions of his life beginning in the late 1920s, which include his part in the invention of the modern polygraph machine (drawing an interesting parallel between the lie detector and Wonder Woman’s golden lasso), his views on submission and dominance, and why Wonder Woman feels the need to have a secret identity (certainly, Marston had plenty of secrets of his own).
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women doesn’t shield the audience from any of the sexual practices of this threesome, but it also doesn’t see the need to get overly graphic or judgmental about the arrangement. Each of the characters is given their fair share of time to discuss their views on the pluses and minuses of the relationship (which shift in unexpected ways when both women begin to have children with Marston).
Most importantly, the filmmakers do an admirable job always bringing things back to Wonder Woman, and how everything in the Marston household and workplace seemed to inform the character and her leanings as a powerful feminist. Marston is visibly crushed when his publisher (Oliver Platt) tells him to ease up on the sex and kinky violence, since it seems to be an outlet for him to express his free-love views without having to expose his home life to the world.
If the film falters in any way, it’s that it feels rushed and incomplete, not just in terms of key moments from Marston’s life, but from the important and ever-changing emotions of these two women, whose internal conflicts are hinted at but rarely lingered upon. Hall and Heathcote are extraordinary because their characters are allowed to have depth and complexity; I was almost shocked to watch any movie in which a character simply changes their mind about something they once felt strongly about. Evans is also quite good—this might even be his best performance—but he never quite allows us to shake the feeling that, for all his talk about love and equality, he’s also just a kid in a sexy candy store (a sequence in which he and Elizabeth spy on a spanking ritual at Olive’s sorority drives home the fact that Marston has his weaknesses).
At its core, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is a film about behavior and the always-fascinating question: From where does a creator draw his/her inspiration? The film has a perfectly intimate feeling to it, and the performances allow us to find the humanity in its layered individuals. I wish director Robinson had disposed of the interrogation framework (although it allows for a type of narration that makes telling this story simpler) and gone deeper into the tumultuous emotions at stake in this relationship. Still, I was genuinely drawn into this story, and I’m guessing you will be as well.