CINEMA: The Action-Minded Professor

PROF. MARSTON & THE WONDER WOMEN (Dir, by Angela Robinson, 108 min.)

CHRIS MALENEYBY CHRISTOPHER MALENEY FILM CRITIC Superhero origin stories are incredibly tangled, and the excessive repetition of endless reboots often only complicates that fact. Almost every re-telling of Batman or Spiderman, to name but two, has taken the liberty of tweaking their origin to fit a particular narrative. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women tells a different sort of superhero origin story. The film answers the question of how a badass, BDSM goddess like the Golden Age Wonder Woman come about? Was it from the sick mind of a sex fiend trying to turn his interests into cash, or a calculated move by three feminist psychologists to inject radical ideas into popular culture? According to Professor Marston, the answer is a little of both.

William Marston (Luke Evans) begins the film as a college lecturer, in the nascent field of psychology. He explains human relationships through DISC theory — Domination, Inducement, Submission and Compliance — that humans respond best when submitting willingly to a loving authority. His wife, Elizabeth (the powerful Rebecca Hall), is his research partner, and together they are trying to invent a lie detector. When William’s interest in a student, Olive Byrne (demure, virginal Bella Heathcoate), verges on more-than-professional feelings, it seems as though we are falling down a familiar rabbit hole of jealousy and hurt feelings. But then the characters do something almost unheard of, both for the time period and for films: they sit down and have an honest discussion about their feelings. These discussions, and there a number of them that form the bedrock of the film’s morality, eventually lead the three to form a polyamorous relationship that defies social norms, but allows them to live honestly with themselves. Though they lose their jobs as professors and must turn to more menial labor to support their large family, though the neighborhood is shocked to discover William Marston fathered children with two different women, the Byrne-Marston family’s attempt to embrace the idea of radical, ameliorative honesty shows how Marston brought thematic concerns from his own life into the comic he created.

At a time when alcohol, pornography, sodomy and fornication were both criminal and taboo, these three radical feminists were engaging in sexual exploration that would, by modern standards, be considered mildly kinky. They dress in costumes supplied by the ‘G-String King’ (J.J. Field), take on characters, and tie each other up, but this is not portrayed as just smut. Rather, their freedom is an act of rebellion. Their moment of ultimate realization has Nina Simone’s rendition of “Feeling Good,” with all its menacing horns, playing over it, reminding the audience that the characters are free in a way that only the ‘birds flying high’ and the ‘fish in the sea’ can understand, because certainly society cannot accept the truth that people can love each other regardless of their gender, or their number of other lovers, and not lose compassion and tenderness.

In order to inject these ideas into mainstream discourse — having lost his professorial perch due to pernicious rumors — Marston creates a comic book hero. The film takes many liberties with history, not only with its casting that makes three average looking people as beautiful as comic book characters, but also its narrative choices; in reality the idea to make Wonder Woman a woman at all came from Elizabeth, while this telling gives William all the credit for making a superheoine who is a composite of his two lovers. Wonder Woman has Elizabeth’s forthright, aggressive strength, but also Olive’s pure-hearted innocence. She is designed, Marston explains, to teach children that women can be as strong, or stronger, than men. Though mid 20th Century America was either unwilling or unable to listen, we have finally come to a point where Wonder Woman’s true message — the radical liberation of all oppressed people from cruel reality — is more viable, more accepted, and also more necessary than ever before. The film works as an interesting counterpoint to this year’s Wonder Woman, providing a new lens through which Gal Gardot’s box office smash might be interpreted, and a reminder of how far sexual liberation has come in the last 70 years.