Professor Marston and the Wonder Women Review

By Rich Cline

 

The rather astonishing true story of the creation of the Wonder Woman character, this is certainly not your run-of-the-mill biopic. It’s a sharply well-observed story of three intellectual people who choose to live a scandalously counterculture lifestyle in the 1920s, then come up with a comic book character who goes against all the rules. Frankly, they still seem radical today.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women Movie Still

It opens at Harvard University in the mid-1920s, where Bill Marston (Luke Evans) and his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) are psychology professors who have just invented what will become the modern lie-detector. They have hired grad student Olive (Bella Heathcote) as an assistant and, after some blatant flirting, both Bill and Elizabeth fall for her, deciding to create a three-way relationship. As they work on the details of how they will live together, Bill conceives a comic book hero who will help preach a message of female empowerment, inspired by both Elizabeth and Olive. And he infuses the comics with sadomasochistic imagery to make his point. Publishers are shocked by this, but one (Oliver Platt) gives the new character a shot. And Wonder Woman outsells Superman.

The story is told in flashbacks as Bill defends his work in the mid-1940s to a representative of the Catholic decency league (Connie Britton), who of course hates the comics’ feminist ideas and sexualised imagery. She has no idea about Bill’s three-way relationship, or the fact that he fathered two children with each woman. Writer-director Angela Robinson (The L Word) uses this cross-cutting structure to develop some tension between Bill, Elizabeth and Olive that feels more cinematic than realistic. But the three actors keep the characters remarkably grounded, with a brainy and open-minded approach to their life together. Evans is superb in the central role, while Hall shines as the prickly Elizabeth, who wants to be liberal but can’t control her jealous impulses. By comparison, Heathcote’s Olive feels rather passive, even though she has moments of steely energy.

Through all of this, there are powerful currents of emotion that bring the people and situations to vivid life. Robinson’s central point seems to be that it’s important to avoid being distracted by sensational details, causing us to miss the important elements of a story. The key question is whether anything is actually “normal”. And along with an eye-opening exploration of how this important, iconic comic book superhero was created, this is a powerful depiction of how society fears outsiders who bring big ideas that can change the world.