By Jim Slotek
It’s appropriate that Wonder Woman’s hugely successful big-screen debut – which gave DC a rare leg up in its comic-book-to-screen steeplechase with Marvel – was the realized vision of a woman director, Patty Jenkins.
Meanwhile, off to the side, the true story of the sexual adventurers behind the Amazonian princess is dutifully told by director Angela Robinson in the eye-opening Professor Marston & The Wonder Women. Once seen, you will never look at Wonder Woman the same way again.
That the “kink” in Diana Prince’s DNA is such a revelation speaks to the moral cleansing the iconic super-heroine received in the ‘50s (as did the entire comic book world with the Senate Committee hearings and subsequent self-policing of the Comics Code Authority).
But during the time she was fighting Hitler, Wonder Woman’s adventures were conspicuously loaded with imagery of characters, particularly women, being detained by ropes and such (including WW’s magic lasso, which forced detainees to tell the truth).
As recounted in Professor Marston & The Wonder Women, the character was created by one William Marston (Luke Evans), a psychology professor at Harvard with unorthodox theories about the role of dominance and submission in human interaction (and whose class attracts inordinate numbers of women). His arguably more brilliant wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) acts as his assistant, though she’s fully deserving of a professorship of her own (she is the driving force behind the Marstons’ other great invention, the lie detector).
A couple ahead of their time, they drink illegal liquor (from a lab beaker) and indulge themselves sexually wherever they see fit. Into their lives arrives a girl-next-door type, Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), whose eagerness to assist the professor in his work leads Elizabeth to bluntly demand, “please don’t f--- my husband,” as a term of acceptance.
The attraction, however, is not that simple. Over time (and the objections of Olive’s fiancé and other parties), the three enter a truly polyamorous relationship, one that would result in children and a double-life that involved passing themselves off as a mildly complicated all-American family.
Society’s opprobrium hovers over the narrative in the form of an investigation whose progress is dotted through the movie. An older, frailer William is interrogated by a woman (Connie Britton) representing a powerful family values organization, concerned with Wonder Woman’s representations of “bondage, spanking, homosexuality, and other perversions.”
It takes a while for our threesome to actually find their way to that point. Olive’s love of both William and Elizabeth is straightforward and uncomplicated (except, of course, by the university, which eventually fires both Marstons).
But the gradual entry of bondage into their consciousness starts with a bit of professional research, in which they spy on a spank-filled sorority initiation, and leads to a below-the-radar scene where burlesque costumes and bondage dovetail. There, we see actual costumes that presage the outfit Wonder Woman would end up wearing.
Robinson (Herbie: Fully Loaded) is not exactly David Lynch. Some would see her depiction of the Marstons as conventional even mundane, certainly not wildly-titillating, with era-appropriate songs and uncomplicated cinematography. The effect, however, is to “normalize,” in a Norman Rockwell way, the experience of these three. We are not tagging along with miscreants, but with a family. The characters tend to fall into easy roles – particularly Olive and Elizabeth, good-girl and “lovable bitch” – that were undoubtedly more complicated in real life.
Meanwhile, Evans (who comes off in this movie like a less-creepy Michael Shannon), imbues William with an almost moralistic zeal about his “immorality.” It’s no small feat turning an unconventional lifestyle (in the ‘30s and ‘40s no less), and then translating it into outsider-art that somehow becomes hugely, commercially successful.
Professor Marston & The Wonder Women makes for a perfect double bill with the Gal Gadot blockbuster. In fact, it would be a shame for an adult to see one without the other.
Professor Marston & The Wonder Women. Written and directed by Angela Robinson. Starring Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall and Bella Heathcote. Opens Friday, October 13 in Toronto at the Cineplexes Varsity, Queensway, Empress Walk, Eglinton Towne Centre and Winston Churchill, and in other Canadian cities.