Review: PROFESSOR MARSTON AND THE WONDER WOMEN

There are two Wonder Woman movies this year. They're both pretty danged great.

professor marston & the wonder women

If you find the following subjects offensive, do not watch Professor Marston and the Wonder Women:  threesomes, bondage, extramarital relations, and/or relationships between professors and students. If you think the only way to depict those subjects is to be lurid, lewd, or prurient, you should probably also skip PMatWW.  For everyone else, it’s a Hollywood biopic about three very interesting characters essential to the creation of Wonder Woman.  If you don’t want any spoilers about the plot or characters, you should just take my word and watch the movie. For everyone else, read on.

I’ve been weirdly obsessed with the story of the creation of Wonder Woman since I saw Comic Book Confidential when I was a teenager. The character originally had super strength, but lost her powers when she was tied up by a man. She carried and used a number of weird magic items including a lasso of truth, bullet reflective bracelets, and an invisible jet. By the time I was around, she no longer had super strength, but I was fascinated by this other version of the character, and the fact that the character was invented by someone who had two wives and was into bondage sex.

The film goes into more detail, explaining his psychological theories (he was a Ph.D. in psychology) and elaborating on his home life. His wife Elizabeth, was also a brilliant scientist, didn’t get her Ph.D. because she refused to accept it from anybody less august than Harvard, as opposed to the womens’ college, Radcliffe.

The other woman in Marston’s life is Olive Byrne, played by Bella Heathcote, a young ingénue who falls in love with both professors Marston. Heathcote’s portrayal of Byrne is solid. Byrne meets the couple by agreeing to be a research subject for an experiment creating a mechanical lie detector.1  Byrne portrays a character who goes from guileless, fragile, and easily intimidated to a character who stands courageously for herself to live life on her own terms. It’s a great transformation supported by an equally great performance.

The acting in the film runs from superior to excellent. Luke Evans’ Marston is probably the weak link in the film, giving a performance which I’d rate as an eight on a ten point scale. He shows range and depth, but his character doesn’t really change much over the course of the story. He’s always charming and confident with just the right amount of self-depreciation. It’s a fun character to watch, and he plays it well, but were it not for the two women on either side of him, I don’t think I’d have loved the movie like I did.

Rebecca Hall turns in a stellar performance. She plays a character with a real range from ice-cold and rock hard to sensitive and afraid of being heartbroken. Even if I didn’t like the movie, I’d have been hard pressed not to love Hall’s Marston.

There’s something of a formula to biopics. You take someone who has a flaw that gets in the way of their success (drug use is popular, as is being a jerk), you depict the person failing because of that flaw, and then you have the character abandon the flaw and watch how their life just works out all of a sudden. The interesting thing about PMatWW is that William Marston never abandons anything. He’s unapologetic. He’s in love with two women who each love one another and he refuses to abandon that path even as it costs him his academic career, status, and relationships with his neighbors. That refusal to ever call the Marston’s relationship with Byrne a negative, despite the consequences to the Marstons financially and socially, is one of the strongest qualities of the film. It’s a film about a non-standard family which some people might find pervy or creepy and the film says, “Shut up, who cares what you think?” It’s great.

There are characters who face personal demons and confront them. There are characters who have those tragic qualities to overcome, but the easiest of those qualities to target isn’t the one the film goes for. As a weirdo, I appreciate that. I’ll also say that given its subject matter and content it could have been far more lurid than it was. The sexual scenes are all done artfully and with an eye firmly fixed on good taste. I suspect the goal was to make the kink seem less silly, and a second equally important goal was to sidestep the box office-poisoning NC-17 rating.

Here’s the thing about this movie. Every time you buy a movie ticket, you’re voting with your pocketbook. You’re telling a studio there’s money to be made making a movie about X. That’s a powerful thing. It’s a powerful thing I believe in. I buy a ticket to every blockbuster with a strong female lead. I don’t always watch the movie (I had no interest in Divergent and its sequels). But I buy my ticket. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is a film that has at its core two strong female leads. I would have bought a ticket just for that, but I thought this one might be worth watching, so I gave it my time.  And you know what?  I honestly liked this one.  I normally roll my eyes at biopics, but this one hooked me. I normally hate Hollywood romances, but this one hooked me.

You should vote with your dollar. But you should also check it out and get hooked, too.

  1. Did I forget to mention that the creator of Wonder Woman is also one of the co-inventors of the lie detector? Crazy, isn’t it?