The recent Wonder Woman put the pioneering feminism of its heroine on full display. But did you know the character was conceived from a bisexual S&M fantasy?
That’s the primary takeaway from Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, a mildly intriguing true-life origin story that’s more than just a simple making-of featurette but unlikely to achieve the same blockbuster status. The period drama seems overall too polished and safe, considering the scandalous and provocative subject matter.
It follows William Marston (Luke Evans) a psychologist and New England college professor during the 1920s who helped develop technology for the lie-detector test among his other innovations.
His theories about relationships and personalities involve studying inducement and submission, which he saw as a method of empowerment and challenging traditional female archetypes. Marston subsequently starts a polyamorous sexual relationship involving one of his subjects, a student named Olive (Bella Heathcote), and his outspoken wife (Rebecca Hall).
They wind up living together and starting a family, which causes plenty of outside turmoil. Almost out of desperation, Marston decides to combine his psychological work with his views on feminist liberation in a comic book, using a pseudonym — except that early versions of Wonder Woman became notorious for their lewdness as much as they were lauded for her heroism.
The film captures the visual look of the period, even if it lacks context with regard to cultural and social norms. There’s talk of perversion and public outrage but little supporting evidence.
The three primary actors help to elevate the material. Yet it’s unfortunate that director Angela Robinson (Herbie: Fully Loaded), who also wrote the screenplay, doesn’t exhibit the same level of subversive audacity as her subjects.
Instead, we’re mostly left with a sentimental melodrama — with some moderate laughs sprinkled throughout — about three emotionally fragile characters whose courage might be admirable, but whose behavior seems more reckless and self-destructive than sympathetic.
Although Marston’s inspiration is clear, some of the moral complexity becomes muddled in the process. For example, were his motives desperately opportunistic or a genuine attempt to redefine mainstream sexual politics?
At any rate, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is best in its more playful moments, rather than those trying to position its protagonist as the real superhero for his progressive stance on gender roles. In this case, fiction is preferable to fact.