PROFESSOR MARSTON AND THE WONDER WOMEN is a feature film based on the true story of the creator of Wonder Woman, psychologist William Moulton Marston (aka Charles Moulton), and the two women he was in a relation ship with, Elizabeth Marston and Olive Byrne. If you aren’t familiar with this story, hold onto your seats, because it is so crazy it sounds made up.
Marston was a psychologist, as was his wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston. He was a graduate student at Harvard, and his wife was one at Harvard’s sister college, Radcliffe. Eventually William Marston became a professor at Tufts University. There, one of the students in his class, Olive Byrne eventually became his research assistant and ultimately started a relationship with both William and Elizabeth. Olive moved in with the couple and both she and Elizabeth had kids with William.
Together, William and Elizabeth developed a lie detector based on monitoring changes in systolic blood pressure. It is still a component of the modern polygraph test. And the strange ties to fame don’t end there. Olive was the daughter of Ethel Byrne and niece of Margaret Sanger, famous feminists and birth control activists.
William Marston had some strange theories in the realm of psychology, namely DISC theory, which stands for Dominance. Inducement, Submission, and Compliance. That’s particularly icky when you consider that he had a relationship with his student, who he was in a position of power over. By today’s standards, this theory is just a bunch of hoo-ha, though I’m not sure it was any more accepted in 1928 when he published it.
Marston saw the power of comic books to influence the youth, so he decided to write one. But of course, he also filled the book with plenty of his nutty psychological theories, and tons of bondage — with a truth-telling lasso no less. Still, Elizabeth and Olive and their strong feminist beliefs were both big influences in the creation of Wonder Woman — it is easy to forget today what a groundbreaking thing this was in 1941. The debate hasn’t changed much in 75 years, with people still divided over whether the sexualization of Wonder Woman undermines her feminist message. It is one thing that makes this movie so timely today.
The cast of PROFESSOR MARSTON AND THE WONDER WOMEN is solid, though they aren’t extraordinarily well known. William Marston is played by Luke Evans (BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, FAST & FURIOUS 6), Elizabeth by Rebecca Hall (IRON MAN 3, VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA), and Olive by Bella Heathcote (FIFTY SHADES DARKER, THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE). Though none are from the US, all are perfectly believable as Americans. They also have enough chemistry together to be believable as all being an a relationship.
The real choices here about what to emphasize in the lives of these people belong to writer and director Angela Robinson, probably best known for directing and producing episodes of TRUE BLOOD and THE L WORD. True to her past work, she doesn’t shy away from delving into the not-so mainstream sex lives of her characters. A lesbian herself, she also captures well how they were persecuted for their nontraditional relationship, and forced to cover it up.
One downside of the film is that I think it paints Marston in a bit too glowing of a light. If he was hitting on his students (and it is implied that this wasn’t the first), how many did he drive out of the field because of his unwanted advances? Some consequences of his behavior are shown, but the movie mostly lets him off the hook and blames others for not understanding him.
Even with this drawback, PROFESSOR MARSTON AND THE WONDER WOMEN is a fascinating look at the backstory of one of the most beloved comic book characters ever created. The true story behind her origin is stranger than fiction, and presents all kinds of issues related to feminism, nontraditional relationships, sexuality, and even morality. If you’re a comic book fan, it is worth a look, but even if you aren’t there’s more than enough human drama to keep you entertained
I saw the movie at the world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, but it will be released on October 13.