Sporting the worst title of the year, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women will need a miracle to lure an audience big enough to pay for the popcorn concession. This is a shame, because it’s a fascinating and honest attempt to tell a lurid story with a minimum of kink—the story about the little-known threesome between the man who created the “Wonder Woman” comic books and the wife and mistress who influenced him, together and separately, in and out of bed. It’s quite a story and a cinematic task writer-director Angela Robinson is not always up to. But I wasn’t bored, and in this anemic year that’s saying a mouthful.
PROFESSOR MARSTON AND THE WONDER WOMEN ★★★
In 1928, the sexual revolution wasn’t even in its embryo stage when Professor William Marston (Luke Evans) was teaching advanced psychology at Radcliffe. He was sort of a genius who invented the lie detector. His wife Elizabeth (the awesome Rebecca Hall) was equally gifted, although understandably bitter and disillusioned by the bigoted groves of academe that denied her enrollment at Harvard because of her gender. As an invaluable partner in her husband’s experiments in the field of criminal and clinical psychology, she became intrigued by a smart, beautiful applicant for a position as a teaching assistant, a girl named Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote). Bella’s mother was a radical feminist writer of some renown, and her aunt was the famous Margaret Sanger. And so they hired this gorgeous, sexy creature and before long, they both seduced their willing subject and formed a sexual triangle that lasted for the rest of their lives.
The trajectory jumps back and forth in time between the 1920s, when their unconventional relationship began, and the 1940s, when Professor Marston (known to friends and fans as, simply, Bill) was being investigated as a criminal degenerate for the blatant sex and violence in the “Wonder Woman” comics, which he invented under the pseudonym “Charles Moulton.” The indiscretion of his lifelong menage a trois came close to ruining his career. Olive was pregnant, Bill was fired, Elizabeth was left with no tangible means of support. To make money, the former Professor Marston defied public morals and even the law, becoming an early promoter of pornography as art. Like Alfred Kinsey, the zealous sex researcher who extended his feverish sexual experiments to include staff members, Marston engaged both Elizabeth and Olive to engage in every kind of Kama Sutra, and finally made his fortune by combining their personalities into the character of the world’s first female superhero. The more rubicund and shocking their private lives plunged, the more fodder for Wonder Woman, not to mention the more it fed the public’s secret appetite for sex, violence, torture and sado-masochism—qualities that never seem to fade. And so the film becomes a curious gauge of the continuing popularity of Wonder Woman and the feminist movement’s appreciation of her empowerment.
Although it often appears too clumsy for its own good and lacks the imagination of its free-thinking protagonists, the film is not dull. The sexual experiments are graphic. And the three leads are marvelous. From the photos in the end credits, Professor Marsdon was hardly a hunk cut from the same kind of beefcake as Luke Evans, who plays the part like a Playgirl centerfold who can act. And Rebecca Hall continues to be one of the most singularly exciting and resourceful actors in films. The daughter of recently deceased British theater legend Sir Peter Hall, she’s a one-woman revelation of emotional nuances—anxious, conflicted, warmly dazzling, neurotic, intelligent, controlling—with an unusually expressive face capable of showing them all in a single scene.
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women covers the dangers of censorship, the struggles of the growing “family” to survive in the face of disgust and disgrace, and the internecine forces that disrupted the lives of their children, who learned to regard both of the professor’s women as two mothers instead of one. Something must have worked, because after Bill’s death, Elizabeth and Olive continued to live together as lovers, united in raising their kids under one roof. How they resolved a social predicament of their own creation seemed controversial and unconventional at the time, but in retrospect, nothing they did seems unusual or immoral today. The message is that in their own way they were pioneers, not provocateurs, who paved the way for the sexual revolution as much as Gloria Steinem or Mickey Spillane.