“We need 50% less kink!”
This weekend’s October Countdown takes us away from horror, as we consider two recent films of interest to genre aficionados. Blade Runner 2049 is the big SF release this October (reviewed by W. Blaine), but Professor Marston and the Wonder Women also found its way into theatres.
The fictionalized biopic gives us the story– or, at least, a story– behind Wonder Woman, her creator, and his wives.
Title: Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
Written and directed by Angela Robinson
Luke Evans as William Moulton Marston
Rebecca Hall as Elizabeth Holloway Marston
Bella Heathcote as Olive Byrne
Oliver Platt as M.C. Gaines
Connie Britton as Josette Frank
Monica Giordano as Mary
JJ Feild as Charles Guyette
Chris Conroy as Brant Gregory
Maggie Castle as Dorothy Roubicek
Alexa Havins as Molly Stewart
Sharon Kubo as Kate
Allie Gallerani as Sara
Christopher Jon Gombos as Fred Stewart
Stacy Fischer as Linda
Ken Cheeseman as Dean Liddy
Tom Kemp as Harry Peter
Abigail Wurster as Radcliffe Sorority Pledge
Jessica Rockwood as Bondage Class Student
William Moulton Marston and Elizabeth Holloway invent the lie detector (sort of)1, seduce a student, take on a third partner, lose their jobs, find depth in pop culture, and scandalize the neighbours. Marston’s most lasting contribution to our world, however, isn’t his psychological research or his advocacy for feminism and polyamory, but his creation of Wonder Woman, and the film explores the superhero’s origins in her creator’s private lives.
Much like the DC Cinematic Universe, this film comes alive when Wonder Woman arrives. The meeting between Marston and Max Gaines is fictionalized2, but I laughed aloud, as two conflicting personalities find common ground in a bizarre but iconic super-female.
Throughout, Rebecca Hall as Elizabeth Holloway Marston gives a strong, nuanced performance.
A biopic finds a center. In a shocking development, this one chose sex. I don’t have a problem with that, per se. But we don’t know the truth about the Marston househould (see “Overall”), and this movie treats speculation as fact.
As for Wonder Woman, herself: even in Marston’s era, she was far more than the much-discussed bondage scenes and sexual overtones. They were present, but less often than this film and the comic’s critics suggest. The comic promoted female athleticism, for example, and stressed a number of positive values. Overemphasizing the sexual side and treating it positively seems only somewhat more enlightened than overemphasizing the sexual side and demonizing it. Marston and the Wonder Women were about many things.
Originality: 2/6 These people were true originals—more than a little odd—but the biopic follows an overly familiar format. We hear the story mostly through flashbacks during an interview with Marston. The development of a relationship and family, the connections between the protagonist’s life and pop-art, and the obvious story beats echo a thousand other movies depicting far more ordinary lives.
Effects: 2/6: We have no effects film here, but Professor Marston and the Wonder Women contains some interesting visuals, as the film exposes the supposed origins of the Amazing Amazon’s costume in the threesome’s interest in fetish gear.
Acting: 5/6 The acting is generally good; Rebecca Hall as Elizabeth Holloway Marston is great.
Production: 6/6 The film has excellent production values. The various historical periods look both accurate and lived-in.
Emotional Response: 4/6 I’m relieved the threesome’s sexual experimentation comes across as normal, but the scenes lack passion. Fortunately, they have a goofy joyousness that makes some amends. A key moment, where the Marstons arrange to view a creepy sorority ritual, clearly intends to be voyeuristic. It also intends to be more, but the voyeurism overshadows everything else.
Overall: 5/6 The best historical and biographical dramas must shape their source material, of course. It clearly conflates events that occurred years apart, such as the early complaints about Wonder Woman and the later comic-book-burnings, which started after Marston’s death. The film barely acknowledges World War II. Hitler exists mainly as one of Wonder Woman’s adversaries. There’s a sense of unreality about the depiction.
The movie assumes they threesome shared a bed, but we simply do not know if this is true. They shared a house. Marston fathered children with both women. The legal couple went to work while Byrne fulfilled the traditional “wife and mother” role. The women remained together after Marston died. But they never discussed their sex life, and we do not know if the women were involved sexually or if they participated in BDSM, notions the film explores in detail. Tellingly, the threesome’s descendants neither participated in nor endorsed the movie.
In a 2014 interview with the Smithsonian, Byrne Marston, a son of William Moulton Marston and Olive Byrne, expressed his belief that his father saw the bondage elements metaphorically. “I never saw anything like that in our house,” he said. “He didn’t tie the ladies up to the bedpost. He’d never have gotten away with it.”3
In the end, we have a pretty good film with a pretty poor claim of having lassoed the truth.
In total, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women receives 29/42
1. It’s more strictly correct to say that Marston modified an existing invention to make it useful.
2. The idea of Professor Marston just wandering into the rundown digs that were the early DC offices hits the right comic note, but that’s not what happened. Gaines hired him as a consultant after reading some comic-positive articles Marston wrote for the popular press. Marston later proposed Wonder Woman, and Gaines– true to character– gambled.
3. Quoted in Jill Lepore,”The Surprising Origin Story of Wonder Woman.” Smithsonian Magazine, October 2014. Smithsonian.com.
XX (2017) (JD)
Oct.14: Non-Horror Double Feature:
Blade Runner2049 (2017) (W. Blaine)
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017) (JD)
Oct.21: Hellsing Ultimate (2006-2012) (Alex)
Oct.28: Hammer Horror Double-feature:
City of the Dead(1960) and The Devil’s Own (1966) (JD)
Oct. 31: Get Out (2017) (Brian)