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REVIEW

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

By Piers Marchant Special to the Democrat-Gazette

This article was published October 13, 2017 at 1:52 a.m.

bella-heathcote-stars-as-olive-byrne-in-professor-marston-and-the-wonder-women-an-annapurna-pictures-release

Bella Heathcote stars as Olive Byrne in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, an Annapurna Pictures release.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

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Cast: Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote, Connie Britton, Monica Giordano, JJ Feild, Chris Conroy, Alexa Havins, Oliver Platt

Director: Angela Robinson

Rating: R, for strong sexual content including brief graphic images, and language

Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes

Jerry Siegel was a shy, Jewish teenager growing up in the early '30s with his Lithuanian immigrant parents in Cleveland when his father, who owned a haberdashery, died of a heart attack after his store was robbed. Later on, teamed with high school friend Joe Shuster, the pair went on to create Superman, an ubermensch -- and an immigrant in his own right -- fighting for truth, justice and the American way, and dispatching criminals like the one who caused his father's death behind bars.

Stanley Martin Lieber, better known as Stan Lee, was born and raised in New York by his Romanian-born Jewish immigrant parents. Always industrious, he started writing for the comics in 1939, and in the early '60s, in collaboration with the Marvel stable of artists, like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, began a string of iconic comic book creations, including the ever-neurotic, problem plagued teen hero, Spider-Man, a character whose first guilt-racked lesson as a hero is that his tremendous powers come attached to enormous responsibility.

To a certain degree, the lives of the early comic-book creators almost invariably influenced their creations, but none of these writers' obsessions held a candle to the particularly odd fixations of Dr. William Moulton Marston, a Harvard-trained psychologist, who lived a fascinatingly offbeat life with his wife, Elizabeth, also a psychologist, and their live-in lover, Olive Byrne. Marston created Wonder Woman based largely on the two women with whom he spent his life, and filled his scripts with almost any excuse to explore, as an outraged civic decency inquisitor puts it, "bondage, domination, and homosexuality."

The film begins as Marston (Luke Evans) is under attack from various Christian watchdog groups, who so riled up parents against the influence of comic books that they routinely held public burnings of the copies (much to their financial loss: many of those early comics, including the first appearance of Wonder Woman in All Star Comics #8, are worth upwards of $50K-$100K now). At a hearing with the aforementioned outraged inquisitor (Connie Britton), Marston is forced to defend his creation, and the barely concealed fetishism that surrounds her, as the story of his unorthodox personal life is told in extended flashbacks.

A professor with an explicit theory of human psychology he calls DISC (Discipline, Inducement, Submission, Compliance), Marston attracts the interest of Olive (Bella Heathcote), an extremely bright, stunningly beautiful student who slowly begins to fall in love with not only him but also the brilliant, outspoken Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), as the trio come to invent an early prototype of the lie-detector machine. Eventually, things turn pan-romantic, at the cost of their teaching positions at Radcliffe, and the goodwill of nearly everyone else they meet, but they endure together as a family unit, eventually with a gaggle of their own children.

Through it all, Marston keeps trying to find ways to express his churning Id, eventually lighting on the idea of a feminist comic book character, who would indoctrinate young readers into the idea of female power and counter-subservience, while also giving him a vehicle to demonstrate his own sexual obsessions.

To give writer/director Angela Robinson credit, the film doesn't always make it easy to root for Marston. During various moments of the inquest, she cuts in actual comic book panels from his early Wonder Woman comics as if to point out just how blatant he was with his bondage-and-dominance predilections. It's amazing how many characters end up getting elaborately tied up, or forced to endure spankings, making a pretty strong case in favor of the would-be censors -- even as the film clearly sides along with the idea of free expression.

Robinson works to show the conundrums of Marston (at one point Elizabeth points out that he often hides behind the idea of scientific research as a blatant justification for his private sexual obsessions), a man who refused to patent the lie-detector device they created because in his mind "science is for the greater good" and therefore not for profit, but try as it might, the film can't seem to pierce much deeper into his psyche beyond his prurient interests.

In a sense, the story is actually more about the brilliant but frustrated Elizabeth -- a Harvard PhD. in her own right, forced to work as a secretary when their academic careers are stripped by scandal -- and her push/pull relationship with Olive, a woman she comes to absolutely adore, even as she keeps pushing her away for fear of further societal ostracizing. Or at least it wants to be that story: There are so many angles to take a story such as this, so much information to have to convey in order to capture some essence of how this highly unorthodox triad came together, you get the sense that the filmmakers felt obliged to focus on his creation against what might have made for a more interesting film.

To be sure, the strange story behind the character -- especially in light of the eventual mainstream success of Wonder Woman, up to and including the massively popular Warner Bros. film that came out this past summer -- is fascinating, but even given the racy possibilities, and the interesting psychological underpinnings, the film is oddly turgid. It moves slowly and inartfully from scene to scene, rarely finding deeper insight into what truly made the characters tick.

By the end, with her creator's health in serious decline, Wonder Woman was subjected -- as all comics came to be -- to the strict Comics Code Authority, which essentially regulated all comics into dully wholesome, inoffensive mush until the Stan Lee-led Marvel revolution more than a decade later. There Marston's creation sat, reduced to being the "secretary" for Batman, Superman, and the Justice League of America, eventually going so far as to having her superpowers stripped away from her entirely before finally getting them restored back in the '70s, as a Gloria Steinem-endorsed icon for feminism and female empowerment.

I guess it could be taken as a positive sign of societal progress that the wildly popular, modern Gal Gadot version of the character, fearless and powerful as the Amazonian-born warrior she was trained to be, is every bit the powerful hero of her Justice League compatriots. If nothing else, Marston could appreciate that aspect, even if she's no longer in such a hurry to bind her enemies into suggestively submissive poses.

MovieStyle on 10/13/2017

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