Review: Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is more than anything a sweet, if unconventional, love story. A love story that lead to the creation of one of the world’s most famous and beloved female superheroes. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women isn’t an origin story, which is common for superheroes. It’s a creation story.

We meet William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) on the day in 1945 when he is defending his “Wonder Woman” comic books to Josette Frank (Connie Britton). Josette Frank is a defender of the public morals for the Catholic Church and she is not pleased by all the violence, bondage, skimpy outfits and homosexual overtones in the comic books.

Connie Britton in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
The story returns again and again to a fateful day with the judgemental morality police

This confrontation with Josette Frank is on a pivotal day in Marston’s life, and we come back to it again and again. As a storytelling choice, it was brilliant. It let the viewers in on Marston’s psychological theories about Dominance, Inducement, Submission, Compliance (DISC). Each question from Josette led him into his memories of how Wonder Woman came about. At the end of this day, the story almost spent, Marston collapses and is taken to the hospital. That leads quickly to the denouement.

Back up to 1928. Prof. Marston is a college professor in psychology. He’s working on a lie detector device with his brilliant scientist wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall). They hire a teaching assistant named Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote).

With Olive around, Elizabeth finally figures out how to make the lie detector work. They test it by asking each other who they love. Each one reveals that they love both of the other two. This is the beginning of a lifetime (well, minus a few spats) relationship between the three of them. They live together, they produce 4 children. But their lifestyle gets them fired from Harvard and they must scrabble for a living.

Bella Heathcote in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
Why, Olive, you look like a superhero to me. Eureka!

It wasn’t until 1940 that Marston pieced together parts of their unusual family arrangement into what would become “Wonder Woman.” His idea took bits from Elizabeth’s secretarial jobs, Olive’s bracelets, a glass biplane given to Bill on his birthday, their hidden lives, and a trip to a bondage store to learn knots and try on skimpy costumes. Suddenly Bill had a plan for how put his ideas about DISC into the public discourse as a comic book.

When Bill collapses at the end of his day of judgement, we learn he died just months later of cancer.

Following that fateful day in 1945, Josette Frank saw to it that “Wonder Woman” was tamed down tremendously for several decades. In 1972 Gloria Steinem put Wonder Woman on the first cover of “Ms Magazine.” Wonder Woman came surging back after that as a feminist icon, which is what Marston wanted her to be the entire time.

The acting was perfection. All of the three main characters did a superb job.

Rebecca Hall and Bella Heathcote in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
True love lasts forever

Elizabeth and Olive continued to live together for 38 years after Bill’s death. Olive died in 1985. Elizabeth lived to 100 and died in 1993.

Angela Robinson directed Professor Marston and the Wonder Women. I found the direction masterful, especially the tender and sweet exploration of love between the three main characters. Robinson also wrote the film.

I appreciated the way Robinson organized the story, the way it was edited to go through the past in chronological order while tethering the audience to 1945. The depiction of the unusual sex lives and kinky appreciation for dominance and submission that was erotic to them was never painted as dark or shameful. It was filmed in beautiful light, often daylight. The framing and composition of the sex scenes was exquisite.

Are you familiar with the @OnePerfectShot on Twitter? It showcases images of perfectly lit and framed shots from films. There were some shots in this film that felt worthy of One Perfect Shot. There was one especially during the first time the three of them had sex. They were on the floor of a stage in a college building. Toward the end of the scene it showed Bill on his back on the floor. Olive was atop him sitting upright. Elizabeth was walking around, watching them. She walked to Olive and bent down to kiss her. The curve of Elizabeth’s back and the line it created between the three of them was beautiful. Snap. One perfect shot.

There were some but not a lot more sex scenes in the film. The first one was important to the story. Once their relationship was established, there was limited need for more. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is rated R. I don’t recommend taking your six year old daughter who loves Wonder Woman to see it.

Robinson worked on the film for several years before the recent Patty Jenkins Wonder Woman film came about, but I’m sure the success of that movie contributed to the interest in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women.

The Verge published an excellent interview with Angela Robinson. She answered questions about how she saw the story, why she wanted to tell it, the sexuality the film explored and that, “Every scene in the movie kind of revolves around Dominance, Inducement, Submission, Compliance.”

This is a lovely movie about real people. I hope you go see it.

7 thoughts on “Review: Professor Marston and the Wonder Women”

  1. Hi Virginia. I came across your blog while working on an article about my grandmother, Josette Frank, and how she is portrayed in the “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” film.
    First: I really like your site. Glad you’re out there doing this; your voice is important.
    Second: I realize my grandmother wasn’t portrayed in a positive way in the film. I was struck by your reference to her as a representative of the Catholic Church — which may have been what the movie implied. Not true in any way. She was not only not Christian but very critical of all organized religion. She was a secular Jew, and quite liberal and strongly feminist. There are lots of family stories about her political/feminist activism. .
    You and your readers might be interested in this article that I wrote recently:
    Also, there’s a five-part history of her role in the comics and the controversies about them. She was pro-comics.

    1. Good to hear from you, Yereth. After I saw the film I read “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” by Jill Lepore which was a much more scholarly and accurate story of Prof. Marston. It was a fascinating story. Maybe if I’d known more of the facts before I saw the film I wouldn’t have enjoyed the film so much. Your grandmother Josette Frank wasn’t the only person who was rewritten into entertainment for a movie. I think it’s important to keep in mind that the film was “loosely based” on the real story.

      1. Hi Virginia. One more thing! The movie leaves the impression that the Child Study Association of America was some kind of right-wing church lady organization. It definitely was not. The association was later folded into the Bank Street College of Education, which is very progressive. In my grandmother’s day (and, to some degree, in Marston’s day), one of the things the CSA did was try to get children’s books to stop portraying minorities in a negative way. There were lots of letters to publishers, for example, criticizing the stereotype of the “villainous Indian.” Some of that history is described in this award-winning academic book called Learning from the Left:

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