Unchaining Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women did not enjoy box office success.  Making less than a million dollars its opening weekend, its debut was one of the worst ever by a film that received wide release.  A week after its debut, my local theater limited the film to a single daily showing at lunchtime so that it could free up its screen for more popular films.   As the purported story of William Moulton Marston and the creation of Wonder Woman, it should have interest to comic book fans and historians alike.  Below I examine Professor Marston's performance in capturing history, in exploring the character of Wonder Woman, and in succeeding as a film.  Spoilers, of course, below.

As History

It's an unfortunate truth that Hollywood is hell on history, whether it's A Beautiful Mind ignoring whole aspects of its featured characters, Lincoln playing fast and loose with the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment or Hidden Figures giving its stars experiences they never had in real life.  And let's not even go there with ArgoProfessor Marston is no different.

It does feature a kick-ass portrait of Superman, so there's that.
Marston's granddaughter has gone on record saying that it falsely portrays the relationship of her mother and Olive Byrne as one of romantic love when in reality they were more sisterly.  The invention of the polygraph occurs far later than Marston's actual work on the systolic blood pressure test for lie detection and ignores completely the role of John Larson in actually inventing the modern polygraph.  Its depiction of the invention of Wonder Woman is largely inaccurate and completely omits artist H.G. Peter's role in the development of the character.  The end-of-film screen text inaccurately portrays the fate of Wonder Woman after Marston's death, ignoring the twenty years that stretch between his final Wonder Woman story and the beginning of the era in which she was depowered, instead portraying it as some sort of punishment or reaction to his unconventional beliefs.

With every major thread of the movie flawed by historical inaccuracy, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women can hardly be confused with a historical documentary.  If you want true history, I recommend instead opening a copy of The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore.  However, as the films listed above demonstrate, one does not need to commit to accurately portraying history to create a worthwhile movie.

As Treatise on Wonder Woman

 According to the film, Marston worked out
his sexual fantasies in his comics.
In a way, the movie turns Wonder Woman into a slave of the predilections of her inventor.  Nearly every aspect of the Wonder Woman legend is called out in relation to some aspect of the Marstons' sex lives.  Her costume is introduced as an outfit Olive dons in a bondage and sex club.  Her lasso derives from the triad's bondage play, while her bracelets come from the bracelets Olive wears the first night William and Elizabeth have sex with her.   Steve Trevor as a military man and Diana Prince's initial appearances as his nurse are treated as echoes of the costumes the Marstons would don during sexual role play.  The only truly innocent aspects of her legend in the film are her invisible plane (inspired by a glass biplane Charles is given by Elizabeth and Olive) and the truth-telling power of her lasso (inspired by the Marstons' invention of the lie detector).

This might have been the nicest WW was treated in the film.
This is not to say that Wonder Woman's origins should be completely chaste.  But by coupling every aspect of her character with some scene involving the Marstons' sexcapades, the film reduces the character to a walking fetish.   For all of Marston's talk about the importance of submission and its role in Wonder Woman's adventures, the film visually portrays her tendency to become captured and bound as echoes of the Marstons' tendencies for bondage during sex. That's disappointing, especially coming from a film that superficially expresses great respect for the character.

As a Cinematic Love Story

So after mangling history and turning the world's greatest female superhero into a fetishistic expression, does it at least stand as a piece of fictional art?  As it turns out, yes.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women presents an interesting exploration of the possibilities of multiple loves existing simultaneously and the struggles that unconventional people face in a world that seeks to preserve the conventional.  While the film could have achieved this while featuring the story of a professor living with both his wife and mistress, turning the story into one of a true romantic triad allows Professor Marston to present a far more complex emotional journey.

Throughout the film, the Marstons face the consequences of their unconventional relationship.  They lose their livelihoods.  They lose their friends.  They watch their children take the brunt of societal disdain.  The family takes hit after hit, and the Marstons have to decide whether their relationship matters enough to weather the abuse. 

1940's most conventional unconventional woman.
In this, the real star of the film is Elizabeth Marston, played with flair by Rebecca Hall.  As much as she rejects conventional thinking about the place of women in society, demanding credit for her role in the Marstons' research and railing about the injustice of Harvard refusing to confer her degree because she's a woman, Elizabeth struggles both with her feelings for Olive as well as the triad's place in 1940s America.  As a result, the Marstons face both external and internal conflict, turning what might have been a run of the mill treatise on the closed-mindedness of society into a far more textured exploration of how societal norms are enforced psychologically.  Hall makes Elizabeth's internal turmoil palpable, and if anyone from this film finds their way onto an Oscar ballot, it will surely be her.  Hall's performance in the climactic scene in which William and Elizabeth literally beg for Olive to return to them should be the clip presented to Oscar voters, as it is powerful and raw with emotion.

I cannot recommend Professor Marston and the Wonder Women for someone only looking for a story of Wonder Woman and her creator, because the film diverges so much from historical accuracy and literary fidelity as to be useless in that endeavor.  However, if you want to see an unconventional love story that is well-acted and well-paced, the movie would be worth your while.

JL Franke is a fan of both hard science fiction and hard fantasy.  He has been collecting comics for over 40 years and has been an on-and-off active member of online fandom for 25.  Those interested can find other writings at his personal blog, NerdlyManor.com.  When not geeking out, you may find him at a baseball park or cheering on his favorite college and pro football teams.  In his spare time, he is chief scientist for a research and development laboratory somewhere in the Washington, DC greater metropolitan area.

Unchaining Professor Marston and the Wonder Women Unchaining Professor Marston and the Wonder Women Reviewed by JL Franke on Thursday, November 02, 2017 Rating: 5
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