Earlier this year the big-screen adaptation of Wonder Woman took over cineplexes, capturing a worldwide gross of over $816 million. It took decades for her to reach the big screen, while the superhero genre stayed the preserve of male heroes. The movie misfires of Catwoman and Electra early in the 2000s didn’t help. But finally Wonder Woman made it onto the screen in all her Amazon glory. And now, with Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, we have a decidedly-adult companion piece that looks at the creation of this remarkable character, an icon of the Feminist movement.
The story is told in flashback as Wonder Woman’s creator, William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans), is interrogated by Josette Frank (Connie Britton), a crusader for decency in children’s literature and the executive director of the Child Study Association of America1. The story jumps back to Marston and his wife, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), teaching psychology2 at Radcliffe in the 1920s while they try to perfect Marston’s idea, a machine that can detect lies. They take on a teaching assistant, Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), though Elizabeth worries that Marston will fall in love with the young and beautiful Olive. He does, but Olive confesses that she’s more interested in Elizabeth. Their living together causes a scandal, which they eventually cover by moving to Rye, NY and telling neighbors that Olive is Marston’s widowed sister-in-law. Marston hadn’t patented the research that led to the lie detector, but eventually his life with Elizabeth and Olive leads him to create Wonder Woman3.
Writer/Director Angela Robinson presents a fictionalized though compelling look inside the unconventional family that led to the creation of the first female superhero4. Marston has a four-point theory of interpersonal relationships, which Robinson uses to frame the story. She handles the growing attraction and conflict between the three principle characters with tenderness that makes it understandable to the audience, leading to the climactic moment when their feelings are consummated. Cinematographer Bryce Fortner infuses the flashback scenes with rich Technicolor tones that glow, but for the Josette Frank scenes the screen is dull light with blues and browns.
The interplay of the three main characters is crucial to making the story work, and Robinson is well-served by her cast. Evans had a major success earlier this year as Gaston in Beauty and the Beast after roles in both the Hobbit and Fast and Furious franchises. Here he shows much more sensitivity, as well as presenting Marston’s fascination with bondage in a way the character doesn’t fully understand. The role of Elizabeth is Rebecca Hall’s best role since her breakout in 2010’s The Town. She embodies the frustration of a powerful intellect metaphorically chained and imprisoned by men’s attitudes. It makes her rejection of societal norms not just understandable but inevitable. On the other side, Bella Heathcote’s Olive struggles against the privilege given her by her physical beauty – a struggle for depth against the expectations of superficiality.
Britton is an iceberg of righteousness sent to sink anyone who sets a course outside the norm. It’s a restrained role, but she also lands some telling blows in her dialogue with Marston. Oliver Platt has a small but delightful role as M.C. Gaines5 who effectively started the superhero comic book when he published Superman, followed by Batman a year later.
“Based on a true story” often means that everything except the names have been changed, and much of Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is more “based on” than “true story.” But the feel of the central story of their unconventional relationship6 rings true, a relationship that created Wonder Woman. It may have taken over 70 years for her to fully take her place in the pantheon of superheroes7 but now she has. With the campaign against harassment coming front and center in the nation’s dialogue now, perhaps part of it is women claiming the spirit of an unconventional heroine with an unconventional origin.
- Josette Frank was a renowned editor of children’s books. The Children’s Book Award, given out since 1943, was renamed in 1997 in her honor. Frank was on the DC Comics advisory board and did, in 1943, speak out against Wonder Woman, but Robinson has used her in the movie as a stand-in for psychologist Frederic Wertham, who in the 1950s wrote Seduction of the Innocent about the effect of comics on the youth of that day. Wertham’s writings led to the imposition of a new code by the Comics Magazine Association of America: “All scenes of horror, excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, sadism, masochism shall not be permitted.”Wertham put Wonder Woman at the top of his list of objectionable comics. Early in the film we see children collecting comics that they eventually burn, but that didn’t happen until Wertham began his campaign against comic books. In 1943, in the middle of WWII, comic books would have been donated to paper drives for the war effort, but never wasted in burnings, especially with the fresh memory of Nazi book burnings before the war.
- Elizabeth gets shortchanged in the script – she was a lawyer as well as a psychologist, lectured at American and New York Universities, was an editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica and McCall’s, and assistant to the chief executive of Metropolitan Life Insurance.
- Much of Wonder Woman’s iconography is shown in their lives. The golden rope that forces people to tell the truth is the lie detector machine, and Marston is given a glass airplane as a gift that becomes Wonder Woman’s invisible plane. Through their lives together, Olive Byrne could never wear a wedding ring, so she instead wore golden bracelets on her wrists.
- While a substantial portion of the movie shows Marston’s developing interest in bondage, which also draws in Elizabeth and Olive, Robinson ignores how bondage was the common visual and physical embodiment of the suffragette and family planning movements. Articles often had illustrations showing women in chains, and a suffragette in England chained herself to the railing at 10 Downing Street during the fight for the vote.
- Maxwell Charles Gaines figured out the format of comic books in 1933 while working as a salesman for Eastern Color Printing. He later co-founded All American Publications (which eventually became DC Comics) as well as EC Comics. The movie has Marston seeking out Gaines to sell his creation, but in fact Gaines asked Marston to be a consultant after his comics first began to receive pushback from societal watchdogs. He’d read a profile of Marston published in Family Circle magazine that was written by Olive Byrne under a pseudonym. After Gaines’s death in 1947, EC Comics was taken over by his 25-year-old son William. The company was effectively driven out of business by Frederic Wertham’s crusade, but William emerged after that as the publisher of Mad Magazine.
- The relationship between Marston, Elizabeth, and Olive lasted for their lives. Elizabeth and Olive each had two children with Marston. It wasn’t until the 1960s, when Olive’s children were middle-aged that Elizabeth finally told them that Marston was their father, on the condition they never ask her about it again.
- The history of Wonder Woman after Marston mirrors the social attitudes of the country. She’s been in print except for a short period in the 1980s, but she got pushed down into a secondary place in the later 1940s and 1950s. When she joined the Justice Society (the precursor of the Justice League), she was the group’s secretary. Her powers kept being taken from her by writers and editors, and her origin (formed of clay and given life by Zeus) was changed to a conventional one. By the 1960s she was more of a secret agent than a superhero. But then Gloria Steinem reclaimed her as a symbol of empowerment by putting her on the cover of the first edition of Ms. Magazine, with the tag line “Wonder Woman for President.” Her powers were restored in the comics, and the TV series with Linda Carter cemented her superhero status again. With Gal Gadot’s performance, it should never be in question again.