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Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

2017 has been the year for Wonder Women.  In March Patty Jenkins marveled us with Wonder Woman, the superhero's first feature film.  This autumn hundreds of "wonder women" exposed numerous men's dirty behavior and demanded retribution.  And now with Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, director and screenwriter Angela Robinson gives us her interpretation of the backstory into the creation of this most popular female superhero.

In Professor Marston, William and Elizabeth Marston (Luke Evans and Rebecca Hall), students at Harvard and Radcliffe, develop through fits and starts a warm friendship with a teacher's aide, Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote).  Through the use of Marston's newly invented lie-detector test (yes, he did invent the precursor to the polygraph test!), the three move past social constrictions and admit to a mutual erotic love for one another.  Sex scenes, with loud background music, ensue.  The threesome is banned from Harvard when the unconventional relationship becomes public, and, as Olive is pregnant, she comes to live with the couple.  Marston works to make ends meet as a freelance writer, and Elizabeth as a secretary.  He begets three more children, two with Elizabeth and one more with Olive. 

Marston had long been fascinated with dominance and submission within relationships and between the sexes, and three experiment with bondage in their lovemaking.  Marston channels these ideas into a comic strip, and Wonder Woman is born.

Robinson tells the story of the menage a trois in flashbacks from the current scene in which Marston is answering for his Wonder Woman comics to the National League of Decency, who wants to have it banned.  Played by Connie Britton, the head of the organization asks him to explain for the numerous drawings of Wonder Woman in bondage, as well as questions the role of women in the strip.  His responses frame the central theme of the movie: Wonder Women originated in Amazon, an island exclusively made up of women, and later in life enters the world of man.  Women need to be able to flourish and become their own persons independently of men, and men in turn need to learn to become submissive in order to embrace a dominant woman.  He at one point erupts at her in fury as she questions his personal life with the line "Who are you to judge me?"

In addition to some not-so-original lines such as this one, the exaggerated Hollywood Polish--perfect lipstick, hair, and outfits, idyllic 1920s furniture and  dinner table settings--repelled rather than engrossed me.  It didn't entirely make sense, either--the numerous dresses these women wore, and expensive furniture they owned--as they were of meager means.  Also without spoiling it the movie has a very cheesy final scene.

Megan Ellison's company, Annapurna Productions, distributed the film, and it's nice to see women having clout in Hollywood and putting out content that passes the Bechtol test with flying colors.  (Or wait, now--does it?  As Olivia and Elizabeth principally discuss William.)  Heathcote and Evans create believable and enjoyable characters, and Hall shines as the bold, outspoken Elizabeth Marston.  (Really, she outshines, but we don't need to tell that to the rest of the cast.)    

Although Robinson presents her movie as a "true story", Elizabeth & Marston's granddaughter, Christie Marston, flatly denies that any sexual relationship took place between her mother and Olive, and also explains that Wonder Woman developed under different circumstances than portrayed in the movie. 

Robinson, in this interview with Vulture, explains that she deliberately never reached out to any of the Marston family when creating the film as she wanted to tell the story according to her own interpretation of the limited facts she was able to come across.

This admission from Robinson communicated a rather disingenuous attempt at creating a true story, and given that Christie knew her grandmother and Olivia intimately, it's probably more accurate to say that Professor Marston was inspired by actual events.  For example, we do know that Elizabeth and William were married and that Olivia was his mistress and that they all lived together.  The threesomes, however--hugely speculative.  And, as Robinson is active in LBGT movement, this spin betrays a "facts be damned, I have an agenda" attitude she brought to the movie's creation.        

Professor Marston isn't making a huge splash at the box office, nor in the culture in the way that Wonder Woman did earlier this year.  If you want to be engaged for an hour and 48 minutes, it will do the trick.  But if you're more interested in the life of William Marston and the actual Wonder Woman creation story, you'd be better off with Jill Lepore's '14 book The Secret History of Wonder Woman, or holding out for the movie Christie Marston hopes to create.   

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