Cinema Dispatch: Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

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Professor Marston and the Wonder Women and all the images you see in this review are owned by Annapurna Pictures

Directed by Angela Robinson

You know, if we’re gonna get biopics like that upcoming one about Charles Dickens that looks like a Monty Python sketch, we might as well start doing them about comic book creators too!  The early years of Marvel with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, watching Batman evolve from comic book hero to Hollywood star through the eyes of Bob Kane, heck The Alan Moore story could be a freaking twelve hour Netflix series considering how much comic book controversy he’s managed to find himself in over his career!  What we’ve got NOW though is probably the most interesting story of them all which is about Wonder Woman creator Professor William Marston and his unorthodox relationship with his wife Elizabeth Holloway and a former student of his Olive Byrne.  Heck, it’s not only a great story to tell about queer women (though there is some contention of that) in a time where that wasn’t even legal, it also has incorporates radical feminism, BDSM, and comic book scare mongering that eventually led to the Comics Code Authority in the 1950s.  With such fascinating material to work with, can it be turned into an engaging and interesting biopic, or is this a whole lot of scintillating window dressing for yet another rote history lesson?  Let’s find out!!

Our story begins in Radcliffe University (a women’s only branch of Harvard) where the brilliant psychology professor William Marston (Luke Evans) and his much more brilliant wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) are teaching psychology while working together on some other projects such as a lie detecting machine which is actually true.  They did invent the polygraph which is a significant event in this film.  Anyway, William is teaching a course on DISC theory (Dominance, Inducement, Submission, and Compliance) when one of the students catches his eye.  Her name is Olive Byrne and soon becomes a TA for the Marstons; helping them with their legitimate experiments and some that may just be for fun.  Eventually, this precarious situation between the three of them has to come to a head at some point and… well that’s where things get kind of awesome but also REALLY stressful.  Oh, and at some point the dude creates Wonder Woman off based on the experiences and he has with the two women in his life as well as his own theories on feminism and even some of his sexual hang-ups which are REALLY noticeable if you read the earliest issues of the book.  Will this trio of likeminded misfits find a place in the world that is openly hostile to them and their way of life?  What will happen when puritanical busy bodies get start to understand the radical subtext within the pages of the comic book that are becoming more and more popular with children across the country?  Wait, is THAT why Wonder Woman has a lasso!?

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“The safe word is Themyscira.”

You know, for a cinematic universe that sells itself as the GRIM AND GRITTY and even to a certain extent ARTISANAL alternative to the overly safe and profitable MCU, the DCCU just managed to get its ass handed to them on all those fronts by a low budgeted biopic that has maybe two punches thrown in its entire runtime.  I really did like this movie even though it has some BIOPIC type problems and if nothing else it not only makes me want to read Wonder Woman books (but only the ones that are as queer, feminist, and to a certain extent kinky, as Professor Marston originally intended) but to also go back and watch the Wonder Woman movie which is the only good thing to come out of the DCCU so far.  I’m not sure if I’m entirely on board with everything this movie does and how it is framed, but then again queer romance, especially ones with such a heavy emphasis on kink, really do need more representation in mainstream films and it’s got a good message at the heart of it even if the journey was a bit uneven.

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“Only about half of this makes any sense.”     “Yeah, but it’s got strong independent women and bondage!  That stuff sells itself!”

This is definitely a movie that will make people uncomfortable and I’m sure some of them will have plenty to object to which is perfectly valid, but it feels messy and complicated in the way that LIFE usually is and the subject matter at hand does have a lot of risky and emotionally damaging aspects to it if done incorrectly (or even done correctly but with the wrong person).  It’s the difference between a GOOD controversial film like The Secretary (a rather apt comparison with this film) and something like Mother! which feels like it’s shocking for the sake of shocking someone.  Movies like this are human stories about characters we learn about, relate to, and feel bad for when things go wrong for them.  Mother! on the other hand is all about its tortured metaphor and the shock violence in there manipulate its audience rather than as a natural extension of the events on screen, and for all the pretense, effort, and controversy that Aronofsky was desperately trying to create for his movie, I found this film to be wildly more compelling and a more anxious film to sit through.  Okay, maybe I’m selling the so called SHOCKING content a bit too much as physical violence and threats aren’t really in this movie and its BDSM and threesomes scenes sits comfortably at an R rating unlike The Secretary which is NC17.  It’s honestly on a much more mundane level of awkwardness and uneasiness as you can see just how much these characters want and fight for the life that they’ve built for themselves, but how society then (and even now) will always find a reason to try and tear them apart and force them into conformity.  It’s heartbreaking to watch this happen to them over and over again and it’s exhilarating to watch them find ways to make it work, at least for brief periods of time, which is what makes this movie so uncomfortably human.  Not everyone is gonna want the lifestyle that they had, but it’s hard to argue that they don’t deserve the same kind of happiness afforded to everyone and in hindsight the groundbreaking work that these three individuals did, while certainly outdated by today’s standards, are hard to argue against being genuinely forward thinking at the time and contributing in some way to the feminists movement that angry man-boys are screaming about today.

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She’s got MY vote!

Where it got a bit awkward for me, and not in the fun kind of way, was trying to figure out how much of this movie can REALLY be accurate to what actually happened between these three people.  To the film’s credit, it doesn’t shy away from the difficulties and bitterness that can accrue when trying to make a relationship like this work (even if the world wasn’t desperately trying to crush them) and the film takes a significant amount of time getting these three into a physical, trusting, and loving relationship, but there’s no denying the fact that Olive Byrne was a graduate student and William was her teacher.  There’s no denying the fact that Olive had to pretend her kids were someone else’s.  There’s no denying the fact that William spent years puttering about while one woman raised his kids and another was making money in a job they were woefully unqualified for.  Again, people’s lives are complicated and situations like this can look radically different if you look at them from slightly different angles, so I’m not trying to say that William manipulated himself into a Harem that did everything for him or that Olive was taken advantage of by a man who held a position of power over her, but it’s something worth keeping in mind when watching this movie since so much of their relationship and Marston’s work (while not ABSOLUTELY lionized) is heavily romanticized.  I LIKE that aspect of it as it unambiguously shows that a nontraditional relationship is just as valid to portray on film as straight couples have been since the inception of film, but basing it on real people… well it’s certainly an important story to tell as it puts the queer and radically feminist ideas behind one of the biggest pop culture phenomenon’s at the moment (Wonder Woman made over eight hundred million worldwide) back into the forefront of people’s minds, but it’s worth remembering that there’s really very little evidence that Olive and Elizabeth were THEMSELVES involved despite this movie focusing so heavily on that aspect.  Is it good representation if it’s potentially jumping to false conclusions about the people in it?  I don’t know the answer to that, but I can say that looking at this as its own story, I found it to be quite an enjoyable one.

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They just look so happy together!  Who would want to break that up!?

Now aside from all that, how does this movie function on a nuts and bolts level as a period piece biopic?  I’d say it’s a little better than the average, but it really is the exploration of the relationship between these three people that brings the whole thing together.  Without it, it’d still be GOOD, but would feel a lot more average in terms of pacing and structure.  We’ve got the usual biopic problems of time working in mysterious ways as the first act is heavily detailed and carefully strung together by the first phase in their relationship (the courtship of Olive Byrne), but then once they start to live together we jump a good fifteen or so years in what feels like the blink of an eye; not helped at all by the lack of aging from our three main actors.  Seriously, by the end of the movie I was certain that Olive’s son was the same age as the dude she was engaged to at the beginning of the movie yet she still looked like a college student.  Speaking of kids, how many did they have?  Was it five?  Six?  Well you certainly couldn’t tell in this movie which uses them merely as window dressing and are conveniently absent whenever a scene doesn’t call for them.  Seems like a really odd oversight for a movie about non-traditional relationships to just ignore how they raise their kids.  Did Elizabeth and Olive ever clash about methodology?  Were they treated as one big family or as two families under one roof?  Maybe addressing that would have stopped the pacing dead in its tracks, but I’m not sure if that’s all that much worse of an alternative to what we ended up getting which was… well nothing.  Despite all that though, it looks fantastic and the actors do such a phenomenal job in their roles that it does a lot to sell you on the authenticity of their relationship; even if some of it might have been fabricated for dramatic purposes.  The biggest standout for me was Rebecca Hall as Elizabeth who is witty, charming, and commands the screen whenever she’s on it.  William and Olive are fine as well with solid performances by Luke Evans and Bella Heathcote, but for me it was always her movie as she had the most charisma and honestly had the most interesting arc to watch.  Bella Heathcote might have had the more strenuous arc as she always was made to feel like an outside no matter how close she got to them which was heartbreaking to watch, but I could honestly watch Rebecca Hall read a phone book in this movie she was so engaging of a presence.  Oh, and the Wonder Woman stuff itself?  Eh… it’s really only a big deal in the third act once William comes up with the idea and even then it’s still tertiary to the plot which is fine considering how much I was enjoying the relationship stuff, but you won’t find anything to really enjoy in here if you’re JUST looking for a Wonder Woman equivalent to say An Adventure in Space and Time.  Hell, as far as I can recall HG Peter isn’t even MENTIONED in this movie despite his artwork showing up quite a bit in the third act.

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The guy CLEARLY knew where Marston was coming from which is… kind of impressive!  How many people could REALLY unbox that much baggage and faithfully render it on the page?

There’s a lot of stuff around this movie that will make it less than palatable for certain audiences (and not just the anti-LGBTQIA+ jackasses who are probably already foaming at the mouth that something like this exists) but after trying to navigate the touchy subject matter at hand, the known facts about the story their telling, and the time in which this story takes place, I can’t help but still appreciate the heck out of it for bringing to life one of the more interesting stories to come out of the early years of comic book publication.  I don’t know if the baggage will eventually outweigh the content of the film as time goes on, but for now it’s really heartfelt and enjoyable for anyone with an open mind and will hopefully speak to those who feel like outcasts right now; especially in the current social and political client.  I’d certainly recommend seeing it if you get the chance to, but totally understand if it’s not for you.  Heck, if it’s not you can still go see Battle of the Sexes!  How awesome is it that those looking for queer representation in theaters actually have OPTIONS at the moment!?

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