Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
Angela Robinson (director and writer), Bryce Fortner (cinematographer), Jeffrey M. Werner (editor)
Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote, JJ Feild, Oliver Platt, Connie Britton (cast)
September 9, 2017 (TIFF), October 13, 2017 (USA)
I met Angela Robinson, writer and director of Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman, at San Diego Comic Con. My first day at the con, at the end of a 15 hour day, I was invited to an intimate meet and greet in a speakeasy style underground bar. Of course I went–who hasn’t been anticipating this film? That Wonder Woman was such a huge hit earlier this summer is part of it. That the character’s creator was a kinky, polyamorous, Harvard psychologist is another big part of it. When Professor Marston goes into wide release, it won’t lack for audience. Who will, I think, give it a happy reception.
Beyond all else, the film is a classic, Hollywood crowd-pleaser, a melodrama that manages to be sharply funny, and edited with Oscar voters in mind. You know how you notice films throughout the year that just seem designed with awards season in mind? Benedict Cumberbatch puts on an accent in a lot of them, or Jake Gyllenhaal loses a lot of weight. Professor Marston has that same sense–it is a film with a big idea and a charming cast; a film with great dialogue, delivered just so while music swells; a film with sad things and bad things, but ultimately heart-warming. Even its score seems Oscar-y, not quite heavy-handed but always evident and carefully shaping the scene. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it get at least one nomination–but that’s not to say that I think it’s a creative success.
The film starts at Harvard, where Bill and Elizabeth Marston are teaching undergrad classes and trying to build the first lie detector. Olive Byrne is their fresh-faced student assistant. The relationship doesn’t start easy or ever really go smoothly. Elizabeth is at first hostile to Olive, thinking her a threat–to Elizabeth and Bill’s marriage, certainly, but far more importantly, to their research and to Elizabeth’s position. Where Bill is forthright in his desires–save when he, as Elizabeth succinctly puts it, hides behind science to justify the desires of “his dick”–she is more cautious. Elizabeth otherwise lands like a brick to the face, firm in her presence and always ready with a sharp remark. What she wants most, Olive says, is “to live an unconventional life.”
In many respects Elizabeth already is. She and Bill are intellectual and romantic equals, with her the more dominant partner, but she chafes within the strictures that even an educated, middle class, white woman must live within in 1940s America. She knows Harvard will never give her a doctorate, even though she’s earned it. She knows that there are certain things that Bill can dare–and he dares a lot–that she can’t. Her relationship with Olive, a much shyer personality not yet committed to unconventionality, is difficult at first but Robinson allows it to develop naturally, with all the false starts of people coming out of the closet to each other, and coming to terms with desires they’ve been taught are shameful. The film suffers, though, from isolating the three so much–even when they finally connect with other kinksters, they never do seem to find their community.Elizabeth and Olive have the most visceral and obvious connection in the film–they inspire each other; light up at the sight of each other–but it’s also the relationship Elizabeth is most apt to reject, which she does from time to time when she feels social pressures bearing down on her. As the three of them begin to explore kink, Elizabeth tries to “defend” Olive from Bill, who she sees as exploiting her. A brief sequence with Charles Guyette, the real-life “G-String King” of fetish clothing retail, who gives the three of them lessons in bondage, power exchange, and more, stands in for years of character development, taking them from vanilla to comfortable in their kink. It also acts as a waypoint in Elizabeth and Olive’s relationship, Elizabeth and Bill’s relationship, and the relationship all three share. Similarly, a later scene where the three of them reconcile after a fight is meant to be the roadmap to their entire relationship after the film.
Rebecca Hall, who plays Elizabeth, manages to convey the tremendous conflicts within Elizabeth so well that these scenes almost work. Even when Elizabeth is mean to one of her lovers we can certainly understand it. Bella Healthcote, who plays Olive, delivers a much less layered performance–and perhaps that’s part of the trouble.
Robinson gives much attention to Elizabeth and Bill’s relationship, but Bill and Olive’s relationship is glossed over. Because of Bill’s authority over Olive and because he is at times her dominant (he seems to be a switch but it’s not quite articulated in those terms), speeding through it makes it seem not just shallow but problematic at the start. They move from what seems to be primarily sexual attraction to a rock solid poly marriage (though not one they can be open about) with little development. Their relationship moves so speedily, far more so than the one all three share, that I wonder if there’s a longer cut of Professor Marston out there in which we actually get to see Bill and Olive fall in love.
That’s a problem that dogs other important aspects of the film. The later years of their relationship and Bill’s turn to writing comics rely too much on montage and quick cuts through time. Bill’s call to defend the comic to Josette Frank of the Child Study Association frames the film. While the last scene in this sequence contains Bill’s most fervent defense of their relationship, scattering these scenes throughout the film robs it of truly climactic force. Frank is a momentary antagonist, not even able to stand in for society’s disapproval of polyamory and kink as a whole. It’s also unclear what exactly these hearings are about. Are they preliminary investigations for a Senate subcommittee meeting? Are they something internal to Bill’s publisher? This is all fuzzy.
The real-life story is that Maxwell Gaines, owner of All-American, aka DC Comics, created an advisory board of experts to prove that his comics shouldn’t be targeted for censorship or investigation. Marston was on it, along with Frank. She told Gaines that Sensation Comics was full of bondage and sexual sadism and therefore inappropriate for children. He then had Sensation editor Dorothy Roubicek, who also worked on Superman, give him a frank assessment of the book. Was Wonder Woman actually about kink? She consulted with Frank and another psychologists and concluded that Wonder Woman was fine as is, bondage and all. The comic continued without any additional editorial oversight until Gaines moved to create a Wonder Woman newspaper script, also written by Marston. Sensation Comics brought on a new co-writer, Joye Hummel, who had none of Marston’s interest in kinks. Wonder Woman wasn’t challenged in the sense that Professor Marston depicts until 1954 when Fredric Wertham testified before a senate subcommittee.It’s likely that Robinson invented the conceit of the Marston-Frank exchanges because Marston himself died before the comic was challenged. But because so little time is spent on Frank or Gaines (H.G. Peter, the artist who developed Wonder Woman alongside Bill Marston, doesn’t appear in the film at all!), these moments are wholly unanchored. They don’t quite feel relevant–except in how they reveal new aspects of the characters, or serve as a platform for Bill to monologue. In Professor Marston, Wonder Woman mainly serves as a means of character development for Bill, Elizabeth, and Olive, and to function as their collective legacy. She is wholly a creation of their relationship, and their details of their real-life relationship are changed to match her. Elizabeth, for instance, is a secretary in Professor Marston, after the scandal of their relationship causes Bill and Elizabeth to lose their Harvard jobs. The real-life Elizabeth Holloway Marston was an editor, but that doesn’t neatly explain Wonder Woman’s undercover job as Diana Prince, Steve Trevor’s secretary–so it’s changed.
This is what I mean by Professor Marston being an Oscar-aimed movie. It’s based on a true story but with the details streamlined and altered enough to better fit into a particular kind of story mold. Back in July, I asked Robinson if the film would be a kind of Wonder Woman creative origin story, a biography, or a bit of both. For Robinson, the film is almost purely a love story. She’s a long time fan of the comics and had the idea of doing a biopic on Marston for ages, but once she started digging into his research and background, and learning more about Holloway-Marston and Byrne, she decided that they were the real story. But Robinson’s attempt to use Wonder Woman to further the romance falls flat. Sensation Comics, while bonkers, is somewhat less complex than Bill, Elizabeth and Olive the people, and it makes for a muddled legacy. Elizabeth and Olive, after all, had no hand in designing the character or writing the book. They are both Wonder Woman, in part, but only through Bill’s eyes.
Ultimately, I found Professor Marston and the Wonder Women disappointing, too melodramatic to be a good comedy, and too rushed to be a good period romance.