“Bill, we love you, truly, but nobody — and I say this with all the compassion and truth in my heart — nobody will ever publish this.”
— Elizabeth Marston (Rebecca Hall).
Standing in the multiplex, I felt I pretty much knew how the latest action, comedy, and horror entries would go, when I saw Professor Marston and the Wonder Women on the marquee. Somebody had to create Wonder Woman, but how much dramatic fuel could there be in writing a comic book?
As it turns out, more than I imagined.
I knew the bare essentials of William Moulton Marston’s contribution to the literary world, that he was a psychology professor who pioneered the technology of the polygraph — although it seems to have been his wife, Elizabeth, who made some of the most essential contributions — and that he created the Wonder Woman character out of his belief that women were essentially more powerful than men, in intelligence and character if not in muscle. I never considered him more than a historical footnote, but, in director Angela Robinson’s biopic, Marston (Luke Evans) and the two women in his life, wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) and graduate student Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) become vibrant personalities whose lives, as much as Marston’s comics work, have slowly changed the world.
Marston, an early advocate of “free love,” lived in a ménage à trois with wife Elizabeth and Olive, the woman they both loved, had multiple children with both women, and stayed faithful to the complex relationship even during times when it became personally and professionally disadvantageous to do so. Robinson details the growth of the unconventional relationship and its toll on all three, especially as Marston’s interest in erotic exploration turns to bondage and role-playing. As it turns out, Wonder Woman’s crime-fighting costume has its origin in burlesque outfits worn by the Marstons, and her “golden lariat of truth” in bondage games in which Marston believed the players would reveal their innermost selves. No wonder, after his death, DC Comics minimized the erotic aspects of Marston’s creation. Most of the film’s narrative appears to be accurate, although there are blatant moments I have to question, such as a scene wherein Marston plays with a transparent toy airplane, obviously predicting what would eventually become Diana’s famed “invisible jet,” an element I will be happy if the DCU doesn’t introduce into their films.
At the risk of being spoilery, the aspect of Robinson’s direction that I enjoyed most is the chronological structure of the film, as the older Marston is interrogated by a puritan tribunal determined to destroy Wonder Woman. Whenever the chairwoman (Connie Britton) asks a probing question about the true nature of Wonder Woman, Marston’s thoughts drift back to a seminal moment in his relationship with the two powerful women he loves and how it influenced Diana Prince’s genesis. Sometimes such nonlinear storytelling bothers me; here it’s appropriate and intriguing.
Evans is fine in his role — might even be his best thus far — as is Heathcote, but Hall (best known for 2006’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona), as Marston’s wife Elizabeth, runs away with the movie in a performance that might be characterized as not unlike a bawdy Katherine Hepburn. Even though it’s Olive whom we see in the burlesque outfit that would eventually become Wonder Woman’s supersuit, there’s no question that it’s Elizabeth’s iron will which established Diana Prince’s character, and which arguably served as the literary matriarch for every female superhero or action star since. Watch also for a delightful bit role by Oliver Platt as comics godfather Max Gaines, whom I might initially have thought would be a better subject for a biopic.
In a year when the boxoffice was dominated — yes, that’s a double entendre — by his often reviled creation, it’s too bad Marston couldn’t have seen Wonder Woman, although he’d likely have been saddened that women, as well as those into alternative lifestyles, may have to fight their battles for social acceptance and equality all over again.