A young boy, trailing his Radio Flyer down the sidewalk behind him, goes door to door collecting comics. But he is neither superfan nor traveling salesman. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women opens with a book burning demonstration after the most successful female superhero comic has been maligned by its self-righteous critics for its representation of kink, including depictions of bondage and lesbianism. The biopic makes use of dual timelines and dueling abstractions (good/evil, dominance/submission) in its uncensored exploration of Wonder Woman’s unconventional origin story, far beyond the shores of Themyscira.
During the 1930s, Dr. William Marston (Luke Evans, “Beauty and the Beast”) and his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall, “The Gift”), another psychology doctoral candidate if only Harvard would award her the degree, are teaching and conducting research at Radcliffe College. Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote, “The Neon Demon”), their intellectually engaged (and engaged to be married) student, signs on as assistant, test subject, and eventual lover, a notion first induced by Elizabeth as both a warning and apparent encouragement. These introductory scenes are strangely paced and didactic. The speech is too modern for the period. The psychoanalysis is too on the nose. Through Professor Marston’s lectures on emotional deception and his acrostic DISC (“Dominance, Inducement, Submission, Compliance”) Theory, which he literally spells out on the classroom’s chalkboard, the film circulates its syllabus to the class. Containing its own critical apparatus within the framework of the narrative, the film essentially instructs the audience how to interpret the ideas and symbols, rather than empowering the ideas to stand on their own.
Following his expulsion from academia, Marston mined his secretive personal life for inspiration in imagining the character of “Suprema, the Wonder Woman” (later truncated to just “Wonder Woman” by M.C. Gaines [Oliver Platt, “The Oranges”]). She was a composite of the two loves of his life and together, they comprised the perfect woman. This insistence on perfection — and the claim that it takes two women to achieve this ideal — is a patriarchal narrative. Early on, it is made clear that Olive will serve as the vision for Wonder Woman. She is loving, pure of heart, guileless, a staunch defender of truth and justice, descended from iconic feminists, including Margaret Sanger (her aunt), and, almost to a comic effect, never without her pair of oversized silver bracelets. Another throughline is the superhero trope of secret identities. Marston pens the comic under a pseudonym so as to not tarnish his name in academic and professional circles. The supremely overqualified Elizabeth takes a job as a secretary à la Diana Prince hiding in plain sight as Steve Trevor’s secretary. Olive inhabits the role of mistress and homemaker. For all their talk of leading an unconventional life, theirs must be a familiar familial dynamic. They are the women behind the man, bending their will to accommodate his.
This threesome is credited with inventing the first lie detector prototype, a not so subtle nod to Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth. During the initial test, Elizabeth bungles the interrogation with queries that do not compel lies meaningful enough to raise the subject’s heart rate, begging the question: What is worth lying about? What secrets must be protected? Can the self-censored ever be truly free? A great many things are prohibited during this time. Professor Marston and his wonder women hide their liquor in Erlenmeyer flasks. They are bound by the confines of society, cultural norms, love and expectation. The film draws on parallels between Marston’s interest in BDSM and the depiction of bondage in the comic, which was intended to signify the the ties of patriarchy. The characters and, in turn, Wonder Woman resisted these physical constraints by defying convention and refusing to conform. Years later, under interrogation from the director of the Child Study Association of America (Connie Britton, “Beatriz at Dinner”), Marston must defend his dominant superheroine against moralistic censors calling for her compliance with standards and practices.
Comic books rely on imagery and sparse speech bubbles to provide context and move the story forward, and as such, encourage the reader to look beyond the symbols and read between the lines. Film — with even more weapons in its arsenal — also relies on subtlety and subtext in storytelling. And this one is best during the scenes in which the characters do not speak. Obviously, I am not one to silence feminist voices or condone censorship. However, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is at its most interesting — emotionally and cinematically — when allowing the characters to feel and react rather than engage in overwrought conversations about said feelings. The two most important instances of dominant symbolism being the initial polyamorous coupling of the titular threesome and the climactic reveal of Olive in full Wonder Woman regalia. The former, set to Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” and staged in a theater, culminates with a visual slightly reminiscent to that of the nonconsensual monthly ritual in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” but instead featuring female desire and consent at its core. As evidenced by the film’s most iconic scene, when Elizabeth and Olive both submit to the idea, the symbolism is most powerful when left to do the talking.
In the end, the film seems to recognize that Bill, Elizabeth and Olive are all Wonder Woman. The life they built together was Paradise Island. They believed in the power of love to protect them from the dark reality of Man’s World. But free love comes with a price. There is always the threat that Steve Trevor or a nosy neighbor will accidentally crash land and disrupt that idyllic existence.
A biopic with a psychology professor at its center would not be complete without self-reflexively pondering: “How does that make you feel?” No stranger to analysis, I feel appreciative that Professor Marston and the Wonder Women and its summer blockbuster counterpoint, “Wonder Woman, exist. I feel excited that female directors are telling stories from different perspectives. I believe that Marston (along with Elizabeth and Olive, obviously) was a feminist. He intended to create a female superhero, capable of subverting norms, while firmly grounded in her love for and desire to protect humanity from its worst instincts. But one cannot overlook the fact that he made a product of female empowerment without realizing that best way to constrain the power of a social movement is to commodify it.