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Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Wonder Woman has never been more popular. Now more than ever, there has been overwhelming demand for a cinematic superhero to serve as a role model and inspiration for girls the world over. Feminism is huge right now, and those values were represented in a big way when Wonder Woman finally came out to booming success earlier this year.

But with all of this going on, it’s easy to forget a time just a year or two ago when pop culture at large knew virtually nothing about Wonder Woman. Sure, everyone knew her name, her image, the bullet-deflecting bracelets, and the Lasso of Truth; but relatively few in the mainstream knew much about her origin, her rogues gallery, or who Diana Prince was as a person.

Nobody liked to admit it, but the most common image of Wonder Woman in the popular mindset probably involved her tying someone up with her lasso, or getting tied up herself. And there’s a reason for that.

In point of fact, many early Wonder Woman comics showed clear depictions of bondage, sapphism, and so on. If you think that’s racy stuff now, just imagine how it was back in the 1940s. It was a far less enlightened and forgiving time, back when homosexuality was considered a crime against God and man. Comic books were under heavy suspicion for their influence on children, even ten or twenty years before “Seduction of the Innocent”.

(Side note: If you have no idea what I’m talking about, I wrote about it here some time ago.)

So here’s Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, which dramatizes the life of Dr. William Moulton Marston. In the process, the film depicts Marston’s two most famous inventions: The lie detector and Wonder Woman. More importantly, the film depicts the heavy influence of the women in Marston’s life and the fragile, taboo, crazy thing they all shared.

It perhaps bears mentioning that due to the nature of the story and everybody’s attempts at suppressing it, some details about this true story have been fudged. That said, Marston and his wife Elizabeth (respectively played by Luke Evans and Rebecca Hall) were absolutely pioneers in the newborn science of psychology. Alas, Bill is a full professor and Elizabeth is only technically an assistant. She can’t get a Ph.D. because she’s a woman, you see, though her papers are incredible and her applications practically glow.

Enter Olive Byrne, played by Bella Heathcote. She’s a student in Bill’s class who agrees to serve as an assistant and help with some of the Marstons’ work. More specifically, Bill is trying out this theory that all emotions and interpersonal connections are centered on dominance, inducement, submission, and compliance (he calls it “DISC theory”). Oh, and there’s a prototype lie detector sitting around, so maybe she can help make that work as well.

Over time, it becomes obvious that Bill and Olive are in love with each other. And while Elizabeth denies it strongly, she and Olive have clear feelings for each other as well. What the three of them have together is beautiful and based on heartfelt love, but it’s still something greatly removed from the heterosexual monogamous family unit of the conservative era between the two World Wars. So the three of them are basically trying to invent the modern polyamorous marriage, figuring out how to make it work in spite of a society determined to brand them and their children as perverted freaks.

Things start going even faster when Bill discovers pornographic material that serves as a crude yet expedient demonstration of his own psychological theories on feminism, dominance, and submission. Visual material that he adapts into a comic book to convey his concepts into a less dully academic and more easily saleable medium.

Let’s try and recap what we’ve got going on here.

As individuals, we have three people trying to build a loving and cohesive family unit. Even if it means giving into impulses that they know are beautiful, pleasurable, harmless, irresistible, and totally against any common standard of decency. As professionals, they have an obligation to learn more about the emotions and thought processes of human psychology, publishing their discoveries for the betterment of science. Which means that their methods and personal reputations must be beyond reproach. Though to be fair, Elizabeth and Olive have little to no reason to play the game if they’ll never be treated as equals no matter what they do.

Everything in this movie always comes back to how it affects these people individually, how it affects them romantically, how it affects their scientific work, and how it affects the creation of Wonder Woman. Sometimes these different purposes work together and sometimes they conflict, and it always gives us exquisite dramatic tension.

To wit: This movie involves the invention of the lie detector test. Which means that we have three characters asking each other direct questions about their love for one another. And we have a clear audio/visual cue for when they’re lying to themselves or each other. That makes for scenes that are incredibly powerful.

What I’m trying to say is that there is A LOT going on in this movie. The dialogue, the performances, the editing, the music… everything works together to express so much more than what’s merely being said. Every shot, every cut, every gesture, even the slightest twitch of an eyebrow conveys several volumes’ worth of actions, statements, and events. This is an impossibly huge reason why the film develops such a powerful and fully-developed romance in only 100 minutes: Because so overwhelmingly much is packed into every frame.

And of course all of this leads to such timely and relevant themes as free love, sexuality, feminism, etc. And this movie does not fuck around with those sentiments, either. Because these characters and their relationships are so perfectly realized, all of these themes land with a bold, erotic, heart-pounding, thought-provoking punch.

And what of the more risque material concerning bondage, BDSM, etc.? Well, it’s used in one scene as an elegant metaphor for the painful nature of love and the restraints put upon us by society at large. Even better, the concept of dominance is expanded into more universal concepts, such as arrogance, pride, authority, and other ways in which we impose our will on others for good or ill. Likewise, submission is expanded to include humility, compassion, contrition, and other ways that we make allowances for others out of love or weakness. Thus the movie shows how we can only find peace and well-being through finding some balance between the two.

What further helps to establish all of this is a framing device in which Marston has to defend Wonder Woman and his creative choices to a government bureaucrat played by Connie Britton. By reaffirming his values for a more loving and open world, in which truth and compassion conquer all and women are held as equals to their male counterparts, Marston reaffirms why the world needs Wonder Woman. As such, the film serves as a reminder of why the character had been so grossly misunderstood and poorly utilized for so many years, and why she matters now more than ever.

Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, and Bella Heathcote all turn in career-best performances. There is truly no substitute for seeing how much the three of them can express to each other and the camera with barely a word spoken. Likewise, the editing is loaded with brilliant touches throughout, and the score does so much to express the characters’ emotions without getting maudlin or lewd.

I cannot possibly recommend this movie enough. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is intelligent, provocative, erotic, heartwrenching, and tear-jerking in all the best ways. It’s masterfully acted, superbly shot and edited, and beautifully scored, all of which helps convey two decades’ worth of plot and character development into a breezy hundred minutes. It’s a bold affirmation of feminism and LGBT equality in general, and why we need to keep building a more compassionate society through science, entertainment, politics, and whatever other means are at our disposal.

This is absolutely not a film to be missed. Seek it out immediately.

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