Professor Marston and Wonder Women Shackled by Bad Direction

Directed by Angela Robinson
Annapurna Pictures, 108 minutes, R (brief nudity, sexuality, language)
★★ ½

Any teacher will tell you that the hardest assignments to grade are those that neither sparkle nor stink. We usually grade them C+ or B- with little or no conviction. Let's put Professor Marston and the Wonder Women perspective. In 1941, William Moulton Marston's comic book heroine, Wonder Woman, hit the market and went on to become the most popular female comic book heroine in history. More recently, Gal Gadot squeezed herself into a bustier and the movie Wonder Woman owned the summer of 2017. Yet that same year, the film about Wonder Woman's creator was a box office bust, thereby proving C+ efforts don't excite moviegoers either.

Director Angela Robinson brings Marston (1893-1947) to the screen. We first see him in 1928, as he lectures in a Radcliffe classroom in which his wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston (Rebecca Hall) is splayed on the inside window ledge. We learn that Dr. Marston (Luke Evans) is slumming it from his post at Harvard, where he obtained a Ph.D. in psychology seven years earlier, while Elizabeth had to settle for an MA and minor post at Radcliffe. It doesn't take long to figure out that the one with the fanciest title isn't the smartest. Elizabeth is brilliant and mesmerizing; she's also snarky, smokes like a chimney, swears like a sailor, and sulks like a spoiled child. Both are beguiled by Olive Bryne (Bella Heathcoate), an undergraduate who seeks to be Bill's research assistant and are stunned to learn she's the daughter of radical feminist Ethel Bryne and niece to birth control icon Margaret Sanger. Elizabeth is also convinced that Olive wants to bed her husband. She's only partly correct. Olive is initially naïve, but soon opts for a (non-political) life that, in the eyes of society, is considerably more radical than that of her mother or aunt. Back then, it was one thing to advocate for women's equality or reproductive freedom; it was altogether another to engage in a polymorphous triad that produced four children, only two of whom knew that Marston was their father.

Until historian Jill Lepore's 2014 book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman, the back-story to the comic book was little known. Wonder Woman becomes intriguingly problematic when you know that Marston (or was it Elizabeth?) developed an early lie detector, that Wonder Woman got tied up a lot because of interest in S & M, and that Martson believed that women were superior to men and should control society. (Or did he?)  All of this is to say that this film's real-life tale has more twists than an inebriated snake. The source material is so ripe with potential that it's perplexing and exasperating that it falls considerably short of where it should have landed.

It certainly wasn't Rebecca Hall's fault. She's riveting as Elizabeth—so much so that it's hard to look in any other direction when she's on screen. She's utterly fascinating and that's quite a statement when one considers that she was toned down in the script. Lepore paints her as far more assertive and less interested in convention than we see in Robinson's film. (Lepore sees her as the pivot around which things revolved, not her husband.) Hall smolders on screen and we know it's merely a matter of time until she combusts.

Several things held the film back. First, Evans is so bland that it's hard to imagine Elizabeth would fall for him or that Olive wouldn't outgrow her fascination. The latter's transformation from naïf to sexual libertine is too abrupt, as is Elizabeth's reverse course from snarky bohemian to pragmatist. This suggests Robinson's script has flaws, but I think the deeper problem was her timid direction. When your top directorial credit is the 2011 TV remake of Charlie's Angels, that's pretty thin. She has, however, made lesbian and bisexual-themed shows and film, which made me wonder why every time this film could have delivered a punch, it glances instead of striking the target. Maybe the film would have worked better had Robinson focused more narrowly. In addition to the complex relationships, Robinson skims other issues: Marston's overly simplistic DISC theory of human emotions, the politics of academia, the emergence of the comic books industry during the Great Depression, and Congressional investigation into whether comics were undermining American society. Call each of these cinematic drive-bys. 

There's only so much one can tell in under two hours and its center needed to be more bohemian. Whatever one might think of unconventional people, they tend to live interesting lives. This isn't a bad film—just an okay one—and when the possibilities are this rich, okay isn't good enough. If you don't know this story, by all means check out the movie. Then pick up Jill Lepore's book I think you'll agree that Robinson deserves a C+ for making fascinating people seem blasé.

Rob Weir

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