A captivating and intellectual soap opera
Professor Marston & the Wonder Women concerns the trifecta of individuals directly involved with the creation of one of the most iconic superheroes of all time. Two of them were Bill and Elizabeth Marston (Luke Evans and Rebecca Hall), married psychologists teaching and researching at Radcliffe College. The two are primarily concerned with dominance and submission in the public and private lives of people, particularly women, and both use test subject/student Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) as part of their experimentation with the polygraph in the 1920s.
Eventually, Olive begins to fall in love with Bill, and then Elizabeth, something she can't hide once strapped to the lie detector for the truth to be revealed. One of the first things Elizabeth said to Olive when she volunteered was the main rule of professionalism was her not having sex with her husband. It doesn't take long before the three are entangled in a polyamorous relationship with each another, emboldened by Bill's fascination with early BDSM photography. Such photos bleed into his next project following the dismissal of him and his wife from Radcliffe - creating a female superhero who embodies feminism and demands respect from men.
Of course that superhero is Wonder Woman, who many young fans probably don't know was a far different character upon inception. Bill, under the pseudonym "Charles Moulton," writes a story about a powerful Amazonian from an island of women that gets taken to the United States after a pilot named Steve Trevor crashlands off the coast. Fueling it with respectfully sexual undertones that create a submissive nature to Wonder Woman's power, he pitches it to the same part of creative control who welcomed Superman with open-arms at a time when comic books were viewed by the masses as junk "literature." The stories quickly catch fire upon publication, as does his unconventional relationship.
Professor Marston & the Wonder Women is about a lot of things, lesbianism, social taboos, sexuality, sexual awakenings, polyamory, and feminism being a few touchstones for a film swollen with relevance for more reasons than its namesake earning her well-deserved, $150 million movie this year. The film is an exemplification of biting feminist power and great performances that mostly overshadowed a narrative brimful of enough themes to warrant a miniseries.
At the center of the Oscar-worthy performances is not Evans, like you might guess, but Rebecca Hall, who should most definitely be in consideration as we approach the end of the year. Hall plays the embittered, browbeaten intellectual with great poise and realism, embodying someone who has been shortchanged by academia and never because she was genuinely not qualified for something. Hall's use of cynical humor also compliments her character rather than masks the sadness behind her, and there's noticeable emotion when Bella Heathcote's Olive takes the wheel and slowly gains enough confidence to challenge Hall's Elizabeth. The banter and relationship between the two women in the strongest part of the film.
With that in mind, Evans is very good, especially when he goes about conceptualizing Wonder Woman and trying to justify the flagrant bondage undertones found in comic's earliest editions. He's convincing as a complicated man motivated partly by ego but mostly by a profound understanding of psychology at the time. This is something we pick up when we observe his passionate lectures or hear him debate the concept of "penis envy" between Elizabeth and Olive.
The film was directed by Angela Robinson, who you might remember as the driving force behind the 2005 film D.E.B.S., a Charlie's Angels-esque spy-thriller that is one of many mid-2000s films to amass a passionate following after garnering seriously negative reviews upon release. Working with much different tools and far more grounded actors for this outing, Robinson erects an intellectual soap-opera I have no problem saying captivated me early on and rarely let up. Its stuffy narrative only loans to the fact that this material and story is a meaty one with a plethora of themes that firmly plant it in the social-contemporary zeitgeist. It's another kind of film we beg Hollywood to make yet ignore when it is given a wide release, although, perhaps like D.E.B.S., it will find its audience in due time - it has already found its praise in the short-term.
Steve's Grade: B+