In an industry flooded with superhero films, it is rare indeed that we receive a picture that focuses not on costumed deliverers of justice, but the individuals responsible for their creation and the circumstances behind their birth. Such is Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, a film that chronicles the development of Wonder Woman and the eccentric and taboo lifestyle of her creator.
Professor William Moulton Marston is an accomplished educator at Harvard University – his wife, Elizabeth, is a teacher at Radcliffe College. William starts up a class dedicated to psychology, a development he seeks to exploit in order to propagate his personal theories, but when young student Olive Byrne catches his eye – and that of his wife – their lives develop in a way none of them expect, resulting in a biopic that documents both the creation of an iconic face in the comics scene and a riveting exploration of blossoming attraction and forbidden affection in a time of prejudice and sexual taboos.
This is indubitably a case of a film that puts its most valuable assets front and centre – a stellar choice of casting for the core three roles gives both life and a sense of realness to the depictions of Professor William Moulton Marston, Elizabeth Marston and Olive Byrne, whose budding relationships ultimately form the bedrock of the narrative. Director Anegla Robinson has evidently strived to get the best she can from the main cast, and it shows – every one of the three has moments to shine and prove their skill, whether it’s Luke Evans giving an impassioned defence as the good doctor in a hearing that serves as the framing device for the wider film, or Rebecca Hall and Bella Heathcote demonstrating sparkling chemistry.
However, it’s not only the performances that are outstanding. In the trying times that we live in, where unrest presses in and where we are now more acutely aware of oppressive acts than ever before, to see a relationship like that which Byrne and the Marstons shared is rejuvenating, almost cathartic in nature. The effectiveness of the message is diminished ever so slightly by fragments of rather clunky and heavy-handed if period-accurate dialogue – “Lesbianism is a mental illness”, one of William’s interrogator’s drones – but amidst the turmoil of this century, and certainly in the wake of the similarly empowering Wonder Woman adaptation, it is a film which freely presents itself to its audience with open arms. In this regard, it is a liberating and novel experience.
True comic aficionados, however, may emerge disappointed – the film does take a fair few liberties when it comes to the exact nature of certain events, perhaps up to and including something which is always a smear on films of this genre. Though intentional, too, the film perhaps hammers the point home a little excessively with regards to the focus on bondage and kinky outfits and how they factor into the good doctor’s plans and Wonder Woman’s birth to the point that it detracts slightly from the experience.
Additionally, despite solidly consistent performances on the part of the central cast, their keenly-tuned displays are hampered somewhat by the delivery of side characters – chiefly the painfully wooden Chris Conroy as Byrne’s short-lived beau Grant. As a film, too, despite stellar direction and casting, the piece as a whole never truly rises above competent otherwise. The writing is decent, the cinematography passable, the score forgettable, and it’s a shame that it never seems to strive to be more. If it did, combined with the powerful nature of its subject matter, it be revolutionary.
As it stands, however, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is an eye-opening feature with a timely and enduring message, but one that may tragically end up being seen only as a passing curiosity before fading into relative obscurity. It is worth seeing, for the window it offers into both the nature of the comics industry, same-sex and polyamorous relationships, unique and daring things to focus on; but while well-constructed, it falls short of being truly memorable.