Professor Marston and the Wonder Women Review

In a time of strong female images and an ever-growing, ever-graying definition of feminism, a film like “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” feels especially important. Both the origin story of comics’ biggest female superhero and a portrayal of a norm-shattering romantic relationship decades ahead of its time, Angela Robinson’s film is robust and maybe even convoluted, but also deeply thought-provoking.

Although history can verify the polyamorous relationship between psychologists Bill Marston (Luke Evans) and Elizabeth Marston (Rebecca Hall) and their student Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), the details – as one might guess for the early 20th century – are pretty scarce. Robinson fills in the blanks while also imagining the ways their relationship and beliefs may have informed the aesthetics and messages of Martson’s “Wonder Woman” comics.

A psychology professor who invented a key component of the polygraph lie detector test, Marston studied human emotion and relationships and believed in the ability and power of women. He believed strongly in the importance of submitting to a powerful, loving authority and crafted Wonder Woman in that model. The film theorizes that Wonder Woman was a combination of his wife and partner: Elizabeth the intelligent, authoritative figure and Olive the beautiful and compassionate one.

The film encompasses their romance and its consequences, their boundary-pushing exploration of sex and love, the creation of the lie detector and how all this manifested in “Wonder Woman” – an ambitious breadth of material for one film. As a complete product, the film has a lot of abrupt shifts as a result, but Robinson commands our attention start to finish and usually nails the tone of whatever the present scene calls for.

In a thematically fitting way, Robinson crafts a film that submits to the sexual tension built into it. Surely even those who have studied the Marstons and Byrne know few if any details about their private activities and that gives Robinson some free reign to indulge in the fantasy element of their story. The sexual scenarios and scenes have the energy and pacing of an erotic thriller – she’s not afraid to get a bit indulgent and play up that eroticism instead of holding back. At the same time, she avoids ever getting too pornographic; the camera lingers, intentionally giving us more than what’s needed to make the point.

The actors are also well-cast, helping ground the film when it could feel like romantic melodrama. Hall is especially compelling as Elizabeth, the character who is most torn between embracing this new relationship and maintaining a sense of traditional values for the sake of safety and position. Hall gets all the sharp witty dialogue too, which seems most in Robinson’s wheelhouse.

Most of all, Robinson has a way of drilling to the core of each issue raised in the film in a dramatically effective manner, especially in the scenes with Marston and Josette Frank (Connie Britton), the conservative child and family expert who interrogates Marston about the bondage and other sexual imagery laced in the comic (which Robinson uses as a framing for the entire film). The scenes are a bit on the nose, but they bring most of the story’s value to the surface, putting the important ideas and questions front and center.

“Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” adds something valuable to the conversation about portrayals of women in 2017, and it’s as necessary now as it was in the 1940s. Robinson’s ambition to capture all the story’s many facets and points of interest creates a lot of tones that don’t always coalesce and stop the film from taking a deep dive into any one particular thematic area, but Bill, Elizabeth and Olive’s stories are tied up (pun perhaps intended) in all of it. To pretend all these components weren’t all intimately connected and in need of screen time would be a disservice to the truth.


3.5/5 Stars


Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
Written and Directed by Angela Robinson
Starring: Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote


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