2017 was the year we collectively fell for Wonder Woman on the big screen. Propelled by cultural tides, embodied by Gal Gadot, she was the hero we so badly needed. On the heels of Patty Jenkins’ blockbuster, be prepared to fall in love with Wonder Woman all over again, thanks to the wonderfully sensitive and insightful superheroine origin story “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women,” written and directed by Angela Robinson.
Robinson maps the psychology of Wonder Woman onto the life story of her creator, Dr. William Moulton Marston (played by Luke Evans), who led a very unconventional life for his time.
A dashing Radcliffe psychology professor with a headstrong, genius wife, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), Marston encounters a beautiful undergrad, Olive (Bella Heathcote), in class, who becomes their assistant, friend and confidant. It’s through their psychology research into human emotion, and theories of dominance and submission, that the trio open up to each other (while testing lie detector prototypes), and fall in love.
Marston declares that these two together are the perfect woman — Elizabeth is bold, smart, unfiltered and funny, while Olive is soft, guileless and pure of heart. Once they buck tradition, convention and “normalcy” to build a life as a threesome, it’s only a matter of time before their sex life takes on a new dimension, thanks to some lessons at the local sex shop, and they delight in role play and light bondage. His inspirational light bulb for the comic book is the wonderful women at home, and he draws on their traits and experiences to create the iconic female superhero.
Robinson employs a 1945 decency hearing headed by Josette Frank (Connie Britton), of the Child Study Association of America, as a narrative framing device to draw out Marston’s explicit explanation of his character. Frank’s inquisition forces him to justify his reasons for creating a character for children with so much, well, kinky stuff. But Marston, ahead of his time — heck, ahead of our time — passionately articulates his belief that coded messages in a popular medium aimed at the next generation could create a trend of loving respect for powerful women and a pleasure in submission to them. It’s a radically feminist notion.
The film is beautifully and brilliantly made. The visual design is classical Hollywood, rendered in rich, saturated tones, with a playful approach to light and shadow. The editing is decidedly modern: a whirling, intoxicating tempo, cutting swiftly between time periods to draw connections and maintain a swift but easy pace.
The script is aces, too, filled with humdingers that Hall tears into ferociously. She is utterly captivating as Elizabeth — witty, brutal, stubborn and always the last to submit. Heathcote is also stunning, a step far beyond her work in films like “Neon Demon.”
It’s incredibly empowering to experience a film that so warmly embraces — even worships! — powerful women and their sexuality in a way that places their experience and subjectivity first; where consent, first and foremost, is sexy. That’s a rare experience at the movies. Robinson presents stepping into fantasy as empowerment, as possibility, a moment to test or break the chains of social bondage.
In “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women,” you’ll discover the surprising psychology behind Wonder Woman, and perhaps a newfound appreciation for her powers to crumble social norms with sensuality. Truly, it is a wonder of a movie.