Professor Marston And The Wonder Women (15)

USUALLY when we talk of superhero “origin” stories, it’s along the lines of how Peter Parker acquired his spider powers, Bruce Banner turned green or Bruce Wayne, aka Batman, become the world’s grumpiest man. But this unconventional and appealing film reveals a real-life genesis – how the character of Wonder Woman actually came to be written. Its story is altogether more daring, more fun and more emotional than anything you’ll find in a comic fantasy.

This has already been a good year for the world’s best-known female superhero and feminist icon, with the critical and box office success of Wonder Woman. Aside from being a rare superhero blockbuster to sport a female lead, the film’s female director, Patty Jenkins, smashed a glass ceiling in her profession.

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So it’s apt that another woman should be behind this one. Writer/director Angela Robinson is best known for risqué television, from sexy vampire drama True Blood, to lesbian drama The L-Word and the gigolo comedy Hung. It’s not surprising that she should be drawn towards a taboo-breaking love triangle – between a psychology professor, his academic wife and a female student – and their daring exploration of underground sexuality, which eventually inspired a fictional heroine who epitomised the feminist prof’s ideal, empowered woman, bondage accessories included.

In 1928 William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) begins teaching at Radcliffe, the women’s liberal arts college, assisted by his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall). A charismatic and enthusiastic lecturer, Marston advances his DISC theory, which identifies four traits he believes drive human interaction – dominance, inducement, submission and compliance. He also delights his students with the sincerely held view that the world would be a far better and more peaceful place were it governed by women, not men.

Elizabeth is every bit her husband’s intellectual equal, if not smarter. Cynical, outspoken and sharp-tongued, she also appears to be the dominant personality. When William engages a beautiful student assistant, Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), it’s Elizabeth who steers where they go next – and the couple’s progressive thinking and common attraction to the younger woman lead all three to a surprising relationship.

This is a period when American society was at its most repressed. As the three form a family unit, both women having children by Marston, and explore their sexuality further through the world of S&M, they will be ostracised and reviled. But the professor is indefatigable, creating Wonder Woman partly as a means of supporting his family and partly to push his feminist ideas through the popular medium, “into the thumping heart of all America”.

Robinson weaves her story with great sophistication, whether mining the contradiction between the zest of her characters’ relationship and the bigoted scorn heaped upon them, or joining the dots between Marston’s DISC theory and his own relationships, or showing his ideas and experiences feeding into his comic book creation – both the accoutrement of S&M and the Marstons' invention of an early lie detector shaping Wonder Woman’s costume and modus operandi.

The film’s framing device is the backlash against the comic book in the 1940s, with America’s arbiters of so-called decency focusing less on the role model of a powerful, independent woman, and more on the stories’ manifestations of bondage and spanking. They’re not interested in Wonder Woman as an enlightened form of propaganda, but merely want Marston, as his beleaguered publisher puts it, to “cut the kink”.

The actors are exemplary as they navigate the script’s comedy, transgression and bitter-sweet romance. Hall is particularly fine, giving one of her feistiest, funniest, flesh and blood performances.