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The ties that bind - 'Professor Marston and the Wonder Women'

October 18, 2017
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Wonder Woman is one of the most beloved comic book creations in the history of the medium. And with the recent success of the cinematic adaptation of the character, she’s as popular as ever. She’s been at the center of some incredible stories over the years.

But the story of how Wonder Woman came to be is incredible in its own right.

“Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” relates the real-life tale of William Moulton Marston, a Harvard-trained psychologist whose personal life existed largely outside the bounds of societal norms. Dr. Marston’s world was upended when word of his nontraditional ideas – and his nontraditional home life – began to spread. But with help from two very different, very special women, he brought the character of Wonder Woman to life.

William Marston (Luke Evans, “Beauty and the Beast”) is a professor of psychology at Harvard and Radcliffe in the late 1920s. His wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall, “Permission”) is equally brilliant, but doomed to always be in William’s shadow due to the time’s attitudes with regards to the capabilities of women.

William and Elizabeth have a loving, albeit combative relationship, one based on mutual respect for one another’s talents. But when the two enlist a young student named Olive (Bella Heathcote, “Fifty Shades Darker”) as their teaching assistant, the Marstons soon discover that there was something missing from their relationship.

Or rather, someONE.

Suddenly, two have become three. Olive becomes a part of the Marstons’ marriage; the three make up a polyamorous trio that is considered outrageous and perverse by the standards of the time. When rumors spread about their unique situation, the Marstons are unceremoniously fired from Harvard and forced to take their leave.

Yet through it all, the love that flows between the three remains the most important. They develop a cover story explaining their unusual little family and try to fly under society’s radar. They live relatively happily – there’s a lot of love that flows amongst them all. But things change when William discovers real-world examples that help illustrate the dominance-submission personality theories that form the foundation of his work.

Those theories are made manifest in the pages of a comic book that Marston creates, a story whose initial too-long name of “Suprema the Wonder Woman” is shortened to simply “Wonder Woman” by comics publisher M.C. Gaines (Oliver Platt, TV’s “Chicago Med”). But there are some who question the appropriateness of the subtle (and not-so-subtle) allusions to bondage and other sub-dom ideas that permeate the comic.

Marston is called to the carpet by Josette Frank (Connie Britton, TV’s “Nashville”), the leader of a morality organization dedicated to protecting the welfare of children, and forced to defend his creation while also having his own choices attacked.

And through it all, William, Elizabeth and Olive must try and find ways to keep their family together in the face of the many obstacles and prejudices that their situation presents.

“Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” does relay the origin story of Wonder Woman. And through the narrative framing device of Marston’s testimony to Frank, we do learn something about the character’s genesis. But if you’re looking for some in-depth exploration of what went into bringing Wonder Woman to bright life on the page, you’re going to be at least somewhat disappointed.

This movie is much more about the unique relationship that defined the lives of these three people – not to mention their children. Not that such a story is lacking in value. Quite the contrary, really. While there have been well-done and sympathetic portrayals of polyamory on screen before, I certainly can’t recall a major release that showed such a loving, balanced take on that sort of relationship. It isn’t perfect. There are conflicts and tensions aplenty – internal and external ones alike. But it is rendered with what feels like honesty and never ventures into the realm of the salacious when it could have done so quite easily.

Credit writer/director Angela Robinson with handling such a nuanced, complex relationship with the gentle touch required to imbue it with empathy and emotion. She doesn’t have a ton of feature experience, but you wouldn’t know it with the way she manages to convey the conflict and controversy of this particular story.

Evans does good work as the titular Professor Marston, portraying him as a man who refuses to allow the world to dictate how he is supposed to feel. He is thoughtful and intense, devoted to his convictions. Hall is marvelous as Elizabeth Marston, evoking a prickly brilliance that is strong and unapologetic. She is smart and snarky and utterly captivating. Heathcote does a good job in conveying Olive’s naivete while not allowing her to come off as weak. And the chemistry between the three of them is absolutely lovely. The rest of the ensemble understandably takes a back seat, but Platt, Britton and Chris Conroy all have some solid moments.

If I’m honest, I could have done with a little less of the polyamorous relationship drama and a little more of the nuts-and-bolts origin of Wonder Woman. However, that doesn’t impact the overall quality of the film. “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” is a powerful, unique drama – a true story that is, in its own way, as incredible as the comic book hero it helped to inspire.

[4 out of 5]

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