PROFESSOR MARSTON AND HIS WONDER WOMEN
US, 2017, 109 minutes, Colour.
Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote, Connie Britton, JJ Feild, Chris Conroy, Oliver Platt.
Directed by Angela Robinson.
What we find in this film is probably not what we were expecting to find. William Marston has the reputation for creating the celebrated comic strip of the 1940s, Wonder Woman. While it was a success, a lot more was happening behind the scenes.
The film opens with an American Board entrusted with supervision of children’s education interviewing Marston, wanting to ban the comic strip. As he explains what he intended with Wonder Woman, the interview is regularly interspersed with quite lengthy flashbacks to Marston’s life, his academic career, his personal life, the women, irregularities, one might say, in his relationships and the consequences for his career.
The first flashback takes us to 1928, to a classroom, to Professor Marston explaining a theory that he considers significant for understanding human behaviour: DISC – which means Dominance, Inducement, Submission, Compliance. And the film’s screenplay gives him ample opportunity to explain and illustrate these characteristics of behaviour. With him in the classroom is his wife, Elizabeth, who serves as his assistant because, with the prejudices of that era, she is not recognised with her professional qualifications.
It seems that the Marstons are looking for a volunteer, a young student who can serve as an assistant but whose behaviour they can observe to understand whether the DISC theory is valid. The lie detector was emerging at this time and the Marstons were able to contribute to a mechanism for recognising heart pace for truth and lies.
The student they choose is Olive, the niece of prominent feminist and birth control promoter, Margaret Sanger.
Luke Evans plays William Marston and Rebecca Hall is quite striking as his dominant and opinionated wife, Elizabeth. It is interesting to note that British actors have been chosen to portray the couple while Bella Heathcote, from Australia, plays Olive.
While Olive is confronted by Elizabeth to forbid any sexual activity, it soon emerges that Olive is attracted to both – which, with some difficulties, and a pregnancy, leads to a long-lived ménage a trois. Oliver’s fiance denounces them, the university authorities fire the Marstons. Olive keeps house, Elizabeth getting a job as a secretary, Marston wanting to prove his theories, sketching, which leads to the creation of Wonder Woman.
What is interesting is how much of Marston’s private life as well as the illustration of DISC, one might notice specially dominance and submission, episodes of inducement (sex and violence) leading to compliance. There is quite some attention to Wonder Woman’s background in ancient Greece, with the Amazons, the island of Lesbos, and the emerging of Steve Trevor into her world and her transition to the 20th century.
Those familiar with Wonder Woman, from the comics, the television films with Lynda Carter and the very successful superhero movie with Gal Gadot, will appreciate.
Marston was unconventional, to say the least. But it is interesting to note that his psychology studies and the emphasis on sexuality coincided with the early years of Kinsey and Masters and Johnson.
Not exactly what we might have been expecting at the beginning of the film, something of a jolt and challenge as we watch the private lives of the characters, but also interesting as providing the background of Wonder Woman. It can be noted that the Marston family did not endorse this film and DC Comics distance themselves.
1. A true story? Speculation about the characters and their private lives? Psychology? The popularity of comic strips and books?
2. Boston 1928, Harvard and Radcliffe, classes, students, classrooms and offices? The sorority? Streets, homes? The offices of the publishers? The range of songs indicating the mood, songs of the time?
3. The framework of the drama: the children collecting the comics and burning them with glee? 1946? The Association for the children? The president and the other members of the board? Interviewing Marston? His explanations, justifications, the flashbacks for his biography, for the women? DISC, his teaching, his experiments, support of Elizabeth, choosing Olive? The issue of relationships, leading to the ménage a trois? Buying a house in the street, their neighbours, living their lives secretly, the baby, the number of children? Joy as parents? The attacks, Marston being fired? His sketching, drawing the comic, the psychological content? The interview and his collapse, his illness and the information about his death in 1947?
4. William Marston himself, the performance and presence of Luke Evans? His experience in World War I, psychology, soldiers and trauma? His advocating peace? Lecturing, marrying Elizabeth, knowing her from childhood, their plans and work together? Her presence in the classroom? The choice of Olive, her eagerness? The interview? Their theories and wanting to illustrate them? Dominance, inducement, submission, compliance? The status of the theory? The University and research? The lie detector and the tests, difficult and emotional questions, mechanisms to measure heart pace?
5. Rebecca Hall as Elizabeth, strong woman, dominant, knowing William from childhood, marrying him because of respect and love? Her language, fierce? The collaboration, present in class? The choice of Olive, confronting her and warning her off her husband? The observing of the experiment with the sorority, the rituals, the spanking of the initiate? Their own feelings, sexual arousal? The interview with Olive, testing her and her emotions? Testing her emotions towards each of them? Elizabeth having to play academic second fiddle, the prejudices of the times, not acknowledging her or her qualifications?
6. Olive, Bella Heathcote, 22, in class, eager, volunteering? Her relationship with Margaret Sanger? Her celebrated mother? Her upbringing, being sent to a convent? Elizabeth and the confrontation about sex? Warm personality, nice? Her fiance? Going to the sorority, being forced to go through the enactment, the initiation, the spanking of the woman? The lie detector and her responses? Loving the two, especially Elizabeth? The relationship?
7. The effect, the ménage, audience response to the ménage? The love sequences? The three? The problem of continuing, Marston being fired? Elizabeth getting a job as a secretary? Oliver’s pregnancy, the birth, the effect on the ménage, the life of the child? Elizabeth, especially, mellowing? The three and their happiness in parenting?
8. Olive’s fiance, their discussions, going on the picnic, the challenge, Olive breaking the engagement, giving back the ring? The reputation, the fiance denouncing them?
9. Getting the house in the street, the friendliness of the neighbours, the secrecy of their lives, the later discovery, the confrontations, the fight in the street? Then moving?
10. Elizabeth, the humiliation, testing for a secretary, her work? William and his writing, books, livelihood? Moving into sketching? The comics?
11. William and his speculations, the appeal of ancient Greece? His going to the shop, the costumes, the proprietor, wary about the police, his looking at the costumes, the sketches, Olive wearing them, Elizabeth saying it was pornography? The emphasis on bondage?
12. The Greek background of Wonder Woman, the island of Paradise, the Amazons, Lesbos? And Marston outlining to the committee the super hero activities and into the 20th century?
13. The comics demonstrating and dramatizing DISC? The Board and the critique of the sexual contact, nudity, bondage and torture, sadomasochism, the film visualising the panels from the comics to illustrate this? Marston developing this, incorporating the aspects, the psychological background of the comic?
14. One with the editor, the interview, the editor accepting Wonder Woman, the female superhero, success, the reactions, the popularity? The concern about children, the burning of the comics, Marston and his defence? The hearing and its influence, the elimination of sex and the superpowers from the comics? The lull in popularity, Gloria Steiner and feminism the return of Wonder Woman? The television films? Cinema films and the Justice League, DC comics?
15. The further information, Marston’s death in 1947, Elizabeth and Olive together for 38 years, their family? The family Museum?
16. Yet the Marston family not endorsing this film, criticising the speculations about the private lives? DC comics distancing itself as well?