Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women


Directed by Angela Robinson.
2017. Rated R, 108 minutes.
Cast:
Luke Evans
Rebecca Hall
Bella Heathcote
Oliver Platt
JJ Feild
Connie Britton
Chris Conroy
Monica Giordano

I wasn't ready for this.

At all.

I heard this was a movie about the guy who created Wonder Woman. I heard his wife was his muse. The character became a worldwide icon. I figured there were up and downs along the way, but this is the story of a comic book hero. I was ready to be whisked away to a simpler time.

Nope.

That's not what happened.

It was a different time, to be sure. We first meet our hero, William Marston (Evans) during a hearing in 1945 about the Wonder Woman comic book. If you know the industry's history, you know this was a time when it was under attack for "questionable" morals. In this case, Marston is charged with using Wonder Woman to promote lesbianism and S&M, big no-nos for the time. From there, we flashback another seventeen years, to 1928, when Marston is a professor at Radcliffe College and working with his wife Elizabeth (Hall). They teach and do research together on what would eventually become their invention of the polygraph, aka, the lie detector test. When they decide to hire an assistant, they choose one of his students, Olive (Heathcote), whom he is infatuated with. Since he and Elizabeth speak frankly and often about sex, Elizabeth is fully aware of her husband's feelings. One thing leads to another and not only are the trio having threesomes, but engage in a full-blown polyamorous relationship, moving in and having kids together. Soon, they begin experimenting with bondage and this leads to the creation of Wonder Woman. 

Huh?

Yup.

Normally, this is where I start telling you what I think of various aspects of the film. This time I need some time to process all that's going on here. I grew up watching Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman, a titillating portrayal, if ever there was one. However, this takes things to a whole new level. I've long ago accepted that most female superheroes started life as merely sexed up versions of male characters. I've also accepted that we're slowly (but surely?) correcting this problem by empowering them in ways that have nothing to do with their bodies. See the character's big screen debut in 2017 for proof. It's refreshing to know that Wonder Woman was actually ahead of the curve even seventy years go. She was way ahead, as it turns out. Though herself sexed up, she wasn't the type just meant for ogling. She had a clear gender-based purpose. On the other hand, that purpose seems to be a bit much given the target audience. In the film, Marston never shies away from the fact he uses lots of overtly sexual imagery in her stories. He even says that the character is intended to teach boys that it's okay to be submissive to a woman. By extension, he surmises this will also help boys better respect women. The message is fine, but the method is questionable. Instead of just showing there is nothing inherently wrong with his lifestyle, he is bludgeoning readers over the head with it and trying to win converts. That's tough to take when you consider (what they thought was) the target audience is aged 10 to 13 years old. I'm against censorship in art, and a fan of superheroes, so ultimately, I'm glad he wasn't shut down. Still, there is a such thing as being appropriate. Professor Marston clearly sets out to cross that line as often as possible. It makes the character more salacious than just a jiggling pair of breasts ever could.


But what about the actual movie?

It's pretty darn good.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women tells its story in a way that lets us know how far we've come as a society, but how far we still have to go. Since sexual tolerance is something we're still working on, the parallels between the overwhelmingly puritanical Depression-era America and that of the still young twenty-first century are easy to spot. It places Marston and his partners in the position of being involved in a forbidden love. We get to see the hardships they go through because of it. And life isn't just a bit uncomfortable for them, they are being persecuted on every side. Because of this, we allow ourselves to root for them.

Character-wise, the film takes an interesting tact. Though it focuses on Professor Marston, he is not the character we most identify with. In fact, he might be the least. He comes across as arrogant, pretentious, and more than a bit slimy, since he just seems to be on a never-ending quest to get his rocks off under the guise of achieving some greater good. Elizabeth even asks him at one point, "How long are you going to use science to justify the whims of your cock?" It's a completely fair question. Therefore, he is hard to like. Luke Evans embodies these traits. Through him, we understand Marston to be a dominant who enjoys playing submissive. Elizabeth is also a dominant personality. Her ego nearly matches her husband's, she's nearly as libido-driven, and there's a palpable coldness to her. Rebecca Hall lets us know there's a heart beneath the haughty exterior, but she makes us and everyone else work to get to it. She keeps us all at arms' length until she can no longer stand to.

Having two people who are hard to side with works because of Bella Heathcote's portrayal of Olive. With the aid of the screenplay, she gives us a woman who comes across as demur and unassuming, but is quietly adventurous. On the surface, it seems she is merely a follower talked into everything that happens to her. As the film progresses, it's evident she yearns to be nudged before taking any uncertain steps. This makes her a perfect fit for William and Elizabeth, a willing and trusting submissive. This makes the times when she asserts herself moments we cheer because we see her as the underdog standing up to her bullies. We also see her as the caterpillar perpetually emerging from her cocoon as a butterfly. Above all, we feel something from her we don't feel from her partners - warmth. Without question, she is the soul of the film and the one with whom we empathize.


Of course, this is still a film about the creation of Wonder Woman. And it's effective in showing how the opposing dispositions of Elizabeth and Olive are combined with each other and their sexual proclivities to bring Wonder Woman to life. How certain character traits of the heroine came about is fascinating. So, too, are Marston's battles with the government and even his own publisher, Max Gaines (Platt), to bring his vision to the masses fully intact. Watching him verbally spar with the powers that be is a joy. His stubbornness and arrogance pays off for him, and us, in this arena, leading to some wonderfully humorous exchanges, giving the film some much-needed levity.

There are two facets of the film that don't work quite as well as they should. The treatment of their children by others becomes a big point of contention midway through the film. However, since none of the kids becomes a character of consequence, we never really get a sense how all of this is affecting them, or not. They're just set decorations occasionally referred to to make some sort of point and forgotten about until that point needs to be restated. Devoting a few minutes to them as an actual part of the story may have added more depth and raised the stakes for them beyond the lip service paid to their plight. The other part that doesn't work quite as well is the ending. It feels rushed and devoid of the emotion needed to make us feel like love flowed in all directions between these three people. Instead, it becomes a love story between just two of them and I don't think that was the intention of director Angela Robinson. I get that it was probably a difficult proposition after spending so much time making Marston out to be selfish which is, in large part, how they all wound up together. Still, there needs to something more than what we're given. Slowing down the film to explore what happens to him at the end would likely have provided that.

My apprehensiveness over Wonder Woman's stated purpose aside, this is a film I enjoyed a good deal. After all, my main problem is just reconciling own thoughts on the character with the idea that a comic book writer was trying to indoctrinate me into a particular way of thinking that was quite the opposite of the way it was presented to me as a youngster. Again, it's not a bad purpose, just one I wasn't ready for. That's a me problem. Regardless, the movie manages to make sense of it all while telling an entertaining, excellently performed, and poignant story. I couldn't be any truer if a golden lasso were wrapped around me.


Click below for more Wonderful reviews 

26 comments:

  1. Great review! My indie theater had this for a while and I never went to it, but reading this makes me want to give it a chance.

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    1. I think you should. It's a well done film.

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  2. I'm glad you enjoyed it! Some parts didn't work too well for me, but overall the movie provides a good background to such an amazing and inspiring character. Great review!

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    1. Exactly. It's by no means perfect, but really does flesh out the background story of WW's creation.

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  3. This movie sounds pretty interesting for fans of WW. Thought I recognized Bella Heathcote from somewhere. She played a model in The Neon Demon

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    1. Honestly, I think it's more interesting for people who are familiar with but aren't necessarily big fans of WW. This is much more about the three real people depicted. WW is more or less a side effect of their relationship. And most references to her speak about advancing some form of feminism. This is no way a film to placate fan boys and girls.

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  4. I heard about this film as it was at my multiplex for about a week and then it was gone. I heard good things about it as I'm intrigued about the subject matter.

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    1. It is a good one, but I'm not surprised it didn't do better at the box office. Despite being attached to Wonder Woman, it's not the most mainstream of subjects.

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  5. This sounds like an excellent film and you wrote this very well. Why am I not surprised? Hahahaaa...when I got older, I would often think about Wonder Woman and, knowing a man wrote about her and created her, he had to be a bit...kinky. I figured he liked to be dominated or fell dominated by a woman and he liked the toys...hence the strength of the character and her whip and bracelet which always reminded me of handcuffs without the chain across. Didn’t the Amazons originate from the island of Lesbos? I know I am over analyzing but I find this quite interesting and he clearly seemed to have no issues with women being in a dominant role.

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    1. Oh no, you're not over-analyzing at all. Hell, you're right on track, as the movie explains.

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  6. So glad you liked this! Definitely one of the most undeservedly underseen films of last year. I love how it never seemed to sensationalize anything - this was just how these three people chose to live. And wow Rebecca Hall and Bella Heathcote are GREAT.

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    1. Yes, I did enjoy this. And so true about Hall and Heathcote.

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  7. Yay! You finally saw this one! One of my favourite watches of last year (so much so I just put it back into "featured review" status on my own site) and I think (as you mention) it's largely driven by the performances of the women here - Bella Heathcote is so underrated but absolutely perfect, and Rebecca Ferguson is a delight. I'm not entirely sold on Evans, and haven't been since that Dracula movie he was in, but the salacious nature of the story and the loving manner in which the material is approached makes this a remarkable film indeed.

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    1. The women really do drive this movie. I like Evans well enough in other things, but I really thought he was good here.

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  8. Excellent review! I am just so struck by the pictures here, Bella really resembles Heather Graham so shockingly.....I doubt I will ever find the time for this but if I will it will be for Rebecca Hall.

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    1. Thanks. Yeah, it took me a few minutes to realize I wasn't looking at Heather Graham. She really is very good in this, too. And Hall is excellent, so I hope you find time for it.

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