For 74 years, DC Comics’ third most important character never made her way to the silver screen. Wonder Woman, the most popular female superhero of all time, sat on the sidelines while legions of Batman and Superman (and Batman + Superman) continued to see release. But all of that has changed in 2017. After a quick (and well-regarded) cameo in last year’s utterly terrible Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Warner Bros. finally gave Wonder Woman her own movie, the smash hit from director Patty Jenkins that’s currently the second highest grossing film of the year. And that won’t be her only appearance, with Justice League hitting theaters next month. But perhaps most intriguing is a stealthy third Wonder Woman film, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, an origin story of a different sort that follows the life of the man behind the tiara, the creator of the character, William Moulton Marston. Prior to becoming a comic book creator, Marston (played here by Luke Evans) was a professor of Psychology alongside his wife, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall). The pair positioned themselves on the cutting edge of psychology, pioneering new systems of thought and trying to create the code for engineering a reliable lie detector test.
Thus enters a nubile young research assistant, Olive (Bella Heathcote), hired by William and Elizabeth to help broaden their psychological horizons. The fetching student catches the eye of William at first and Elizabeth as well, eventually resulting in an illicit affair that subsumes the three of them, a scandal waiting to happen in the straightforward morality of the late 1920’s. Their polyamory and other deviant actions cause William and Elizabeth to lose their jobs, forced out of academia and into a life together that suddenly finds William looking for new outlets for his ideas to reach the populace. He finds that outlet surprisingly in the medium of comics, taking inspiration from his two lovers and his psychological beliefs to birth Wonder Woman, a powerful female superhero with a knack for bondage in the form of a lasso that forces her charges to tell the truth. The popularity of Wonder Woman catches the eye of a review board designed to combat inappropriate material led by Josette Frank (Connie Britton), with her inquisitions into Marston’s true intentions forming the film’s framing device.
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women feels perfectly placed in a year that has finally seen Wonder Woman get the front and center recognition she deserves, sandwiched between two massive films starring the hero. Of course, an R rated movie about a polyamorous relationship between a married couple and their student is not exactly the most direct way to capitalize on Wonder Woman’s domination of the zeitgeist, but this film isn’t about Wonder Woman. Not really. Sure, that’s where it ends up, and it becomes an important theme in the third act once Marston begins working on the character, but that’s simply set dressing for the relationship drama that forms the film’s core, the rare love triangle where all three sides are on equal footing. It’s a story of progressive sexual politics in an era not remotely accepting of them and the fight to recognize love in all its forms. It’s a story about three unique personalities and how they each fill different needs for the two others.
Hall is especially wonderful in this respect, with a wry, caustic wit and academic air of superiority conceal her caring heart. She remains among the most talented actresses of her generation, and while Elizabeth is often positioned as a sort of third wheel behind the infatuation between Bill and Olive, her emotional journey is the film’s most trenchant. She rules the screen. Heathcote impressed with a catty turn in The Neon Demon, showing a bit of range here as a far more demure woman with a heart longing for liberation. Evans’ hulking body type (a must for his other major 2017 role, Gaston in Beauty and the Beast) seems a little out of place for an academic and comic book writer, but he brings a fervor to his speech and lust for life that is undeniably alluring. It’s his juiciest role to date (Dracula puns need not apply), and he acquits himself with confidence. There’s a vital tenderness to this three-way relationship, allowing it to transcend the story’s baser, taboo aspects. It’s not about the lust. It’s about the love.
The subject matter of Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is certainly progressive, especially for its time period, but the approach of writer/director Angela Robinson is often frustratingly heavy on biopic conventions. It’s got all the hallmarks you’d expect: the framing device set late in the subject’s life designed as an obvious set-up to tell a life story (see also: The Imitation Game, The Social Network) a score heavy on dreamy piano (see also: The Theory of Everything), the ending title crawl explaining the rest of the principal characters’ lives (see also: every biopic ever...and Animal House). It’s during these moments that the film feels remarkably rote and deflating, betraying the excitement of what’s actually happening on screen. You can only see so many of these movies without the form starting to grate on you. Good subject matter and performances can go a long way to counteract middling directing and that stultifying familiarity, and Professor Marston and the Wonder Women certainly boasts both. It is a good biopic as biopics go, but it stays in its lane a bit too much to be as daring as the story it’s telling wants it to be.