Review: Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

I am a huge fan of Wonder Woman. But I’m not such a fan of some of the exploitative sexuality that makes its way into her comics. A recent reimagining, for example gave us an African American Steve Trevor, then turned that apparent progressiveness very nasty with a scene where Diana tries to put a slave collar on him to teach him the joys of submission. Wonder Woman’s origins are, shall we say, problematic. So I approached this film about her creator with some interest but also trepidation.

There are three stories in this film. The framing device shows us Marston defending Wonder Woman before a censorship board, with the rest in chronological flashback as he explains how the character came about. Then there is the exploration of the intellectual ideas that went into his work: “DISC Theory” (essentially the notion that human happiness comes from willing submission – which sounds bizarre when summarised like that but does make sense when explained as it is in the film). And the third story of an unconventional polyamourous relationship and what it cost the family on a personal and professional level.

The second and third work well. Marston as a professor explains his theory clearly and his professional relationship with his wife, collaborator and intellectual equal is both stormy and enthralling. I wish there had been just a little more detail about the theory, because I didn’t quite buy it and I suspect a bit more would have convinced me of the logic if not the veracity.

Then there’s the personal. Olive, a student employed as an assistant seems at first to be set up as a fling for Marston. It’s actually quite creepy and certainly amounts to professional misconduct. That wrongness never quite goes away: though the relationship is loving and fully consensual she is always the third wheel because Marston and Elizabeth are legally married. It’s a threesome that works, though they pay a price for it. Then Marston stumbles into the world of BDSM and he finds his professional and private lives collide: the dominance/submission seems to perfectly exemplify his theory.

This is where the film is at its best: the BDSM is extremely tame compared to, say, Fifty Shades┬ábut there is something very affecting about those first, tentative explorations, seeing them discover the expression of something that has been inside, unknown or repressed, all along. It’s sexy and intimate and beautiful, not at all creepy or exploitative.

And, the film explains, this is what created Wonder Woman.

But it’s Marston’s defence of those themes in Wonder Woman that turns the film into something else. He actually says he wants to teach children about bondage and submission, that the sexual element is necessary because there has to be pleasure in submission. Now, don’t get me wrong: I have no issues with that between consenting adults. And there is no suggestion that the BDSM Olive, Elizabeth and Marston practice in private is anything but safe, sane and consensual. But kids don’t pick up on that nuance and if the film is an accurate representation of Marston’s motives then I’m on the side of the comic burners in this case. Even the final speech, which should have been a barnstorming defence of sexual freedom, feels tainted by But he tried to teach it to children!

Luke Evans captures all the layers of a complex character. Rebecca Hall is brilliant as the often unliveable Elizabeth. But the really impressive performance is Bella Heathcote as Olive: from wide-eyed innocent to sexually confident lover to fiercely protective mother, she dominates every scene she is in.

Some unsettling themes, but overall a strong film with fascinating characters. Recommended.