Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is an intriguing story played a little too safe
No one keeps secrets better than a superhero. Double lives are written in the job description — holding down the ordinary-citizen drag of secretary, cub reporter, or wayward CEO until the call comes to slip into spandex and save the world. Deception wasn’t a skill that Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston ever really mastered, though he earned a degree in psychiatry from Harvard and shares credit for the invention of the modern lie-detector test. (How’s that for an origin myth?) And openness cost him a lot: His pioneering muse became a lightning rod for censure and scandal almost from the moment she debuted in 1941, as did his own deeply unconventional personal life, a three-way love story played out decades before polyamory became the stuff of daytime talk shows and premium-cable dramas.
Even in today’s vastly more tolerant world, that kind of romance à trois — like the unmissable thread of bondage, kink, and sexual dominance running through his scantily clad heroine’s plotlines — remains defiantly outside the mainstream. Which may be why director Angela Robinson (D.E.B.S.) puts such a decorous sheen on Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, a tasteful, surprisingly sedate biopic slathered in the traditional signposts of heavy exposition, gold-toned cinematography, and note-perfect period detail.
“Are you normal? What is normal?” Marston (bluntly handsome British actor Luke Evans) asks a classroom full of rapt young women at Radcliffe College circa 1928, with special attention paid to the doll-faced Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote). The question may be rhetorical, but Marston is already the living embodiment of something more radical; he treats his brilliant, bristling wife Elizabeth (the electric Rebecca Hall) as an equal — which she is, though Harvard refuses to award her her own rightfully earned Ph.D. — in career and marriage, both of which soon begin to include Olive. It turns out there’s a shrewd mind beneath those blond ringlets (Byrne’s aunt was birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger, her mother a renowned feminist in her own right), and together the trio experiments with early prototypes of the systolic blood-pressure test, which would go on to become a crucial element in polygraphs. But chemistry is the sweet science here, as William and Elizabeth fall for Olive and find their feelings returned — at first tentatively, and then unmistakably (in a scene set, with unfortunate on-the-noseness, to Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good”).
The movie frames its soft-focus flashbacks against the harsh glare of Marston’s interrogation by a public-decency panel led by Connie Britton’s Josette Frank. A cool fury in pink lipstick, Frank would very much like to know how a relatively obscure academic became the man behind the most subversive comic book on the market, and why. Professor Marston answers that first question capably; it just never quite captures the true, transgressive wonder of his creation.