The late comics historian Les Daniels was contracted by DC to write the text for big, illustrated books about their three key properties – Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman. At the outset, he admitted that he assumed the third book would be a chore to write – because WW had fewer pop culture incarnations and resonances than the World’s Finest heroes – but turned out to be his favourite of the three because the creator of WW was more interesting than Bob Kane (Bill Finger was still unacknowledged) and Siegel & Schuster. For a start, he wasn’t a barely-grown-up comics professional but an adult with a variety of professional and personal achievements – inventing the lie detector – and a sudden urge to create a heroine in comics who would serve a young female readership the way Superman and Batman did young boys.
William Moulton Marston, who wrote as Charles Moulton, might well have been the first comics writer to create a character with any motive other than earning a living by spinning yarns, and his personal interests – which stretched to a great deal of bondage kink (‘submission to a loving authority’) and lesbian erotica (‘Suffering Sappho!’) – permeate the issues he scripted, though artist Harry G. Peter’s cartoonish style tended not to stress the seamier side of the stories (compared with the vamps and ingenues in Will Eisner’s Spirit strips – or such fishnets-and-bustier heroines as Black Canary – WW tends to radiate health rather than sex). No one has, as yet, made biopics about Kane/Finger or Siegel/Schuster, though there are stories worth telling there – mostly involving sharp practice and resentment – and there’s probably a whole Mad Men style series to be made out of the Marvel Age of the 1960s and the creative partnerships/differences of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. But Marston has had a movie first, from writer-director Angela Robinson (of the underrated DEBS), focusing on the professor/writer’s relationship with his wife Elizabeth and their mutual girlfriend Olive Byrne. Publisher M.C. Gaines appears (played by Oliver Platt) but Harry G. Peter – rather churlishly – isn’t even namechecked, let alone allowed to feature in a film about the origin of a character he co-created. That sound you hear is Steve Bissette throwing a BluRay player through a window.
This aptly but awkwardly titled biopic fits in with a trickle of films about mid-20th century sexual outsiders and social scientists, all of which have a similar style of performance, drama, music and look … Kinsey, The Notorious Bettie Page, Experimenter The Stanley Milgram Story, Auto-Focus. The frame finds Marston (Luke Evans) in 1945, grilled by an informal committee (headed by Connie Britton) about the origins of Wonder Woman – as controversy rages about the bad influence of funny books and comics are being publicly burned. This fudges the timeline a bit, since Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent – which did make a fuss about the bondage and lesbian elements of Wonder Woman – wasn’t published until after Marston’s death, and the real witch hunt against comics didn’t come until the 1950s. The flashbacks run from the late 1920s, at the tail-end of Prohibition through to the success of Wonder Woman (who debuted in 1941) … and have Marston and his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall, with a great haircut) taking on teaching assistant Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), who is equally attracted to both of them. There’s a misty-framed fantasy element to all this since the three performers are considerably more attractive than the solid, respectable-looking real people seen in the traditional photos under the end credits … but Evams, Hall and Heathcote are a charistmatic, beguiling trio in their barbed conversations (even before they start testing out the lie detector everything they say has subtext) and inexplicit erotic dress-up sessions. We see elements – a glass biplane toy, bondage ropes curled like a lasso, a tiara and corset – which will feed into Wonder Woman, and the campus setting also allows for a sorority spanking ceremony and glimpses of Greek drama. But there’s no mention of the fact that Moulton wrote himself into the strip as a grotesque caricature (the misogynist dwarf Dr Psycho) and seldom any acknowledgement that elements seen as significant by the prudes and suggested as revealing by the script (Wonder Woman’s secret identity and bathing costume) apply to Batman, Superman and dozens of other male superheroes.
It takes a bondage entrepreneur (JJ Feild) to spot that Marston is ‘a natural submissive’, the factor which makes his relationship with two women – it’s suggested that Elizabeth and Olive inspire respectively Diana Prince and Wonder Woman – more interesting than titillating. The real developing passion in the film is between Elizabeth and Olive, with Elizabeth at first aghast that the daughter and niece of famous feminists has somehow wound up being raised by nuns and gradually responding to the unconventional girl’s adoration. The story takes in the thrupple’s day-to-day difficulties balancing earning a living (for a long stretch, Elizabeth was the breadwinner) and caring for an expanding family … and also the conflicts that arise when word of their lifestyle gets around the square, suburban neighbourhood. Robinson’s key observation is that Marston ought to have been a huckster – even the lie-detector test is more useful as a party trick than an interrogation technique – but was sincere in his beliefs and committed to his niche causes. Gaines just seems to want to get away with peddling smut to kids dressed up as fantasy entertainment, but Marston is intent on putting lessons in the comics well after he’s been fired from college. He talks about teaching boys about the superiority of women (his original character name was Suprema, the Wonder Woman), though the film doesn’t deal much with his other stated aim – something much debated recently, and especially in the light of Wonder Woman’s long-delayed success as a big screen property – to provide girls with a heroic role model in a culture where they are few and far between.
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is a little too evenly paced – and the soundtrack combines tinkly piano with slightly off-point period music in a Hallmart sort of way – but there’s a lot of fascinating material here … and a trio of entwined, intriguing performances.