Movie Review: “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women”

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It’s not the primary focus of “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women,” but the film’s depiction of the early days of American comic book history may be its most eye-opening revelations. Few, aside from those curious enough to know the early years of Mad Magazine, know about the salacious and subversive subtexts that America’s prim guardians of moral turpitude picked up on from those wildly popular “corrupters of our youth.”

There was public outcry, then Catholic condemnation and eventually even Congressional hearings on the matter, along with reforms, a “code” and attempts at oversight.

Just as with the movie industry.

And the most subversive super hero , the one whose exploits were most often-labeled perversion, led to the biggest box office hit of 2017. Because that super hero was a heroine created by a “free love” alternate thinker/psychologist who built the character around his theories of “dominance” and “submission to loving authority,” and who based her on the two “Wonder Women” he loved, impregnated and shared a most unconventional menage a trois Big Love with.

Oh yeah. Here’s a movie James Cameron needs to see before saying one more word about what he gets out of “Wonder Woman.”

Luke Evans (“Dracula Untold”) is the title character, a Harvard-educated theorist, teacher and developer of the lie-detector. William Marston is married to the equally brilliant Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall, of “The Town” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” — superb), a caustic, funny and profane partner who bristles at the sexism of their age (between the World Wars), which keeps her from her own Harvard Phd.

We meet them as they amusingly dissect the mating rituals at the college where he teaches and she shares his research. He wants a subject/lab assistant to study in relation to his “DISC Theory” of human emotion and psycho-sexual happiness. “Dominance,” “Submission,” “Induction” (seduction-persuasion) and “Compliance” drive the human animal, he thinks, not Freud’s notion that women really envy men their penises. His wife agrees — to a degree.

“Men’s minds are far too limited,” Professor Marston declares. “That’s why we need women!”

In the beautiful but perhaps “trapped” by her beauty Olive (Bella Heathcote, “Fifty Shades Darker”) they see their perfect subject. “Look how the boys and girls circle around her…Watch how she averts her eyes.”

Through her, they get deeper into DISC theory, sneak into demeaning and slightly kinky sorority initiation rituals and test and perfect the ways a lie-detector should be used. And both fall in love with her.

In the accomplished and dominant Brit Elizabeth and smart, pure of heart and open-minded Olive, Marston sees “the perfect woman.” And from that composite, through years of scandal over the “unconventional” relationship, their exposure to the still-illegal world of pornography and nascent and underground S & M industry and lifestyle, “Wonder Woman” was born.

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Writer/director Angela Robinson of TV’s “The L Word,” “D.E.B.S.” and “Herbie Fully Loaded” leans heavily on the human sexuality component of the story, and the social mores being tested. The tale is framed within a “Decency” league interrogation of the comic book writer (Connie Britton is his Catholic inquisitor). Robinson’s film blends elements of “Kinsey” and the sad, little-seen portrait of the creator of “Conan the Barbarian” — “The Whole Wide World.”

The fiercely funny Hall, wide-eyed and eager Evans and earthy beauty Heathcote cannot play the material wholly straight. It’s funny, intentionally and at times unintentionally so, partly owing to the credulous way these folks behave in this WAY ahead-of-their-times exploration of what our Puritanical culture has allowed, and what is still frowned-upon.

The timing of “Professor Marston” lays bare some of its own subversive intentions. See what you and your “Wonder Woman” loving kids have wholly bought into? Guess where it came from, what its REALLY selling! There’s a “normalization” at work here that will offend the sexually offended. Having Marson testify, point blank, that he’s creating “propaganda” built “to foster the case of equal rights for women” rattled cages then, and now adds to the sense that there’s an “agenda” in play.

Mostly though, “Marston” is more surprising than sexually salacious, more romp than tragedy, with its crusty comic book publisher (Oliver Platt is a stitch as E.C. Gaines, who brought “Superman” and “Wonder Woman” to America) and dorky enthusiast portrait of Marston.

If you don’t know this history, and neither I nor James Cameron (apparently) did, the dazzling “wonder women” behind “Wonder Woman” will make your draw drop.

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MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content including brief graphic images, and language.

Cast: Luke Evans, Bella Heathcote, Rebecca Hall, Connie Britton, Oliver Platt

Credits:Written and directed by Angela Robinson. An Annapurna release.

Running time: 1:48

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