J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

It is the origin story of an origin story. Think of it as everything you wanted to know about the creator of Wonder Woman but were afraid to ask. Go back to a time when S&M was frowned upon in comic books in Angela Robinson’s Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

William Moulton Marston was the star of the Radcliffe psychology department, but his wife Elizabeth had the brains of the family. Yet, no university would take her on as a full professor, not even Radcliffe (which probably thought it was progressive simply because it had a psych department). Nevertheless, Olive Byrne, Marston’s pretty new work-study assistant is in awe of the couple—and romantically attracted to them both, even though she is engaged to a painfully traditional frat brother.

Nearly from the start, Prof. Marston is convinced they can make their unconventional relationship work, but Ms. Marston is more skeptical. Her concerns regarding social stigma prove well founded. The trio will indeed suffer disgrace and ostracism, but just when their prospects look dreariest, Marston causes a sensation with his comic book heroine, Wonder Woman, inspired by the strength of his partners and the light boudoir bondage they enjoy. Sadly, the schoolmarms at the Comic Commission take a dim view of her Amazon ways.

It is hard to keep up with Wonder Women’s frequent tonal shifts. One moment, we are invited to gawk at their naughty sessions and the next minute the film is stoking our outrage at middle class America’s Puritanical narrowmindedness. (If they had just locked their front door a lot of trouble could have been avoided, but apparently those were different times.)

No matter which primal emotions the film happens to be appealing to, Rebecca Hall is a wickedly smart, riveting screen presence as Elizabeth Marston. Not surprisingly, the legal Marston wife is also the most complex character. In contrast, it is hard to see how Bella Heathcote’s passively mousy Olive Byrne could inspire a paragon of female butt-kicking. However, Luke Evans is surprisingly expressive conveying the former Professor’s insecurities and regrets.

It is truly a drag how voluntary morality regulation drained so much fun out of comic-books. Still, you have to wonder what Dr. Drew might say about this film. Let’s be honest, such an arrangement really isn’t a practical option for most people. Arguably, Robinson presents a permissive moral world-view that is just as simplistic as the one she critiques. Wonder Women is a handsome period production and the deep roots of the American icon are certainly provocative, but the film doesn’t add up to much more than the smug feeling of superiority over the prudish booboisie. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is not an affront to anything, but it is too inconsistent to merit Wonder Woman fans’ time and money when it opens this Friday (10/13) in New York, at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square.

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