Film & Television

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, the Ultimate Origin Story

It’s 1928. A psychology professor explains his theory of DISC — Dominance, Inducement, Submission and Compliance — to a class of particularly fresh and dewy-eyed Radcliffe students. They are absolutely mesmerized. It doesn’t hurt that his subtext is sexual or that he’s tremendously handsome. When he ends the lecture with a request for research assistants, there’s little doubt that he’ll have a considerable list of willing volunteers to choose from.

The professor is William Moulton Marston. An historical figure, he’s credited with inventing an early version of the polygraph machine. He wrote pop psychology books, and had a brief career in entertainment and advertising. But his true legacy is the creation of Wonder Woman.

And, his true story is the subject of a marvelous new movie by director/screenwriter Angela Robinson.

In Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, Robinson examines the real-life muses that shaped Marston’s iconic heroine. It’s a story that weaves together earnest academic inquiry, a modern feminist sensibility, and an unconventional polyamorous living arrangement. Suffice it to say that Wonder Woman’s origin story (warrior Amazon princess from the paradise island of Themyscira) is pretty tame compared to the origin story behind the origin story.

Marston, along with his brilliant wife and professional colleague Elizabeth, begin working with enthusiastic and luminously lovely student Olive Byrne. There is physical chemistry from the start. Elizabeth warns Olive, “If you fuck my husband I’ll kill you.” But, it soon becomes apparent that Olive is at least as attracted to Elizabeth as she is to Bill. “You’re magnificent,” she tells her. Secrets come to surface quickly — the three are testing a lie detector, for heaven’s sake — and after only the most perfunctory show of resistance, they gracefully become a threesome. Their first group encounter takes place in a deserted theatre space on campus, complete with Greco sets and costumes. It is tastefully presented and edited to a Nina Simone soundtrack. “It’s a new dawn; it’s a new day. It’s a new life for me, and I’m feeling good.” Indeed.

Alas, the rest of the Harvard community isn’t feeling it. Rumors grow and Bill and his wife lose their jobs. Olive becomes pregnant, and the three move to suburban New York together, where they raise four children and pass Olive off as a widowed relative. Bill is still preoccupied with his DISC theory and finds validation in images of bondage. (“But, that’s pornography,” both women protest.) The three become involved in some very gentle (and wholly consensual) role play, bondage, and fetishism. Meanwhile, Bill comes up with the concept of Wonder Woman and sells it to publisher M.C. Gaines at All Star Comics. Wonder Woman is a great success, but its liberal use of ropes, chains, and even spanking draws the attention of conservative watchdog Josette Frank of the Child Study Association of America.

Scenes of Frank interrogating Bill open the film and are interspersed throughout. They are effective as a framing devise, but the flashbacks and domestic scenes between Bill, Elizabeth, and Olive are much more engaging.

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