With the recent success of Wonder Woman still fresh in our minds, director Angela Robinson brings us the real life story behind 2017’s most memorable superhero. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is told in flashbacks and switches between scenes where William Marston (Luke Evans) is having to justify the Wonder Woman comics he created to the censors and the previous experiences that influenced and inspired them. The flashbacks start in 1928 at Radcliffe College, a women’s only university that partnered the then all male Harvard, where Marston is professor of psychology. He is joined by his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), a brilliant psychologist in her own right, who is frustrated by her lack of recognition despite inventing the lie detector with her husband.
Their lives are changed when they hire Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) as a research assistant. She is beautiful and before long both William and Elizabeth have fallen in love with her. Their unconventional relationship persists but before long it is discovered by the university authorities and the Marston’s are fired. They all move to the suburbs of New York, where William stumbles upon fetish art and combines this interest with inspiration given to him by the women in his life to create a unique superhero. The comics are an instant hit but also create controversy due to their more racy elements. William Marston believes Wonder Woman promotes the empowerment of women. Others were less sure.
The story behind Wonder Woman is a really fascinating one and all three central characters must have been compelling individuals. It is strange then that their portrayal is so broad and conventional. Olive in particular is a very familiar character and is little more than the lost college girl stereotype that we have seen too many times before. Too much focus it given to their relationship and too little to what it meant. It is almost as if the film forgets that it meant to be about gender politics and instead decides that it should be a love story.
This is not helped by the way in which the film flicks from one period to another, covering 20 years in little over 100 minutes. There is never enough time to contemplate each period of their lives and as a result there is no nuance or room to think about the topics that are raised. We are simply shown an event and then where it appears within the magazine, without any real investigation into the thoughts and feelings behind their influence.
The major problem though is that the film is tonally inconsistent and that it is unable to balance its low budget with its mainstream pretensions. The dialogue and characterisation is too snarky for the story to be uplifting and populist but at the same time the delivery is too saccharine and predictable for it to be bold or insightful. In the end it fails on both counts. Gender empowerment is a topic that can and has been tackled by mainstream films with a surprising amount of success. Hidden Figures and Their Finest have both recently shown this. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women in comparison has none of their charm or conviction.
Considering how well timed the release of the film is and the strength of the source material, is this really the best they could do? What could have been a fascinating real life story ends up being a moderately entertaining and textureless period drama. Oddly a film about such progressively minded people is neither subversive nor provocative.
Professor Marston and The Wonder Women is in cinemas from Friday 10th November