Review: ‘Professor Marston And The Wonder Women’ Is Thought-Provoking And Scintillating, But Not Illuminating

It is honestly kind of a marvel that DC Comics is letting Professor Marston and the Wonder Women be released. In this year, when Wonder Woman is one of the only bona fide smashes at the box office, has dominated cultural conversation for months, and has proved once and for all that Chris Pine is the No. 1 Chris, it’s shocking that DC Comics is allowing Professor Marston and the Wonder Women to make its way to theaters. With all of its scintillating sexual content, context about the battled past of the Wonder Woman character, and positive presentation of polyamorous love, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is certainly a thought-provoking film experience—but it sure isn’t family-friendly.

Most glaring is the underdone character development, and it must be mentioned that writer and director Angela Robinson has said in interviews that there was no explicit documentation regarding a romantic relationship between Elizabeth Marston and Olive Byrne, who in the film are presented as being lovers for years. This is Robinson’s interpretation of the relationship between Wonder Woman creator Dr. William Mouton Marston and Elizabeth and Olive, and while it provides much of the film’s eyebrow-raising sexual content, if you want 100% historical accuracy, you won’t find it here. And anyway, that's not really the point. 

The film focuses primarily on the Marstons: William (Luke Evans) is a psychology professor at Harvard Radcliffe College, the women’s sister school to Harvard University that existed because the Ivy League at the time wouldn’t admit anyone but men, and Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) is his wife and research partner. She has a law degree and a master’s degree but Harvard University refuses to accept her into their PhD program, so she applies her deep intelligence and acerbic wit to her husband’s work.

They’re working on many things—a theory about human behavior that links together dominance and submission; an early version of the lie-detector test—but their married dynamic is mostly centered around William’s respect for his wife and Elizabeth’s resentment of social norms at the time. It’s a push-pull that is mostly defined by Elizabeth’s mercurial moods, and things only seem to get more intense when they meet Olive (Bella Heatcoate), a 22-year-old taking William’s psychology course. She applies to be the Marstons’s research assistant, and Elizabeth is immediately threatened, driving Olive to tears with her brusque “If you fuck my husband, I’ll kill you.”

Still, the attraction William feels for Olive is obvious to anyone, and as the three pursue their research together, a sort of kinship develops between them all. But Olive doesn’t return William’s lustful gazes—she’s doing some longing of her own toward Elizabeth. And through a series of events and altercations, including a spanking incident during a sorority pledging ceremony and an early version of the lie-detector test, there are admissions between the three that shape their lives to come, for better and for worse.

“What we want can never happen because the world won’t let it,” Elizabeth says, and that statement is underlined throughout the film when numerous parties, from Olive’s fiancé to suburban neighbors to family values groups, object to how William, Elizabeth, and Olive choose to live, and how their polyamory informs the creation of the Wonder Woman character. But while the film very effectively portrays the uphill battle the three of them faced when living their lives together, it is less successful in actually developing these characters fully on an individual basis and then growing them together as a romantic unit.

The film uses William’s defense of the Wonder Woman character before a review board as a framing device, and Evans is clearly the protagonist here; his research is the couple’s primary motivation, he’s the breadwinner in his marriage to Elizabeth, and he pursues Olive first. Practically everything centers around William, and it becomes repetitively disappointing that he is so often the one urging the women together. They can’t be honest with what they want unless he encourages them; they don’t tap into their sexual desires until he provides them with an outlet; they don’t realize their lifelong devotion to each other until he almost commands it. While the script solidly reiterates how the Wonder Woman character was born out of a desire to condition children into accepting and respecting strong women, it also focuses so much on William to the detriment of Elizabeth and Olive.

Does Olive have a defining characteristic aside from being submissive? If there is something, this film doesn’t uncover it. Heathcote is a striking figure in the corset, thigh-high boots, cuff bracelets, and coil of rope that would inform the Wonder Woman character design, but she’s given too little to do. She loves Elizabeth despite the woman’s constant undermining and belittling, and is defined only by her devotion to others, not herself. And the flip side of that is Elizabeth, who Hall excellently performs as a “grade-A bitch,” as William describes, but who is similarly problematically presented. She goes from being a foul-mouthed shit-stirrer and female warrior to a resentful and disgruntled secretary attacking everyone and everything around her, and while the movie makes clear how the patriarchy drove her to that point, that doesn’t legitimize her cruelty to her husband or to her lover. You can understand why someone would admire her, but not why they would love her.

The character shortcomings are most disappointing because the film is intentional in other ways that are impossible to ignore: the sex scenes are sensual without being exploitative; no character is objectified because of their gender; and the matter-of-fact handling of pornography and BDSM-inspired kink ensures that the movie isn’t titillating for the wrong reasons. But ultimately, it feels like Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is trying to do too much without quite enough; it is, by the filmmaker’s own admission, creating a narrative for which little historical data exists. And although the movie does a good job contextualizing Wonder Woman’s iconography and presenting a different kind of love story onscreen, it also cuts too many corners in its formulation to feel like the origin story this story truly deserves.