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updated: 10/13/2017 12:02 PM

Wonder Woman's racy origins explored in smart 'Professor Marston'

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  • Video: Professor Marston trailer

  • Harvard student Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) becomes the inspiration for Wonder Woman along with her lover, Elizabeth Marston (Rebecca Hall), in "Professor Marston and the Wonder Women."

    Harvard student Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) becomes the inspiration for Wonder Woman along with her lover, Elizabeth Marston (Rebecca Hall), in "Professor Marston and the Wonder Women."

 
 

"Professor Marston and the Wonder Women" -- ★ ★ ★

That Wonder Woman got her start in comic books accused of peddling sexual perversity shouldn't come as a complete surprise.

Long before the pinup appeal of Lynda Carter and the warrior vibe of Gal Gadot re-created Wonder Woman for TV and the movies, America's favorite female comic book superheroine dressed like a patriotic dominatrix and wielded her Lasso of Truth like Indiana Jones' bullwhip.

"Professor Marston and the Wonder Women" provides an eye-opening, jaw-dropping peek into how DC Comics' early feminist icon came into existence through the imagination and liberated sexual attitudes of a Harvard psychologist.

This amazingly tasteful movie -- considering the R-rated language and subject matter -- has been written and directed by Chicago native Angela Robinson, who explores this real-life superhero origin story with sharp intelligence, arresting technical grace and affectionate empathy for the character's nonconformist creators.

Harvard University professor William Marston (charismatic "Beauty and the Beast" live-action star Luke Evans) teaches a psychology class in which he expounds upon his DISC theory, suggesting that behavior can be categorized into four components: dominance, inducement, submission or compliance.

His quick and brutally blunt wife Elizabeth (British Rebecca Hall, who delivered 2016's best film performance in "Christine") points out that she's smarter than he is (an undisputed claim) and blames the university's sexist attitudes for limiting her career advancement.

The scientific accomplishments of the Marstons would be enough for any single movie. For one, they invented the lie detector. He created the systolic blood pressure test, which he, after she suggested a connection between emotions and blood pressure, combined with what we now call the polygraph.

Their bigger legacy begins when attractive blonde student Olive Byrne ("Fifty Shades Darker" actress Bella Heathcote) comes into his classroom. Elizabeth instantly notices her husband's interest in Olive, and bluntly warns her not to sleep with her husband.

Dr. William Marston (Luke Evans) enjoys an unusual three-way relationship between Harvard student Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), right, and his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) in "Professor Marston and the Wonder Women."
Dr. William Marston (Luke Evans) enjoys an unusual three-way relationship between Harvard student Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), right, and his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) in "Professor Marston and the Wonder Women." -

"You're jealous!" he laughs.

"I'm your wife," she replies, "not your jailer." So, he's free to do what he wants.

All three wind up doing what they want, which is pretty much each other.

While this provocative, three-way relationship shakes out, Marston spreads his feminist ideals of empowerment and self-actualization to the masses through the then-unsavory venue of comic books.

His first incarnation of Wonder Woman, called Suprema, introduces the racy elements of bondage, submission, sexualized costumes and erotic props that would continue in Wonder Woman adventures and earn the disdain of decency organizations dedicated to eradicating comic book decadence.

(This movie is cleverly framed by scenes in which Marston valiantly defends himself under intense interrogation by Connie Britton as the director of a censorship outfit called the Child Study Association of America.)

Photographed with quiet sensual allure by Bryce Fortner, "Professor Marston" opens a window into the creative process as well, for we see how the details of Wonder Woman's story are inspired by real-world events and objects.

Even her invisible jet.

• • •

Starring: Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote, Connie Britton

Directed by: Angela Robinson

Other: An Annapurna Pictures release. Rated R for language, graphic images and sexual situations. 108 minutes

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