These days, superhero movies have become so commonplace that audiences actually complain when the latest DC or Marvel blockbusters slows down to deliver a character’s origin story (which is one reason the latest Spider-Man reboot skipped the whole radioactive spider-bite setup and dove straight into the action). But when it comes to Wonder Woman, how the divine Diana Prince sprung into existence is every bit as interesting as her wildest adventure — and I’m not talking about her Greek god-parents or Amazon upbringing either, but the way the character was conceived by a Harvard psychology professor named William Moulton Marston.
Conceived as a feminist role model for young readers; dressed in red-white-and-blue fetish gear, complete with wrist cuffs; and armed with a lasso of truth that combined Marston’s own invention (he’s the brain behind the lie-detector test) with one of his favorite kinks (bondage, or so we’re led to believe), Wonder Woman was not just the poster girl of Marston’s personal agenda, but also the “love child” of a polyamorous relationship the forward-thinking intellectual maintained with his wife (also a psychologist) and his comely young teaching assistant (also their lover).
That’s the incredibly rich backstory writer-director Angela Robinson mines in “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women,” a rare glimpse into a functional three-way domestic relationship, the likes of which audiences seldom ever see on screen (where the ménage à trois is typically depicted as a source of competition and conflict). But juicy as all this ought to be, Robinson’s tweedy, sepia-hued approach is totally at odds with this alternately lurid and illuminating source material. As the portrait of a man (and his “wonder women”) so devoted to the pursuit of truth, this is arguably the phoniest film you’ll see all year, marred by clumsy direction, over-obvious acting and a wooden script that skews what was so radical about the thruple’s arrangement into something tame and downright boring.
The film takes place in the early 1940s, at a time when propaganda was perfectly acceptable in American media, and comics were viewed with scorn and suspicion by many, as detailed in David Hadju’s terrific 2008 book “The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare And How It Changed America.” As religious and community leaders condemned comics, it was not uncommon for concerned parents, educators and teens to round up the offending pulp and torch them in public bonfires — the way a church group might destroy pornography today.
Clearly, time has vindicated the comicbook medium, and Robinson eagerly exploits the subsequent enlightenment to position the controversial threesome as pioneers of a sort — which, of course, they were, although that doesn’t necessarily invalidate the concerns of the conservative forces who opposed them. Marston was hardly the first or last Harvard professor to seduce one of his coeds, but that doesn’t make it any less creepy to watch him leer at the young Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote, beautiful, but seemingly incapable of underplaying what her character is thinking) when she wanders into his laboratory.
Meanwhile, Marston is played by Luke Evans, who is the closest thing the movies have to a living, breathing Tom of Finland cartoon — and the hunky Gaston of last spring’s live-action “Beauty and the Beast” movie. With his broad shoulders, muscular chest and square jaw, the actor also happens to be the farthest thing from a Harvard academic that one can imagine. Handsome as he is, it’s a nice twist that Olive (who’s the daughter of birth control advocate Ethel Byrne and niece of radical feminist Margaret Sanger) seems more interested in his wife, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall, better than the movie deserves), a Radcliffe professor whose own achievements are undermined by the sexism of her era.
William and Elizabeth are liberal enough in their own marriage: “I don’t experience sexual jealousy,” she tells him. “I’m your wife, not your jailer.” That’s all fine in theory, but once the flirtation begins, she can’t entirely dismiss her emotions. Still, it’s fascinating — if not even remotely convincing — to watch these two brilliant people approach the challenge of trying to reorganize their lives around Olive’s arrival.
Robinson tries to lay the foundations of their three-way dynamic as delicately as possible, to the extent that what turns them on feels curiously Disneyfied: For example, William enlists Olive in early tests of his lie detector, giddily submitting to its elaborate series of S&M-style straps and restraints. Later, Olive allows the Marstons to eavesdrop on a sorority spanking ritual that’s as stilted and awkward as a Tijuana bible (those illicit erotic comics William soon finds himself collecting, and whose fetishistic content clearly filter into his early Wonder Woman scripts).
If done right, these scenes ought to boil with sexual tension, but instead they seem downright silly — which is the trouble with virtually any kink when viewed from the outside: So often they are silly, and the challenge facing any filmmaker is to invite audiences into the fantasy space of the characters, rather than leaving us squirming on the sidelines.
By the time William drags Olive to a local lingerie dealer, the movie has lapsed into some kind of full-blown delirium, treating the shop’s backroom as a kind of magic portal where Wonder Woman’s costume is first assembled, dramatically backlit to appear like a scene from Patty Jenkins’ summer blockbuster — perhaps the most egregious abuse of the “eureka moment” cliché in any recent biopic. It takes a special talent to take a true story and render it in such a way that virtually every detail rings false.
But don’t let the fact that “Professor Marston” is so heavy-handedly told, telegraphing its every point via on-the-nose dialogue and the kind of broad pantomime on which silent movies once relied, detract from the revelations it delivers. Such directorial clumsiness doesn’t necessarily invalidate the importance of its subject, and for all the debates that have raged this summer over the merits of Wonder Woman — as a feminist icon, as pop entertainment, as a landmark motion picture — her fans really ought to know how the character began. After all, truth, Robinson so unconvincingly reminds us, is what she stands for.