Wonder Woman, it seems, has always been a symbol of progress. She was created by William Moulton Marston, a forward-thinking psychology professor, to help usher in a new era of female empowerment. Seventy-five years later, moviegoers cheered and wept this summer while watching Gal Gadot’s Diana of Themyscira in a superheroine movie that felt long overdue.
But Wonder Woman’s modernity has nothing on her creators': a trio of romantic and sexual rebels who embraced queerness, kink, and polyamory decades before even San Francisco did. “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” celebrates the bravery and creativity of Diana Prince’s mastermind and his muses, but with a tepidness toward the complications of their lives. The result is a gauzy, sexy ode to unconventionality that feels distinctly and disappointingly conventional.
Writer-director Angela Robinson’s (“Herbie Fully Loaded,” “D.E.B.S.”) biggest concession to biopic norms is to span nearly all of her protagonist’s adult life. “Professor Marston” thus covers two decades (with no sign of aging makeup), and its consequent need for speed means that characters and storylines don’t get the time that they need to develop.
The drama is primarily a domestic one, opening at Harvard with a defiant and idealistic William (Luke Evans) happily married to the brilliant and hilariously tart-tongued Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), but suddenly open to a second partner when he spots the sweet, doll-faced Olive (Bella Heathcote) on campus. In one of the strong early scenes, Mr. and Mrs. Marston debate whether the Radcliffe student’s innocent but extraordinary beauty is an advantage or an albatross.
(Elizabeth feigns breezy indifference to Olive’s attractiveness, but when the younger woman is assigned to be their research assistant, her true feelings emerge. “If you f–k my husband,” Elizabeth spits, “I’ll kill you.”)
It’s a long way from there to the moment where the Marstons and Olive decide to sleep with one another as a throuple, and the film never convinces us of Elizabeth’s attraction to Olive or Olive’s attraction to William. (William’s attraction to the two women is never in question. “Together, you are the perfect woman,” he tells his wife, in one of several moments when the dialogue and Evans’ screen smarm undercut the professor’s supposed charming roguishness.)
And while we’re constantly reminded of the negative repercussions that the threesome suffer — including Harvard’s imminent expulsion of William and Elizabeth — the triad are so idyllic in their desire for one another and so contemporary in their understanding of sexual concepts (like consent and lesbianism) that the line between biopic and fan fiction feels blurred.
Still, the film’s first half offers joy and buoyancy via its scenes of collaboration. The Marstons make something of a project out of Olive the way they do with their invention of the lie detector, educating her about the theory (or fallacy) of penis envy and the importance of female self-determination. (To their surprise, Olive already knows all about that: Both her mother and her aunt, the legendary Margaret Sanger, were birth-control activists.) Inspired by their sexual desires and jealousies, the Marstons fine-tune the world’s first polygraph. With their next innovation — a family headed by three partners — they promote Olive from test subject to co-creator.
But “Professor Marston” unexpectedly falls flat when it comes to the troika’s greatest collaboration: Wonder Woman. Because the film is so preoccupied with William’s sexual fantasies and the internecine conflicts between Olive and Elizabeth, we see little of the cooperative teamwork that it took to get the Amazonian from the professor’s imagination on to the comic-book page. It’s at least an hour before the words “Wonder Woman” are uttered, and most of what we do see of Diana Prince finds her in montages of compromising positions: bound, gagged, and contorted into various shapes, just like in William’s illegal BDSM porn collection. (This was a time when federal laws against obscenity essentially outlawed photos of naked people.)
A framing device featuring a too-reasonable Connie Britton, playing a child psychologist, asks what’s so empowering about a half-naked woman constantly pictured tied up? Or, for that matter, about a version of female power that’s always palatable to the male gaze? Frustratingly, “Professor Marston” doesn’t bother to address such contradictions.
Instead, what we see are the possible visual and sensual origins of Wonder Woman: Elizabeth’s unapologetic intelligence (hidden from view in secretarial work), Olive’s metal cuff bracelets, and, in a display of erotic bondage in a sex shop, the corset, knee-high boots and lasso that arguably most sexualize the Amazonian. When we see Olive inadvertently dressed up as Diana Prince, it’s a spectacular shot that could equally belong on a pin-up or an inspirational poster. But so what? It ultimately doesn’t say much about why William chose those particular elements for Wonder Woman, just that he did.
The professor begins the film witnessing a comic-book burning, his greatest achievement disappearing before his eyes in the fire. By the time we reach his martyrdom, we’re asked to mourn for a man we barely get to know, let alone admire. “Women should run the world,” he insists with an earnest gleam in his eyes and zero self-awareness. But Robinson only occasionally lets us see flashes of the selfishness and hypocrisy that led him to sometimes steamroll over the women who helped him make his life’s work.
Similarly, Olive barely registers as a character. Elizabeth alone emerges into personhood, almost entirely through Hall’s layered portrayal of a woman who gives into her fears more than she’d like. As the practical, pessimistic killjoy, Elizabeth is far from alone in cinema’s sisterhood of female naysayers. Hall makes every twitch of her eye and waver in her voice count when Elizabeth forces herself to hope.
Alas, “Professor Marston” mostly keeps her where she dreaded she’d always be: in her husband’s shadow.