When Wonder Woman made her big-screen debut last year in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, comics fans wondered why it took Hollywood so long to put the medium's most famous female character in the cinematic spotlight. Ironically, hard on the heels of a blockbuster Wonder Woman solo film comes the first-ever big-screen biopic about a comic-book creator, featuring Princess Diana's inventor, William Moulton Marston, aka Charles Moulton. It's not as if no one else's story had cinematic potential. The riches-to-rags saga of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman, would make a great cautionary tale, for instance. Once Stan Lee passes from the scene, his turbulent collaborations with Steve Ditko (Spider-Man, Dr. Strange) and Jack Kirby (just about everything else) might make epics of pop-culture history. But there's a more obvious hook to the Marston story, the same one that made Jill Lepore's Secret History of Wonder Woman a best-seller a couple of years ago. Depending on your perspective, Marston was a sexual progressive, a sexual predator, a pervert or simply a creep whose preoccupations made the early issues of the Wonder Woman comic some of the most peculiar reading of the medium's Golden Age. Long story short: Marston, a proponent not merely of gender equality but female supremacy, was a bondage fetishist who lived in a menage-a-trois in which the two women were the breadwinners most of the time while Marston himself, a disgraced academic who failed to profit from his development of a lie-detector, struggled to write something that would sell. I imagine anyone who's read Lepore's book will share the author's ambivalent view of a man whose theories of erotic submission as the key to world peace could well be interpreted as mere rationalizations for his fetishistic fantasies. Angela Robinson's version of the Marston story is somewhat less ambivalent.
Writer-director Robinson follows a standard biopic formula, using a late-career crisis as an opportunity to tell Marston's story as a lengthy flashback. As in real life, Marston faces criticism from National Comics' (aka DC) educational consultants over Wonder Woman's kinkier content, as well as scrutiny, perhaps more so than in real life, over his personal background. Robinson elects to start the story proper at Radcliffe College in 1928, at the time when Marston (Luke Evans, who's played Greek gods in the past) was already long-married to his intellectual partner Elizabeth Holloway (Rebecca Hall, in a performance that strongly resembles an Emma Thompson impersonation), but just meeting junior muse Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcoate, wearing what strikes me as anachronistic non-bobbed hair), a student turned teaching assistant. In fact, this happens in the wrong year and the wrong college, but there's no point to calling out all Professor Marston's errors and anachronisms. By now, once you see "Based on True Events," you should know what to expect. Dramatic license dictates that the Marstons are still struggling to develop their lie-detector, so the proof of its success can also be an early emotional climax of the story. In any event, Marston hires Olive because he has the hots for her, while Elizabeth allows it as part of her film-long effort to appear more progressive than she often feels. Another expression of this, and practically a character trait in its own right, is her habit of saying "Fuck" in approximately every other sentence. She has a lot to curse about, since Harvard Law is unwilling to award her a doctorate and her husband's a bit of a dick. But -- and here the film has raised controversy and riled descendants of the Marstons -- it develops that Elizabeth shares William's attraction to Olive, who possesses a certain progressive glamour as the niece of birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger. After Elizabeth catches Olive in a lie and discovers, in classic biopic fashion, the key to the lie-detector, the Marstons test their device on their protege, who makes a negative confession of her desire for both husband and wife.
This leads to a three-way that is at once ingeniously prophetic and intrusively anachronistic. The trio invades the costume department of the school's theater-arts building for some role-play. Olive puts on a Fay Wray like fairytale princess costume, while William throws on a uniform that makes him a precursor of Steve Trevor and Elizabeth wears a leopard-skin coat evocative of Wonder Woman's arch-enemy, the Cheetah. The year is still 1928 or 1929, but the scene is scored to Nina Simone's "Feeling Good" from the Swingin' Sixties. That's just another hint that the filmmakers would rather not have dealt with the Twenties at all. They've already moved events forward in time so that the characters aren't too old when Wonder Woman hits big -- the trio hardly seems to age over approximately twenty years -- and the music heard in a speakeasy early on didn't sound authentic, either. Was there no erotic music back then? That can't be true, but I guess whoever compiled the soundtrack gave up too quickly.
Olive's doubly-cuckolded fiance denounces the menage and gets the Marstons fired from Radcliffe. Elizabeth is forced to become a secretary while William pounds the typewriter at home -- in fact, he spent time in Hollywood experimenting with monitoring audiences' emotional responses to movies -- and Olive does ...? In bad times Elizabeth takes her frustrations out on Olive, but their estrangements never last long. Meanwhile, William's discovery of a fetish store in Greenwich Village leads inexorably to his invention of "Suprema, the Wonder Woman" after he discovers how the proverbial French postcards illustrate his DISC principle more effectively than all his treatises. National Comics impresario M.C. Gaines (Oliver Platt) finds Martson pretentious but bites on the idea, suggesting only that they do without the "Suprema" part. Apparently the kinky bits that caused such trouble later -- Marston's scripts were very detailed about knots, for instance -- troubled Gaines not at all initially. But before long proto-suburbanites are holding merry book-burnings and the Marston kids are getting into fights at school after a neighbor wanders through an unlocked front door (these really were more innocent times) and finds our trio in a compromising position. Once more, Elizabeth folds almost instantly and Olive is driven into exile, but in another biopic tradition, William's tense meeting with the consulting board coincides with a health crisis -- somehow he doesn't cough up blood -- that brings everybody back together for good. The Marston makes a speech somewhere, for some reason, and the movie ends.
I'm probably not the ideal audience for Professor Marston because I've read Lepore's book, but I tried to be indulgent toward dramatic license, except that superficial things like the Nina Simone song annoyed the hell out of me. I can't help feeling that the film would have been better off starting before Olive and doing more to establish the progressive milieu from which the Marstons emerged. In the final analysis I don't think Robinson or Luke Evans ever really figured out what to make of Marston. Was he a martyr for sexual freedom -- despite the factual cancer diagnosis film logic implies that persecution hastened his demise -- or a pretentious jackass, as he is sometimes shown to be? Perhaps we should accept that he was a little bit of both, just as you can decide that Elizabeth and Olive were to some extent his partners, and to a lesser extent his victims. The greatest act of creative license in the picture is its imagining of a sexual relationship between the two women, which their descendants deny. At the end of the movie its they who live happily ever after, after Marston's death, but to this day it's still subject to debate whether we can assume that two women who raised a family together were lovers, or whether such an assumption is stereotypical. Making the main relationship a true threesome arguably makes Marston look less bad, though I doubt that was the intention so much as to make Elizabeth and Olive more like "wonder women" as sexual progressives by modern standards. In all likelihood the jury is still out on William Marston, and his story remains fascinating enough that, like many a comic book character, it could stand to be "rebooted" sometime by better filmmakers.