Professor Marston & The Wonder Women may not be a precisely accurate biopic, but it’s exactly the biopic Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston would have dreamed of seeing about his queer, kinky, polyamorous life. Writer/director/longtime lesbian favorite Angela Robinson has done a really subversive thing with the most talked-about period film of the fall: She’s brought an ardent screenplay, a soaring score, and unapologetically gauzy sunlight to bear on the story of the man, his wife, and their lover who created the most iconic female superhero of all time in the hopes that she would prepare the world for matriarchal rule — and a healthy side of bondage.
Wonder Woman’s Golden Age propensity for tying up her Amazonian gal pals, spanking her companions, and monologuing at length about the foolish violence in the man’s world wasn’t some kind of allegory or 1940s quirk. When Marston presented his idea for “Suprema the Wonder Woman” to All-American comics during World War II he did so as an alternative to the “blood-curdling masculinity” he saw in Batman, Superman, and Captain America. He believed women were the superior gender, that submitting to their emotional intelligence and peace-loving paradigms was the only hope for humanity, and that part of that submission included consensual kink. It was part of his larger DISC (dominance, inducement, submission, compliance) Theory, which he’d been working on for over a decade when Wonder Woman was picked up and became a bestseller.
William Marston was married to and deeply in love with Elizabeth Holloway Marston, a stunningly accomplished woman by any standard, and especially those of the 1940s. When her father decided to stopped paying for her advanced degrees, she simply put herself through law school without him. While the Marstons were researching the systolic blood pressure test and female eroticism at Harvard in the late 20s, they met and began a relationship with a research assistant named Olive Byrne.
But that’s just the facts of the thing; Robinson gives them life.
History is unclear on who fell for whom first, but Robinson presents it as a love triangle: Elizabeth was really into William who was really into Olive who was really into Elizabeth. Which is actually the most exciting revelation of the entire movie: Olive knows she’s queer and is way more wooed by Elizabeth’s whole feminist deal — Olive’s aunt was birth control pioneer and suffragette Margaret Sanger, so these feminist ideals were important to her — than she is by William’s charm and accomplishments. Elizabeth is suspicious of Olive, but after observing her in a sorority spanking ritual, her distrust blossoms into curiosity. A quick fanfiction-worthy trip to the lie detector reveals that everyone’s initial reservations have given way to lust and so they begin their foray into the wide world of threesomes and ropes and paddles. It’s sexy and it’s sweet and it’s consensual and just so very normal.
In fact, the villain of Professor Marston & The Wonder Women isn’t anything as exciting as The God of War. It’s Connie Britton as real-life Child Study Association of America’s Josette Frank, one of the most vocal critics of Wonder Woman, and a lobbyist whose work was instrumental in bringing about the puritanical Comics Code Authority’s regulations that took over the comic book industry in 1954. Robinson isn’t interested in a good vs. evil story, though. The pushback against Wonder Woman and against Marston’s unconventional relationships form the framing device for the film, but at its heart it’s a love story.
Marston’s true love is Wonder Woman, because she’s formed from the composite of Elizabeth and Olive. Diana’s feminist ideals are their feminist ideals. Diana’s zeal for stopping war is their zeal for stopping war. Diana’s interactions on Paradise Island are their interactions with each other. The conversations and the affection and, yes, the consenting to be tied up by each other at least once every ten frames. The closer the three of them become, the more Wonder Woman takes shape in his mind. One underground lingerie salesman even outfits Olive in a suit that looks almost exactly like Wonder Woman’s costume. That’s pure fiction, but in real life Olive’s thick bracelets were the inspiration behind Wonder Woman’s metal wrist guards.
The most surprising thing about Professor Marston & The Wonder Women is how deliberately earnest it is. It’s a brave artistic choice by Robinson to infuse a queer polyamorous relationship with the same cinematic normalcy we’ve come to expect from straight love story-centered biopics, and it’s also fitting. William Moulton Marston was a man of keen passions. He never backed down from his love for the women in his life and the creation they inspired, never stopped defending Wonder Woman against the critics who saw his messages about feminism and bondage for exactly what they were, never heeded the pleas of his editors to just keep Diana away from Themyscira where the ropes and chains just kept coming out.
He wanted young women to see themselves in Diana, to see that they were able to snap the chains the patriarchy had used to bind them. And he wanted young men to see it too, to know that women were powerful and wise and ready to move past their toxic, regressive shenanigans. Marston’s dream still hasn’t been realized, but his beloved Wonder Woman smashed box office records to the tune of $821 million this year. And Elizabeth and Olive lived happily ever after, together, decades after he passed away.