Movie Review: Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017)
It’s tough watching a movie based on history you know.
At first, it’s the little things. This movie opens with kids pulling red wagons full of comic books, chiefly “Wonder Woman,” from door to door in an idyllic American neighborhood. “Probably a comic-book burning,” I thought. Those were prevalent in the late 1940s—part of what author David Hajdu in The Ten-Cent Plague calls “the pathologies of postwar America.” And that’s what this is. The kids take the comics to a field, make a pile, light it on fire, dance around. Watching sadly in the glow is a much-too-handsome version of Prof. William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans), creator of Wonder Woman.
Then we cut to an interrogation of Marston by Josette Frank (Connie Britton), director of Child Study Association of America, and we’re told it’s 1945. Except they didn’t have comic-book burnings in 1945. We were too busy fighting a war. So is this a flashback? Doesn’t seem like it. Plus Marston died in 1947 anyway. So how could he have watched comic-book burnings in 1949?
But you let it go. It’s minor. “Chronology.” Still, you have questions, and after the movie you do a little internet research.
This interrogation of Marston frames the film, and, within it, Josette Frank comes off as officious and powerful, her organization like an early version of the Family Research Council. “Doctor Marston,” she says. “Wonder Woman has drawn criticism for being full of depictions of bondage, spanking, torture, homosexuality, and other sex perversions. ... Would you care to explain yourself?” So to the obvious question: Did Josette Frank exist?
She did. Except ... she was actually a proponent of comic books at a time when many professionals thought they were bad for kids. She even served on the Editorial Advisory Board at National/DC Comics, from which, yes, she did complain to publisher M.C. Gaines (Oliver Platt) about the bondage scenes in “Wonder Woman.” But an interrogation? In which Marston is defensive, Gaines is sweating, and Frank holds all the cards? Not even close. In real life, she had so little power she resigned from the board. In the movie, she’s so powerful that after her cross-examination Marston collapses, sick, and eventually dies. From what? The movie doesn’t say. For the record, it was polio, a stroke and skin cancer, all of which he contracted in his final three years. Bam bam bam. Age 53. Too young. But the movie makes it seem that Josette Frank and her ilk—people too square to think bondage scenes are cool in children’s stories—are somehow responsible.
Why would writer-director Angela Robinson (“The L Word”) do this? To a real person? A woman so beloved her org’s annual children’s book award is now named for her? What am I missing?
So I read “The Secret History of Wonder Woman,” by Yale professor and New Yorker contributor Jill Lepore, to find an answer. And I did. The answer is the movie sucks.
Of the literary biopics released last fall (Salinger, Milne, Dickens), I had the highest hopes for “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women,“ since its backstory was least-known and most complicated.
Here are the complications.
Wonder Woman, the most popular female superhero of all time, was created by a man who lived with two women: his wife, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), with whom he had two children; and Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), a former student, with whom he had two children.
How does Robinson make this fact palatable to audiences in the #MeToo age? By suggesting that the two women are more interested in each other than in Marston. Olive is really in love with Elizabeth, and vice-versa. Marston is almost their beard. It’s almost a lesbian love story.
Except .... According to Lepore, who had access to Marston family records, that three-way living arrangement occurred when Marston delivered an ultimatum to his wife: Byrne would either live with them, or he would leave her and live with Byrne. Poor Elizabeth! Except ... No, she was looking out for herself, too. She realized that Marston's ultimatum was the answer to her dilemma—the modern woman's dilemma. She could have the babies she wanted, and then go back to the career she wanted, because Olive would be there to raise the babies. Win win. For her. And Marston. Byrne, that's up in the air.
So really less Lesbos, more Joseph Smith.
Even so, Marston was an early feminist, and that feminism is evident in early “Wonder Woman” comics. “I am amazed by the strength of their feminist message,” Gloria Steinem said in 1972 before putting Wonder Woman on the cover of the first Ms. magazine. That was all Marston. If he wasn’t writing it, Wonder Woman fell back on the gender stereotypes of the day. When she joined the Gardner Fox-written ”Justice Society of America," he made her its secretary; the male superheroes went off to fight and she stayed behind and cleaned up. No joke. Marston’s comic included a four-page section called “Wonder Women of History,” which featured short bios on the likes of Clara Barton, Dolley Madison and Eleanor Roosevelt. Once he died, it was replaced with a section on weddings, while Wonder Woman spent a lot of her time scheming, or pining, to marry Steve Trevor. She became Lois Lane with superpowers.
So bravo for Marston’s feminism. Except ... it did have some kinks in it.
“Women enjoy submission—being bound,” he wrote to Gaines after Frank suggested removing the bondage scenes from Wonder Woman. He added: “This, my dear friend, is the one truly great contribution of my Wonder Woman strip to the moral education of the young. The only hope for peace is to teach people who are full of pep and unbound force to enjoy being bound—enjoy submission to kind authority, wise authority, not merely tolerate such submission. Wars will only cease when humans enjoy being bound.”
Marston is a maddening character: progressive and not; brilliant and a charlatan. While at Harvard, he created an early version of the lie detector test but may have fudged the results. He did win a nationwide screenwriting contest, and the movie, “Jack Kennard, Coward,” was subsequently produced by the Edison Company. He should have gone to Hollywood. Instead, he got a law degree, taught law, and was involved in a landmark case, Frye v. United States, that went before the U.S. Supreme Court. It turned on the issue of when new scientific testimony (in this case, his lie detector) might be deemed admissible in court. But Lepore uncovers squeamish details: 1) Frye’s lawyers were actually Marston’s students, who, in their appeal, 2) seemed more interested in proving the efficacy of Marston’s lie detector than in their client’s innocence. Marston later claimed that his role in the Frye case opened “a wedge” for lie-detector evidence in court; Lepore writes, “Nothing could have been further from the truth; the Frye case closed the door on that evidence.” Frye, an African American, and poorly represented by Marston’s students, wound up serving 18 years in prison.
None of this is in the movie, by the way, except for the creation of Marston’s lie detector—which Robinson sets not when Marston was a student at Harvard but 10 years later when he was an assistant professor at Tufts and Olive Byrne was his student. Robinson gives Byrne credit for the breakthrough.
So much is wrong here. Marston should be an overweight raconteur with a twinkle in his eye rather than this dull, handsome man-toy. So much is left out. During the 1930s, Marston kept appearing as a wise, benevolent psychiatrist in puff pieces for Family Circle magazine. Who wrote them? Olive Byrne, pretending she didn’t know Marston, let alone live with him, let alone ... everything else. One of these puff pieces, by the way, in which he expounded on the benefits of comics, is what led to his relationship with DC. In the movie? He just barrels into their offices. He cold calls.
Robinson even bends the fade-out graphics to suit her narrative:
After he died, Marston’s sexual motifs were stripped from the Wonder Woman comic book ... along with her super powers.
Sufferin' Sappho. Yes, the bondage scenes were removed from Wonder Woman in the late ’40s—as they should have. But removing her super powers? That happened two decades later, in 1969, for which the man responsible, legendary writer Denny O’Neil, has offered many a mea culpa. He also exiled Diana from Paradise Island and gave her a pants suit and a blind Chinese mentor. I think he thought he was doing the feminist thing. But it wasn’t what fans wanted. They wanted the bustier and boots and magic lasso. The problematic had become nostalgic.
The kicker to all of this? Olive Byrne, whose '20s-era bracelets inspired Wonder Woman’s, is actually the daughter of Ethel Byrne and the niece of Margaret Sanger, heroes of the suffragist/birth control movement. This is mentioned in the movie. Except ... they’re not exactly who we think they are, either. Ethel didn’t want to raise her daughter; Olive was physically tossed into the snow as an infant. Growing up, she hardly saw her famous mother and aunt.
History is more complex than we think, our heroes more complicated than we want. They’re rarely super.
- “The Surprising Origin of Wonder Woman” by Jill Lepore, Smithsonian.com
- “Reel Grandma versus Real Grandma” by Yereth Rosen in The Anchorage Press
- “Josette Frank, Alone Against the Storm” by Ken Quattro, the Comics Detective
- The history of the Josette Frank Award, Wikipedia
- “Frederic Wertham and the campaign against comic books” by Jeet Heer, Slate.com
- “Lasso of Truth: The curious tale of Wonder Woman’s creator”; Chad Jones interview with playwright Carson Kreitzer, SF GATE
- “Wonder Woman’s Surprising Back Story Has a Film of Its Own” by Mekado Murphy, The New York Times
- “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” by Jill Lepore