Finally, here’s a superhero movie we didn’t see coming. In a visually beautiful, wonderfully acted, and relatively short film from writer and director Angela Robinson, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women follows a polyamorous, kink-oriented family confronting the various ingrained taboos of their society and their internalized shame in the face of those taboos. The movie is a call for tolerance in the face of bigotry and conservatism, and it works. For all the ways this movie could have gone wrong—and there were many, many ways—the resulting product makes all the right moves.
The movie owes its existence to the Jill Lepore book The Secret History of Wonder Woman, which first made a narrative out of—and popularized—the history of Wonder Woman’s creators, Professor William Marston, and his life-long partners Olive Byrne and Elizabeth Marston. The movie condenses and rearranges events to a simplified arc that fits neatly under two hours, but the central facts remain the same: Marston (Luke Evans) helps to invent the lie detector test at Harvard and takes up residence with his two romantic partners, Elizabeth Marston (Rebecca Hall), his legal wife, and Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), the beautiful descendent of two famous first-wave feminists. As the family’s lifestyle leads to lost jobs and ostracism, they adapt and compromise to avoid harassment. Marston eventually creates the Wonder Woman comics as his career slips further down the academic ladder and he has to find a way to make a wage while sticking by his ideals. Wonder Woman the character takes shape on screen too, with unsubtle nods such as Bill’s crystalline model plane, Elizabeth’s born-of-necessity job as a secretary, and Olive’s developing kink aesthetic of rope with tiara and bodice.
The bondage itself is toned down to pastel montage fantasies that are more picturesque than sexual. And maybe that’s the point: the movie doesn’t trust its audience to automatically accept a kink-heavy polyamorous family—which to be fair sounds much more like practicality than pessimism in our current political climate. So the movie transformed itself, from the messy subject of sexuality to the heartstring-tugging cues of romance. No sweat or semen here. Just affection, loyalty, and conviction. Bill Marston is radically transformed from the historical, paunchy, genial-looking, older academic to a lithe, spirited, and trim man with movie-star good looks. Like an excellent contortionist, the movie twists itself into just the right shape for an indie blockbuster, even though that pose doesn’t always feel quite natural.
The downplaying of on-screen sexuality though makes room for other aspects of the movie to be taken more seriously, such as the fantastic tension and self-questioning between Olive and Elizabeth, two brilliant women who, at a time when lesbianism was far up the chain of sexual taboos, discover feelings for each other and decide to act on them. The simplified plot and squeaky-clean edges of the movie also make space for the movie’s excellent use and manipulation of the Hollywood “coming out” plot. The Marstons and Olive do not have a definition like polyamory for their feelings for one another. Elizabeth pushes back against her husband and Olive’s enthusiasm to leap into this new life, both in response to her own ingrained homophobia and her terror of the rejection and shame that such a life would bring down on all of their heads. Salacious sex scenes, a will-they-or-won’t-they, isn’t where the movie gets its fuel. It is much more self-aware and cerebral, a tense story of self-doubt and self-acceptance. With true first-wave feminist anti-intersectionality, Olive cannot even count on the support of her famous feminist family members. To associate her own “situation” with the movement, Olive says in the film, would sully the movement’s reputation.
The frame story for this entire queer narrative is the moral panic surrounding comics in the 1940s: with Rosette Frank (Connie Britton) standing in as the face of all conservatism and censorship in American society, Bill tries to defend his creation against the onslaught of literal bonfires consuming comics deemed morally dangerous to America’s youth. Say, for instance, a scantily-clad superheroine whose pages are rife with bondage, spanking, and support of free love. It’s enough of a helpful coincidence that, the day I saw this movie, I was reading Greg Rucka’s run of Wonder Woman from the mid 2000s: Rucka is one of the best-known and most celebrated recent writers of the Wonder Woman comic. In his first run, he didn’t play around: a mob of “Protect our Children” advocates scream at Diana a blur of slogans like “—maybe where you come from, pervert!” Rucka is currently back at the helm of the Wonder Woman comics and utilized the first issue of Diana’s backstory to establish that Diana has a long-term girlfriend on Paradise Island. At the same moment, billions of box office dollars were accumulating from the first female-led superhero movie, as Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman stuck it out in theaters for many months on end.
It’s a fine time for Wonder Woman to go back to her roots and the subversive, progressive ideology underpinning her character. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is the most explicit nod yet that we’ve had to that founding mission. It helps that the movie is about as subtle as an anvil to the head. It was the perfect time for this movie, even as it bent itself to be as consumable as possible—not unlike, perhaps, the original Wonder Woman comics.