Home > Reviews > PROFESSOR MARSTON and the Blundered Biopic (spoilers)

PROFESSOR MARSTON and the Blundered Biopic (spoilers)

Last night I finally got around to watching Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, last year’s biopic based on the life story of Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston, his wife and collaborator Elizabeth, and their (reputed) polyamorous partner Olive Byrne. I’ve rarely been so disappointed by a biographical film, although it’s not a genre I’m that much into. I was intrigued by the trailers and the early descriptions, and I liked the idea of the smash-hit Wonder Woman movie being accompanied by a movie that explored the life of Wonder Woman’s creators. Unfortunately, though, the movie badly misrepresents the work of the Marstons, both in science and in comics, in a way that shows a gross failure of research and lack of respect for the legacy of the people the film is supposed to be paying tribute to.

Professor Marston focuses mainly on the development of the trio’s polyamorous love story and exploration of bondage and kink, framed by a sequence of Marston defending Wonder Woman to some sort of public morality league, but the love story is often rather maudlin, as the movie spends so much time focusing on the characters wrestling with guilt and shame about their unconventional feelings and interests that it undermines the portrayal of their eventual embrace of those things and of each other, since they keep backtracking with every setback and have a new argument over the morality of what they’re doing. They’re so constantly shown as unhappy and in conflict that it’s often hard to figure out exactly why they’re in love in the first place. Rebecca Hall gives the best performance of the trio as Elizabeth (Luke Evans as William and Bella Heathcote as Olive are okay but unremarkable), but she also has to play the most neurotic and unlikeable character, and I don’t think Elizabeth is well-served by the film for all its effort to highlight her role as William’s partner in his work.

The first half is set in the late 1920s and focuses on the Marstons meeting Olive and gradually, mutually falling in love while working on the invention of what the film exclusively calls a “lie detector.” This is wrong on multiple levels. First, Marston did not invent the polygraph, the device vernacularly known as a “lie detector.” He developed a blood pressure reader that was later integrated into the polygraph by its actual inventor John Augustus Larson, all of which happened well before the time frame shown in the movie. Marston would go on to popularize the idea that the polygraph was useful as a “lie detector,” but that’s about the extent of his connection to it. It’s also a claim that has never been scientifically verified and is basically pseudoscience. In practice, polygraph readings are one factor taken into account by an interviewer who assesses the subject’s reactions over the course of several hours of observation, and are generally just used to support the conclusions the interviewers draw from their own assessment of the subject (which means that interviewer bias can give false results). Yet the movie embraces a cartoonish, cliched portrayal of the “lie detector” as a magic instrument that gives an infallible, instant true/false result for every single question. It’s simplistic and dumb and it lends an absurd quality to the scenes where the Marstons and Byrne use the device on each other to force each other to admit their feelings, even aside from the ethical quagmire of doing such a thing in the course of scientific research.

The early scenes of the trio getting to know each other are okay, but a lot of the dialogue is just big infodumps about the characters’ backstories, notably Olive Byrne being the niece of feminist icon Margaret Sanger. It’s well enough acted out, but it feels clumsy at times.

The film then races through the trio losing their jobs due to the scandal of their relationship and having multiple children together in their new lives while passing Olive off as a friend of the family, then eventually gets into the creation of Wonder Woman about a dozen years after the first half. The film screws this up as badly as the “lie detector” stuff. It shows Marston creating “Suprema the Wonder Woman” entirely on his own, inspired by a bondage getup that Olive puts on during the trio’s hesitant experimentation with the illegal, underground bondage community, then explaining it to the women with a bunch of crude pencil drawings, then taking it to a skeptical M.C. Gaines (publisher of the future DC Comics) and trying to win him over. In reality, Gaines saw an article by Marston about the educational potential of comics, then sought him out and hired him as an educational consultant. Marston wanted to create a kinder, gentler superhero who used the principles of loving submission that he believed in, but it was Elizabeth who suggested making the character female. So having the movie’s William make that decision on his own and try to sell it to a skeptical Elizabeth is robbing Elizabeth of one of her most important legacies. Also, Wonder Woman’s costume was created by Harry G. Peter, the original artist on the Wonder Woman comics. The movie completely excludes Peter from the narrative, and the substitute origin of Olive’s randomly assembled bondage costume is laughably corny, for all that it’s presented as this solemn, magical moment of epiphany. The film takes the established fact that the bracelets Olive often wore were cited by Marston as an inspiration for Wonder Woman’s bullet-deflecting bracelets and exaggerates it to give her credit for the entire ensemble.

Oh, another factual inaccuracy resulting from sloppy research: The frame story has Marston and his interrogator discuss Wonder Woman’s lasso that compels people to tell the truth. In fact, under Marston, the lasso compelled obedience. It was just part of the overall bondage/domination fetish element of the comics. It didn’t really start to become a tool for compelling the truth specifically until the Lynda Carter TV series in the ’70s, and it wasn’t formally redefined as “the Lasso of Truth” until the 1987 George Perez reboot. The idea that “Hey, the guy who ‘invented’ the lie detector also gave Wonder Woman a magic lie detector” is an appealing story to modern audiences, but it’s pure myth. This is typical of the laziness of this movie. It uncritically embraces every bit of present-day pop myth and assumption about Marston and Wonder Woman and lie detectors and the rest and makes no effort to correct any of it.

The film does a decent job acknowledging the broad strokes of William Marston’s beliefs in female superiority and the importance of loving submission, but it fumbles in some ways. When the moral-guardian interrogator complains about the “bondage and violence” in the comics, the film’s William doesn’t refute the characterization, even though it goes straight to one of the most crucial parts of the real Marston’s thinking. The justification he offered for the heavy use of bondage in his Wonder Woman comics was that it was a non-violent way to put characters in peril, a more palatable alternative to the gunplay and fisticuffs in other comics. The film’s frame sequence mentions none of this. And the frame has a laughably melodramatic resolution that feels like a spoof of overly melodramatic biopic climaxes, with his fury at the interrogation triggering a collapse and hospitalization that leads to his eventual death. He died of cancer a couple of years later, but the movie tries to suggest that it was the injustice of how he was treated that somehow killed him. Or something. It’s pretty corny, whatever it is.

Even the “where are they now” text at the end of the film is incredibly sloppy with the truth. It says that Marston died in 1947 and Wonder Woman therefore lost her bondage elements and her powers, until Gloria Steinem complained in the early 1970s and her powers were restored. That’s grossly misleading. Yes, in the wake of Marston’s death, Wonder Woman comics lost both their bondage elements and their feminism, with the writing being taken over by the deeply sexist Robert Kanigher and her stories coming to be focused mainly on Wonder Woman’s romantic life and “imaginary story” adventures with her own younger incarnations Wonder Girl and Wonder Tot. But she still had her superpowers and her costume throughout the 20-plus years of Kanigher’s run on the comic. The revamp in which Diana Prince lost her powers (which I discussed on this blog back in 2013) came in 1968, two decades after Marston’s death, and was actually a revival of the long-lost feminist element of the character, the idea being that it was more empowering to women to show that Diana could still be a great hero even without a supernatural advantage over men.

In short, Professor Marston bears only the most superficial resemblance to the true story it’s based on, taking a few fragments of fact and blatantly ignoring or distorting others in order to construct an essentially fictitious narrative. There’s nothing wrong with a biopic taking some liberties with the facts in order to symbolically get across the essence of who its subjects were and what they achieved. But too many of this film’s liberties are egregiously dishonest or ill-researched and undermine or misrepresent the true achievements and legacy of the people it depicts. Even as a work of fiction, it’s rather unfocused and pretentious, and often feels as if it’s just tossing around known elements of the Marstons’ life (or of the mythology that’s grown up around them, since the film doesn’t care about the distinction) without having any real point to make about them. I suppose it’s trying to tell a story about people who feel unconventional love and struggle toward acceptance of themselves despite society’s condemnation, but the portrayal and resolution of those struggles often seem superficial, and the attempt to juxtapose them with the badly misrepresented details of the Marstons’ professional accomplishments is clumsy and gets in the way of exploring those themes. Everything about the relationship is filtered through “Hey, look, this is the origin of this or that part of the Wonder Woman comics,” so the fact that the portrayal of the comics’ creative process is so sloppy and unconcerned with reality undermines the relationship parts as well. Ultimately, the pieces just don’t fit together. And it’s frustrating that a movie whose main characters are purportedly driven by the lifelong quest for truth and honesty has so much contempt for the truth.

Biographical films often have trouble working as coherent narratives because real life doesn’t work like a story. But Professor Marston and the Wonder Women has such complete disregard for the real facts of its subjects’ lives and work that it has no such excuse for its shortcomings as a work of fiction. It’s a shame, since I really wanted to like this film.

Advertisements
  1. Gavin Sheedy
    March 17, 2018 at 2:57 am

    Hmm. I enjoyed the film, but then, I went in knowing almost nothing.

    But then, pretty much every film or newspaper article that’s dealt with subjects where I’m actually knowledgable (fairly narrow terrain) has disappointed. I read an article in The Guardian durring the week, about ”The Killing Joke”, which claimed that stories happening outside regular continuity were something that started in eighties. It does make me wonder why writers don’t engage some-one knowledgable in the subject to do a factual proofread.

    Oh well.

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: