I imagine that many parents who had happy outings with their children at the summer blockbuster “Wonder Woman” might consider taking them to the new feature biography of Princess Diana’s groundbreaking creator.
I wouldn’t advise that. “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” is not your average superhero origin story.
Fact-based and rather weird, this is a decidedly kinky adult film that proudly earns its R rating. As it probes the hidden roots of the world’s most famous superhero, we learn remarkable things about her maker’s eccentric private life.
Before he introduced the character and her iconic leotard, psychologist William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) was a behavioral researcher at Tufts University in the 1920s. With the help of his brilliant wife, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), he designed the lie detector, which correlates the connection between blood pressure and emotions.
The pair apparently experienced raging surges of both as they took their beautiful former student Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) as their mutual lover. The film emphasizes that this is no tacky teacher-student tryst. It’s presented as an expression of polyamorous commitment between two intelligent, self-empowered women and their anti-Puritan shared husband who believed that women are superior to men and should run the world. Director Angela Robinson (who made the trailblazing lesbian action-comedy “D.E.B.S.”) handles the trio’s ongoing interrelationships, involving costumes and bondage play, with nonjudgmental candor and good taste.
Elizabeth and Olive each had two of Marston’s children and lived together in a single home. His teaching career was derailed by the sort of scandal you would expect, but he kept the family afloat financially when he turned author and decided to offer an alternative to the bloodcurdling violence and hypermasculine worldview of most comic books.
With his double wives as inspiration, he wanted to give women a hero of their own who would fight against war, greed, inequality and oppression. As for her elegant, corset-tight costume, well, he just liked that sort of thing. Much to the surprise of DC Comics publisher Charles Gaines, who hired Marston in 1940 as a consultant to deflect rising criticism of his Superman and Batman titles, Diana of Paradise Island became a hit.
The film is a lightweight argument against prejudice toward unconventional people and nonconformists, buoyed by a solid cast. As Marston, Evans offers a much gentler, more scholarly character than his narcissistic Gaston from “Beauty and the Beast.” Hall (“Iron Man 3”) excels as the highly intelligent, brittle Elizabeth, and while Olive is presented as a veritable sprinkler of tears, Heathcote (“Dark Shadows”) also gives her layers of adventurous courage and charm.
My overall favorite, however, is Oliver Platt’s blissfully funny turn as DC publisher Gaines, a no-nonsense businessman who doesn’t care what message his comics endorse as long as they sell. Like J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-Man story, the hot-tempered CEO always gets the best laughs.
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
★★★ out of 4 stars
Rating: R for strong sexual content including brief graphic images, and language.