Years ago, then-director of D.E.B.S. and producer of The L Word Angela Robinson ran into Laeta Kalogridis, writer of an early draft of what would eventually become Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman. Robinson had been reading about Wonder Woman’s controversial creator, William Marston, and regaled Kalogridis with anecdotes about the disgraced former Harvard psychology professor, who was fired for sleeping with a student, lived in a plural marriage, and used the comic as a vehicle for his ideas about feminism and bondage. Kalogridis didn’t think she could incorporate much of it, but was so intrigued that she told Robinson, “you have to make that.”
So Robinson did. And in an insane bit of cosmic movie kismet, Robinson’s movie is now opening the same year as Jenkins’ Wonder Woman movie, which became the all-time highest-grossing movie directed by a woman, in addition to setting other records. Robinson could only credit dumb luck for the timing, since Wonder Woman had been in development for the better part of a decade and $150 million movies rarely adhere to the initial schedule.
As a filmmaker, though, Robinson is more than lucky. In Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, she uses the artistically safest, the most tried-and-true format — the prestige biopic — to tell a story that’s anything but.
Welsh chin merchant Luke Evans plays Professor William Marston, a Harvard psychology professor who’s trying to sell students on his theories of manipulation. DISC theory, as Marston has named it, seeks to try to explain how humans and systems can control other humans (this is pre-WWII, remember, a time of burgeoning totalitarianism). DISC has four eponymous principles: Domination, Inducement, Submission, and Compliance. If the one who seeks to dominate is powerful, Marston tells it, he may achieve compliance — people reluctantly going with the program. But the true goal is submission — willing obedience — which requires inducement. That is, something they’ll get out of it, positive reinforcement.
Like a lot of early writing in psychology, DISC’s concretely named rules of intuitive interaction could be applied virtually anywhere to anything by anyone who’s an elegant enough bullshitter, but it’s clear that Robinson’s movie is attempting to work on the inducement model. Early on she establishes the familiar format, in which gorgeous, sumptuously costumed movie stars fight for self-actualization against a bigoted world of olds.
Rebecca Hall, pouty lipped and freckled nosed, plays Dr. Marston’s wife, Elizabeth, a Ph.D. in her own right, though the sexist times will only award her a degree from Barnard, not Harvard, even though she took the same classes. When Elizabeth sees William drooling over an undergrad in the quad, she tells him the girl will ruin him. William quickly protests, “What? No, I was only ogling her for the articles, I swear!”
Husband and wife both seemed intrigued by the girl, Olive Byrne (played by comically large-eyed human porcelain Bella Heathcote) who they interview for a student assistant position. It turns out her intellect and origin story are nearly a match for her physical gifts. Byrne is the daughter of radical feminist Ethel Byrne and the niece of Margaret Sanger, with whom the elder Byrne opened the first birth control clinic. In an ironic twist, Byrne was abandoned by her mother and raised by nuns, meaning the heir to two of the country’s most influential feminists is a shy, virginal sorority girl. In this small anecdote, we get a microcosm of the story Robinson has chosen to tell — that “progress” isn’t a simple matter of moving forward (Byrne had to abandon her own child), and that pioneers are as morally complex as anyone else.
Byrne becomes the Marstons’ assistant, and together they pioneer the first polygraph test. The three fall in love, and forgiving the film for glossing over the fact that polygraph tests don’t really work, perhaps the most impressive thing about Robinson’s film is that it makes us root for a three-way love affair. Scrape away the costumes, the music, and atmosphere of intense handsomeness, and almost everything about this story is still pretty dangerous.
The conflict of most feel-good biopics is safely in the past. It’s cathartic to see characters triumph over segregation or Hitler or the Ayatollah, but it’s usually toothless. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, meanwhile, is a heady stew of potential problematicality. We cheer for Byrne and the Marstons in their battles against sexism (Elizabeth’s degree), homophobia (their lesbian relationship), prudishness (bondage!) and restrictive atmosphere of general conformity (trying to raise a child with two moms in a normal suburban neighborhood), despite the whole thing being basically kicked off by a professor banging his student. Want to try sneaking that past a college administration in 2017? The Marstons were fired for it (so the movie tells us) in the 30s, but if anything, they might’ve fared worse now.
Cut out the nuance, and this story would make great propaganda for either side of the culture wars, depending on how you spin it. On the one hand, it implies that for Professor Marston, the ultimate reward for true wokeness is… two chicks, man (in the immortal words of Lawrence from Office Space). Progressives might love that read, and the message of tolerance towards alternative lifestyles, but they’d probably be less thrilled about homosexual sex as a gateway drug leading to plural marriage and borderline pedophilia, accusations religious fundamentalists and social conservatives are still making today.
But Angela Robinson doesn’t cut out the nuance, and that’s what makes it an interesting film. Like most biopics, she gives us lots to cheer for — why won’t you let them live, cruel world! But she doesn’t try to whitewash history or pretend that all agents of societal change are perfect or are perfectly altruistic. She allows William Marston to contain multitudes — a guy who respected women and fought for their rights who also maybe just wanted to have kinky threesomes with a 20-year-old. Progress comes in waves, and when we look back on it, often in movies like this, there’s a tendency to depict it as inevitable. It’s never inevitable, and sometimes it’s not even permanent. Robinson mimics all the things we love about those stories, but she uses this power for good, in order to afford progress its proper weight.