The best superhero films are the ones that possess both independent longevity alongside a sense of tactility and ingenuity. Essentially, the best are the ones that manage to build upon a well-established model and breathe new life into it. It’s why Spider-Man 2 remains a highlight of the genre with its realistic New York City contrasted against the bold colors of the genre the city was built in. Films such as Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, Batman Returns, Birds of Prey, or even Venom: Let There Be Carnage are so terrific in their own right because, in one way or another, they strayed from the comfortable format that’s been embedded into cinema over the last decade due to the Marvel-inspired superhero boom.
You can find something surprisingly similar in the treatment of biopics, where so many are dictated by a dreary structure that all but allows the audience to predict every narrative beat, even when a viewer hasn’t dived deep into this particular person’s life. All one needs to do is look at the last few years and see the reactions to Bohemian Rhapsody versus Rocketman. Both shine a light on rock-n-roll legends and while Bohemian Rhapsody flounders under the strain of trying to tell every beat of Freddie Mercury’s life as an icon, Rocketman survives by twisting the genre and making it a musical.
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, while not strictly a superhero film in the vein of The Avengers or even a biopic, takes a much more non-linear approach to the storytelling. The movie is such a triumph because it manages to provoke a new understanding of a character and/or voice we’ve long thought to understand. Here’s more on why you should stream Professor Marston before it leaves HBO Max this month.
The biographical drama written and directed by Angela Robinson (D.E.B.S) follows the American psychologist William Marston (Luke Evans), who was greatly influenced by his wife Elizabeth Marston (Rebecca Hall) and their lover Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) to create the character Wonder Woman.
The film operates largely in flashback as in the present day, William is having to deliver a testimony to the Child Study Association of America due to the accusations of overt sexualization, sadomasochism, and lesbian imagery in the Wonder Woman comics. The flashbacks detail the burgeoning love story between the Marstons and Olive, and how their polyamorous relationship would go on to help inspire the Amazonian warrior we’ve come to know.
Professor Marston is arguably the more fascinating piece of media built on the Wonder Woman property, and in large part, that’s due to Robinson’s fascination with the truth-telling hero being born from the minds who created the lie detector. While Lynda Carter brought the character to screens at home in the ‘70s, Gal Gadot became the face of the modern iteration, and there’s been no shortage of voice talent who’ve lent their skills in numerous animated series. Yet, with all of these screen versions of Woman Woman, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women seems as close in keeping with the hero’s spirit as any other adaptation has thus far.
Submission and dominance play a big role in the movie’s central relationship, but despite featuring moments where Marston is inspired by fetish art and photography, the film never fetishizes its characters or exploits Olive and Elizabeth. Much of this is due to how Robinson captures them. Despite the relationship being shared between all three, the film is much more interested in capturing the enthrallment between Olive and Elizabeth and their power dynamics rather than wading into male gaze territory.
Professor Marston is enormously aided by the tender and chemistry-fueled performances by Evans, Hall, and Heathcote — though Hall, in particular, is immensely captivating. She’s often worried about living in the shadow of her husband. Due to the film being set in the 1930s, her fear was often a reality, and Robinson doesn’t allow the fictionalized version of the character to suffer the same fate.
In so many films about brilliant minds (typically those of straight, white men), the triumphs and successes of their work are defined by them solely, with the role of the muse finding worth only in what the creator creates off of her. The movie and Robinson's script is so tremendous and moving because it both sees past Olive and Elizabeth as muses while simultaneously granting them their own inner lives, motives, and relationship separate from William.
Each character, the film argues, is instrumental both in the success of their long-lasting relationship as well as the creation of Wonder Woman. However, despite Marston’s name being placed first in the title, the movie’s warmth and abundant heart are found in the women of the picture. They inspired, created, and provided for their family and, at the center of the story, it is their indomitable spirits and progressive worldviews that would embolden the Wonder Woman stories to be as transgressive and provocative as they were.
If only the stories about Diana Prince today were done with the same level of care and nuance.
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is streaming on HBO Max until October 31, 2021.