Call it the year of Wonder Woman. After appearing in a grand total of two—count ‘em, two—feature films from her creation in 1941 to 2016, Wonder Woman’s popping up in twice that many films in 2017 alone. First there was LEGO Batman, where she had a small role. Then Wonder Woman. Later this year, Justice League. And in between, there’s the outlier: Angela Robinson’s Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, out today from Annapurna Pictures, about the real-life story behind one of the most iconic superheroes of all time.
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women involves: Comic books. Polyamory. Bondage. A character nicknamed the “G-String King.” Psychological propaganda. And the creation of the lie detector. It’s a fascinating story, one that took years for writer/director and lifelong Wonder Woman fan Angela Robinson (D.E.B.S., The L Word, True Blood) to finally be able to tell.
“I was always a nerdy Wonder Woman fan,” explains Robinson from a hotel in New York, where she and the cast of the film—Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall and Bella Heathcote—were on deck for a New York Comic Con panel. “I always loved the character. And so when I finished my first feature [D.E.B.S.], one of the actresses, Jordana Brewster, knew I was a Wonder Woman fan, so she gave me a history of Wonder Woman book. There was a chapter in there on the Marstons, and I read it and was like, ‘What?!’”
“What?!” is about right. Psychologist William Moulton Marston (Evans) was a psychologist who created the character of Wonder Woman to promote his DISC theory, which posits that all human interaction is governed by four behaviors: Dominance, Inducement, Submission, and Compliance. As you might be able to deduce, Marston was into bondage, and in the early days of the Wonder Woman comics, he wasn’t exactly subtle about it. It wasn’t his controversial theories, though, that got him canned from Harvard; rather, it was his polyamorous relationship with his psychologist wife Elizabeth Marston (Hall), with whom he invented the lie detector, and their mutual lover Olive Byrne (Heathcote). A proto-feminist, Marston believed that women were naturally better leaders than men. Nowadays, little boys can still be shamed for carrying a Wonder Woman lunchbox, but back in the ‘40s this trio was actively using the medium of comics to convince little boys—and little girls—that women were strong, powerful, and worth looking up to.
Some of Marston’s arguments… well, let’s just say they haven’t aged well. “He had this essentialist thing,” Robison admits, where he thought women were naturally more steady and nurturing than men. In Professor Marston, “there are a bunch of powerful women debating him the entire movie… so that I could debate his ideas in the movie and give them a rigorous airing.” One of those women is Josette Frank (Connie Britton), head of the Child Study Association of America, who brought the hammer down on Marston on the grounds that making Wonder Woman a queen of bondage was objectifying and exploitative.
Those are the conversations, Robinson notes, that we’re still having about Wonder Woman. How powerful is too powerful. How sexy is too sexy? (Hi, James Cameron.) “A lot of the process of writing the movie was me, as a Wonder Woman fan, wrestling with Marston’s ideas myself. She’s always been a lightning rod of controversy, because she has so many contradictory ideas.” Professor Marston may be the one with his name in the title, but in many ways Robinson’s movie is an exploration of what she calls the “divided feminine”—the different facets of being a woman and how they can all be found in this one iconic character, whom Robinson calls “the third rail of the American psyche.” Elizabeth Marston is foul-mouthed and whip-smart. (Marston at one point tells her “You are brilliant, ferocious, hilarious, and a grade-A bitch,” which is the most romantic thing you can say to a person.) Olive Byrne is sweet, trusting, and somewhat naïve. Josette Frank, in a smaller role, is disciplined and uncompromising.
In media, women are often caught in a bind (not the sexy kind) due to the sheer scarcity of their representation. When you have a movie with one woman who has a substantial role, that woman represents, well, all of women. Wonder Woman, as the female superhero your average person on the street had heard of throughout much of her history, certainly carries that burden. In the real world, women make up half the population, and we don’t have to be just one thing. That’s the case in Professor Marston, too.
If I’m making Professor Marston and the Wonder Women sound like a treatise on psychology and the history of Wonder Woman, know that—while I would still watch that movie—that’s not what it is. Professor Marston is a fun, funny, sexy drama about three rebels testing out the waters of their unconventional relationship. Bad things happen—lost jobs, angry neighbors—but the focus of the film is never on what the Marstons and Bryne have suffered. It’s on what they’ve gained: Love, and the strength to grab that love with both hands and never let it go.
“It was very important to me to tell an organic love story,” Robinson says. And organic means sex scenes that aren’t gratuitous, male gaze-y, or imbued with an undercurrent of “Threesomes? How scandalous.” In its depiction of polyamory, BDSM, and bisexuality, Professor Marston is empathetic, respectful, and sexy as hell. “I really became obsessed with the idea of consent as foreplay,” Robinson says. The trio’s dynamics are such that “they’re always asking each other: Is this something you want to do? Are you OK? Are you sure you want to do that? Which ended up, I think, being way sexier, because what I was focusing on was the emotional exchange. How far they’re going out on a limb with each other and how they’re testing their emotional boundaries. I was much less concerned with what they were literally doing to each other [than] the exchange of power and the exchange of consent as they kept pushing father.
“I wanted it to be very loving. I told [everyone], across the board—the production designer, the props people, the DP [Bryce Fortner]—I didn’t want [the sex scenes] to be dark or sinister the way they’re always shot. It’s always creepy or sinister or ‘kinky’ in a way that’s not erotic at all, I usually find.”
Often, for women, appreciating sex scenes comes with an asterisk. “I like it, but the man is really rough in a way that doesn’t seem consensual.” “I like it, but we’re getting a lot of lingering shots of the naked women and not the naked man.” Robinson, on the other hand, “thought about this idea of the female gaze. It was important to me that the women were driving all of the sex scenes… Usually women are not allowed to have a sexual point of view in sex scenes. About what’s interesting to them or what do they want. It’s just from the male perspective. So I really worked with my DP to try to capture that A) they were driving the scene , and they were always in charge of what was happening, and B) that we’re exploring the dynamic between two women, which often gets ignored. “
Indeed, in Professor Marston, the core relationship isn’t “two people and a third wheel”—it’s a relationship of equals, where each pair within the relationship has their own, unique dynamic, as does the trio as a single unit. “I wanted it to be like a tripod, where if one leg fell off, then the whole thing would kind of crumble,” Robinson says. “I kept rotating through their points of view a lot, because if you lost track of one of their POVs for too long, it would tilt back into something else.”
In finding that balance, Robinson has crafted a film where all three leads are complex and authentic, and bisexuality and polyamorous relationships are presented as something other than seedy or scandalous. “I’m a queer filmmaker myself, so I know how important representation is to people,” Robinson says. “It was really important to me to represent their relationship and the kink community in a respectful, empathetic way that didn’t otherize their experience. I didn’t want it to be like, ‘Oh, those freaks over there.’ I wanted it to feel like what it feels like when you’re falling in love.”
Robinson’s been a fan of Wonder Woman since childhood. “Part of the reason I started writing this movie, about eight years ago, was because I was so frustrated there hadn’t been a Wonder Woman movie,” she explains. (Yes, she loves the Patty Jenkins movie.) There are Easter Eggs sprinkled throughout the film. (Silver cuffs, an "invisible" plane, and rope are a bit too prominent to be labelled “Easter Eggs,” but keep your eye out for a cheetah coat.) As someone invested in Wonder Woman as a character, then, did working on this film give her a new appreciation for or understanding of the character?
“Oh, definitely. Definitely,” Robinson says. “What really struck me at the end of the day was that [William Moulton Marston, Elizabeth Marston and Olive Byrne] really wanted to change the world with their ideas. They really thought, in a real, literal way, that the world was going to hell in a handbasket. We’re at war with fascists and against Hitler. And we can change the world by changing how people think. [That’s] the baseline point of the whole thing. Wonder Woman’s the only character who was created to stop war. All the other superhero characters were created to fight or for vengeance or to [police] right and wrong. But through violence, mostly. She’s the only superhero whose sole purpose is to stop war and bring peace. And I didn’t know that, really. I feel like that’s a really powerful message that’s really important right now.”