Hold off on revisiting or streaming the summer’s monster hit, Wonder Woman, until you lay eyes on this stranger-and kinkier-than-fiction look at the man who created the world’s most famous female superhero. That would be Harvard-educated William Moulton Marston (Beauty and the Beast‘s Luke Evans), a psychology professor at Radcliffe with a wife, Elizabeth Holloway (Rebecca Hall), who’s more than his intellectual equal. She shares his not entirely scientific taste for dominance and submission, and the prof, frustrated by drag-ass 1920’s protocols, is eager to experiment further. The catalyst is Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), one of Marston’s students in his all-female class. She volunteers as a researcher and willing participant in his project on sexuality. His wife is fine with it, except for one caveat she issues to their new friend: “Don’t fuck my husband.”
Actually, Olive is more attracted to Elizabeth, whose radical beliefs in psychology and desire are an inspiration to the co-ed’s burgeoning feminism. (The young woman’s aunt is birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger.) Not that the professor doesn’t exert the hunk factor. Soon, the trio is shacking up in a polyamorous relationship that exudes enough heat to singe the screen. Writer-director Angela Robinson (The L Word, True Blood) jumps into this free-for-all with an intellectual and hot-blooded vigor to match her subjects’ keen interest in carnal knowledge.
Where’s Wonder Woman in all this? She grows out of the Marstons’ research into human sexual response, which includes the couple spying on Olive during a sorority ritual that includes spanking new recruits. That’s followed by a visit to an S&M sex shop in Greenwich Village in which their cohort tries on a corset and boots. Those bracelets she wears? That would grow into the indestructible deflectors of the comic book, just as the tiara she models would become a projectile weapon. And that bondage rope she carries would morph into the Lasso of Truth that Wonder Woman uses to force anyone in its grip to obey and tell no lies. (Ironically, the professor himself had developed an early prototype for the modern lie detector.)
When the threesome was publicly exposed – Marston had children with both women – the shocked reaction went into overdrive. Robinson frames her film with the reasearcher being interrogated by Josette Frank (Connie Britton), director of the Child Study Association of America. She’s appalled that an academic would use a comic book heroine to corrupt young minds with bondage fetishism and Sapphic love. He, on the other hand, believed that the comic taught an important lesson about respecting the power of women for girls and boys alike.
Robinson’s behind-the-scenes take on this cultural artifact, paralleled in part by Jill Lepore’s 2014 book The Secret History of Wonder Woman, is an intoxicating provocation that guarantees you will never look at Wonder Woman the same way again. It’s a wild ride through the unconscious that produces pop art at its most transporting and transgressive, and kudos to Evans, Hall and Heathcote for respecting the flesh-and-blood humanity of characters who risked everything to break conventions. The movie makes the inspiration behind the superheroine obvious: Elizabeth’s secretarial work provided a model for Wonder Woman’s alter-ego Diana Prince and Olive found release in the tantalizing costumes that became the character’s stock-in-trade.
What star Gal Gadot and director Patty Jenkins did in their cinematic take on this female warrior may not have audiences leaving the theater with visions of BDSM, spanking, free love and girl-on-girl action dancing in their heads. But thanks to Professor Marston and his real-life Wonder Women, something close to a death blow was dealt to the demeaning, centuries-old image of the damsel in distress. It’s a hell of an origin story.