“Wonder Woman” might be the year’s most outwardly feminist blockbuster, but another of this year’s most outwardly feminist biopic chronicles her creation. Kinky and conventional in equal measure, “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” follows the unlikely (and mostly true) creation of Wonder Woman, born out of both forward-thinking theory and a polyamorous relationship that endured for decades. Robinson’s film follows Professor William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans), his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), and their one-time student and eventual lover Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) as they try to navigate a complex three-way relationship while also dealing with intense public scrutiny.
Cleverly packaged as a straightforward drama about personal desires and professional accomplishments, “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” is a hugely satisfying alternative to often cheap excuses for feminist movies in Hollywood. If there’s one thing the film doesn’t skimp on, it’s the purposely feminist messaging that Wonder Woman was intentionally built around. And like “Wonder Woman,” it was a project years in the making, one that arrives at a critical moment for movies about powerful women.
“She was created as a feminist icon before feminism was popular, by a man who believed in equality,” Heathcote said of the superhero character. “These three people, in their actions, in their lives, in the things they created and contributed to, were putting a forth of message of peace, love, and acceptance.”
That all sounds great on paper, but it took Robinson ages to get the story to the screen.
After directing satiric espionage tale “D.E.B.S.” and the Lindsay Lohan vehicle “Herbie: Fully Loaded” back-to-back in the early aughts, Robinson retreated back to a world she knew well: television. “I kind of came out of the gate directing films, and that was an amazing, awesome, and overwhelming experience,” Robinson said. Her first job was actually in television, as a staff writer for “The L Word,” and she found that the fast-paced environment of cable TV was more her speed. Plus, she soon realized that the ambitious stuff she was working on, including “Hung” and a return to “The L Word,” was “creatively more exciting than what was on the film side.”
She credits her “D.E.B.S.” star Jordana Brewster for introducing her to the story of the Marstons, thanks to a gifted book that covered the history of Wonder Woman, whom the filmmaker admired since she was a kid. “There was one chapter in there about the Marstons, and I read it and it just blew my mind,” Robinson remembered.
“My first in-point was, ‘Oh my God, the lasso of truth is derived from the lie detector,’ and then I was like, ‘Oh my God, Olive Byrne wears silver bracelets,’ and then I just realized that there was all of this stuff embedded in Wonder Woman,” Robinson said. “I became obsessed with their story, and unpacking their life, which was kept really hidden.”
That process started nearly a decade ago, and Robinson launched an extensive research project — digging into Marston’s own works and letters, in addition to early Wonder Woman comics. Although Robinson is the sole credited screenwriter on the film, she later utilized other research material to build out her take on the private lives of William, Elizabeth, and Olive.
The actors were drawn to the project’s specificity. “When have you ever seen this sort of story?,” Evans said. “It’s intriguing, isn’t it, to think that the true story behind the world’s most famous female superhero, who has just had the biggest renaissance ever, came from this polyamorous relationship, which inspired this psychology professor from Harvard in the ’30s to write this story.”
Hall found Robinson’s take to be one that accurately captured the spirit of Wonder Woman, one that is “hopeful and feminist and empowering.” She added, “Her interpretation is very much from her perspective as a gay, female filmmaker. It’s personal to her, and she wanted to make this version of it.”
She argued that the film’s romantic elements were less formulaic than meets the eye. “You tell a conventional, romantic love story, and that becomes radical,” Hall said. “Because to make something as unconventional as three people living a life together normal, is radical.” (The triad does face backlash to their relationship, which gets them kicked out of Harvard, and motivates Marston to start writing his comics.)
But the biggest surprise was the timing of the project, which hit the festival circuit just a few months after “Wonder Woman” became the highest-grossing female-directed movie in history. The two movies were shot at roughly the same time, in the first half of 2016. “It’s crazy, because everyone is complimenting me on my perfect timing, and I’m like, ‘I’m an independent filmmaker, I’ve been trying to make this movie for like four years!,'” Robinson said. “The convergence of these two movies within months of each other is hilarious to me. As if I designed it!”
That “Wonder Woman” also took years to make its way to the big screen, and only after its own fraught behind-the-scenes history, offers further proof of the power of these stories: They can’t stay buried — and when they finally do emerge, they can change the zeitgeist.
“I think William Moulton Marston would have been over the moon,” Evans said of the “Wonder Woman” movie. “I think he would have absolutely relished every second of it. And he would have loved that it was directed by a woman.”
“I bawled my eyes out,” Heathcote added. “Every single woman I know was bawling their eyes out.”
Both expressed concerned about how their movie would appeal to both fans of Wonder Woman and members of the polyamorous community, a two-pronged responsibility they didn’t take lightly. “Because this film is made with so much love, and so much straight up admiration for Wonder Woman, and straight up admiration for these people, I don’t think [it’s] anything but celebratory,” Hall said.
And they’re hopeful that Wonder Woman’s ideals – the ideals of William, Elizabeth, and Olive – will also strike a chord with both communities.
“Yes, it’s a biopic and yes, it’s an origin story, but it’s not really,” Hall said. “When you strip it all away, it’s actually a story about three people working out to be true to themselves, despite all the odds. That’s something we can all relate to, and we can all root for.”
“Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” hits theaters on Friday, October 13.
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