The biggest mystery surrounding this film is how its story has remained in the shadows for so many years. I’m sure comic book devotees have known about it, but the details are so juicy I’m surprised no one has dramatized it before. The bullet points are intriguing on the surface: Wonder Woman was created by a former Harvard professor who also happened to invent the lie detector. He and his wife (also a professor) took in a research assistant who turned out to be the niece of proto-feminist Margaret Sanger…and both husband and wife fell in love with her. Their three-way “marriage” and keen interest in bondage ostracized them from mainstream society but inspired Marston to invent Wonder Woman and turn his comic book into a crusade for women’s liberation.

None of this would play at all without the right cast. As it happens, all three leads commit to their roles completely. They are believably intelligent and ridiculously attractive. Luke Evans plays Marston, a heartthrob of a teacher whose female students are understandably attentive when he discusses such concepts as submission and dominance. Rebecca Hall is the best actress I can think of to have played his wife Elizabeth, an assertive woman who is furious about the treatment of women in academia. Bella Heathcote’s blond beauty is initially distracting but she, too, submerges herself in her character, a bright but naïve student who gives herself over to the two intellectuals who love her with equal fervor.

Writer-director Angela Robinson has taken on a formidable challenge in telling this story, which even today raises eyebrows, especially when Marston and his women discover the pain and pleasure of bondage costumes and paraphernalia. It almost seems too good to be true that these implements and garments were transformed into the world-famous symbols of Wonder Woman, but Robinson didn’t invent any of this. It’s all true.

The story unfolds in flashback, as Marston is called on the carpet during the period when comic-book content was being investigated. This adds another layer to a narrative which is already dense. However, it does provide context for Marston’s personal journey and the postscript that caps the film, complete with photos of the actual protagonists (who aren’t nearly as dazzling as the actors who portray them).

I had a difficult time processing this movie. Though it held my interest completely I found it jarring when Robinson switched from a straightforward visual style to hand-held camerawork with non-period music (Nina Simone singing “Feeling Good”) for the first love scene. This bifurcated approach continues throughout the picture. I also think the movie brought out the prude in me, making it difficult to embrace as fully as I might have liked. But there’s no denying that it’s good-looking, well-made, fascinating material–the kind you couldn’t and wouldn’t make up. That’s what makes Professor Marston and the Women worth seeing.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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June 2024