Not Exactly a Review of Professor Marston & the Wonder Women

By | Monday, July 06, 2020 1 comment
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women movie poster
I recently watched Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, the "biographical drama film" about William Moulton Marston and how he created the character Wonder Woman. In particular, it follows the story of how Marston and his wife Elizabeth met Olive Byrne, and how the three of them became lovers in a consensual polyamorous relationship, which in conjunction with Marston's psychological theories, led to Wonder Woman's creation.

Going in, I harbored no illusions about this being a strictly factual account of Marston or anyone else depicted in the film. It's pretty much par for the course that even documentaries will skip segments or skew perceptions somewhat to provide a succinct story, and "based on a true story" films are generally even more reckless in that regard. I didn't recall any specifics, but I knew that some of Marston's still-living relatives took exception to some of the depictions in the film. And while I'm certainly no expert on Wonder Woman, I knew enough going in that I could readily pick out at least some of the inaccuracies the movie offered up.

But I've also found that strictly factual accounts, as a rule, tend to be less engaging and I walk away not absorbing much of the material.

One challenging thing about trying to adhere exclusively to facts is that we never have the full story. Even biographers working directly with their still-living subjects and having access to all of their documents are often going to be missing huge chunks of information. From minutia like simply not capturing the precise wording of what might've been said to broader elements that were mis-remembered or even forgotten from decades earlier. Often, those people trying to hew most closely with factual, objective reality see these types of issues and simply skip over them. They'll avoid using quotes or dialogue unless there's an actual record of it, or maybe they'll ignore significant episodes because they don't have enough conclusive detail to depict it. But, while being more accurate, strictly speaking, it becomes more antiseptic. Less memorable. Less engaging. It reads like your old history textbook when you're asked to rote memorize a series of dates, at the expense of actually understanding any context around them.

Regardless of historical accuracy, Professor Marston & the Wonder Women is a good story. Well written, acted, and directed. But what I liked most about it is that it I felt it gave a good sense of context. How did a married college professor, in the early part of the 20th century, come to be in polyamorous relationship in the first place and how did that lead to creating one of the most iconic comic book character of all time? Not the facts of how all that happened, but what was the cultural and emotional journey that led him there?

I did some reading after watching the movie, and saw that one of Marston's granddaughters denied that Elizabeth Marston and Olive Byrne were lovers as is depicted in the film. However, given that William and Elizabeth formally adopted Olive's children -- one of whom Olive named after Elizabeth -- while Olive raised both her own children and William and Elizabeth's natural born kids; that Olive "married" both William and Elizabeth in 1929; that after William's death, both women lived together for another four decades until Olive's passing... well, I'm sure the specific sexual acts shown/suggested between Elizabeth and Olive were invented for the movie (since there's no known record of what they might have done) I do find it more credible than not that they did have a lovers' relationship. Exploring how the relationship among the three of them began and evolved, particularly in a climate that absolutely did not tolerate anything remotely close to that, is what seems like the critical piece the movie was trying to convey.

I can look up that Elizabeth was more actively supportive of the idea of Wonder Woman than shown in the movie, allegedly even demanding that the superhero William was developing be a woman. I can look up that it was Max Gaines who originally approached William, having seen an interview with him published in The Family Circle... a magazine that Olive occasionally wrote for. I can look up that H.G. Peter -- who is almost absent from the film entirely -- contributed more than a fair amount to the success of Wonder Woman through his designs and overall visuals.

Professor Marston & the Wonder Women doesn't represent what actually happened back then, but it's not trying to. It's providing an emotional connection to three people. To make them feel like actual people and not just some arcane part of history, another set of names and dates that sit in the abstract and don't really mean anything to most people. Frankly, I think we need a lot more stories about comic book creators like this. How much do you feel about Winsor McCay? Or Lee Falk? Or Matt Baker? Or Curt Swan? Or Ben Oda? Even if you do know some of the facts and details about their lives, how much do you get the sense of who they were as people? Even from the little I do know, how incredible would the stories of Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson be? Or Jim Steranko? Or Larry Hama? Hell, those guys could have blockbusters made about them! But they don't have to be on a huge scale. They don't even have to be movies. Professor Marston & the Wonder Women is an interpersonal drama and, while the "high concept" angle makes it an easier sell in Hollywood, every creator has a story that should be told. Whether that's movies, TV, comics... I'd love to see more of that. Wow, can you imagine the tortured drama pieces you might get with stories about guys like Jack Cole, Joe Maneely, Alex Raymond, Seth Fisher...?

In any event, I enjoyed Professor Marston & the Wonder Women and would like more stories like that.
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Matt K said...

While I am a big believer in objective reality and facts, as a historian I also recognize that storytelling is simply indispensable.

Sherlock Holmes summarized all of this more than 100 years ago. In multiple stories, he criticized his biographer Watson's accounts of his cases for being romanticized, rather than strict reports of the facts. Yet when he attempted to record a case on his own, once or twice, he acknowledged some kind of narrative interest as impossible to do without.

This is so. Entirely thorough and objective accounts are, as you point out, impossible. Additionally, as Holmes pointed out, if there is any point to recording history ultimately it is the possibility that someone will read that record and something will be different than would have been the case had the record never existed. One is always making judgments about the appropriate balance of exhaustive detail vs. narrative power; no matter how much one may incline toward the former the concern is always there.