KINKY, queer, fervently feminist … the original Wonder Woman was a good deal more subversive than the contemporary version we have come to know and love.
Conceived by psychologist and inventor William Marston (Luke Evans) in the 1940s, the scantily clad super-heroine was a bona fide trailblazer.
“Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength and power,” he said, setting out to rectify the situation with a character who used a golden lasso to force criminals to tell the truth.
In Wonder Woman’s most recent incarnation, director Patty Jenkins (Monster) could only hint at her sexuality.
“When it comes to procreation, men are essential, but for pleasure, not necessary,” the Amazonian princess tells American intelligence agent Steve Trevor (Chris Pine).
But in the early comics, Wonder Woman regularly wrestles with her companions on the all-female Paradise Island.
And she often has to free herself from chains – representing Marston’s own affinity for bondage as well as acting as a metaphor for female subjugation.
For the story behind the creation of the Amazonian princess is even more extraordinary than the character herself.
“If behind every great man is a great woman, then … Marston has the good fortune of having two – his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) and their mutual lover Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote),” says the tagline for Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, which explores his unconventional life.
Written and directed by Angela Robinson, the handsome biopic begins in the lecture hall at Radcliffe College where Marston expounds his DISC theory (Dominance, Influence, Steadiness and Compliance) to a bunch of attentive female students.
Olive has already caught his eye.
When she applies for a role as a research assistant to Marston and his fiercely intelligent wife, Elizabeth, the sexual chemistry between all three of them quickly becomes apparent.
Marston is sometimes referred to as the father of the lie detector.
While it smells of creative license, there’s a memorable scene in which the two academics test the invention by asking Olive about her feelings towards them while monitoring her systolic blood pressure.
There is some discomfort, initially, in the teacher/student dynamic between Olive and the Marstons, but Heathcote does a fine job of conveying the independent curiosity that underpins her character’s apparent guilessness.
According to this version of events, Wonder Woman was born out of the Marston’s discovery of bondage and sexual role play, which Byrne, in particular, embraced.
Robinson portrays the characters’ domestic environment – Byrne stayed home to look after their four children while Elizabeth Marston supported the family financially – as unusually harmonious.
As well dressed as any traditional period drama, Professor Marston offers a romanticised version of events (although after Marston’s death from cancer in 1947, Elizabeth and Olive continued to live together until Olive’s death in 1990, aged 86).
But beneath that glossy exterior lies a warm enduring love story that challenges rigid gender roles and the social orthodoxy.
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is now showing.
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
Stars: Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote.
Director: Angela Robinson
Rating: MA 15+
Verdict: 3.5 stars