What is truth?
When dealing with a character like Wonder Woman — the most famous and popular superheroine ever created — this question is at the very heart of everything that can be explored. It’s central to both the character and to her creator, Dr. William Moulton Marston. It’s the question at the heart of this film. To view it, it must be the question central to the heart of the audience.
As is somehow fitting in a story of this nature, there are three ways to review this film. The first is as straightforward biopic. The second is as an exploration of feminism and sexuality in the modern world. The third is as an artistic film that dares to combine the other two ideas into something greater.
As a biopic, I need to address some things. The children of Dr. Marston have come forward to deride this film as being completely fictional. I’ve read all manner of books that go into the origins of Wonder Woman and her creator, and most of them say pretty much the same things. What does not seem to be in contention is that Dr. Marston had a polyamorous relationship: a wife and a live-in mistress. Elizabeth Marston and Olive Byrne were friends, and they lived together after Dr. Marston’s death in 1947 until Byrne passed in 1985. The bone of contention comes from a book by comics historian Les Daniels, Wonder Woman: The Complete History. In this book, Daniels claims that Elizabeth Marston and Olive Byrne were also lovers, that this arrangement was very much a three-way relationship. The family denies this.
Now, I’m not going to say which is true, which is false, which is likely, which is plausible, or which can even be proven. It’s not for me to make any such declarations. I only know that were I in their situation, especially given the era in which this happened and in the decades following, I’d probably deny it too, regardless of anything else, simply for the sake of propriety and dignity. It has to be quite the challenge to grow up in the shadow of this story. The relationship at the center of this story was scandalous enough in its day (and would be even today) without further layers upon layers. And ultimately, who wants to even think of their parents’ sexuality? I certainly wouldn’t. It becomes a sensitive topic at best. So that’s where we have to take the idea of “based on a true story” with a grain of salt. We’ll never know the true story. Our three leads took that secret with them to their graves, and it’s ultimately unknowable unless their children outright asked. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. To the best of my knowledge, there is no documentation supporting either claim. Regardless, out of respect for the family, I just can’t bring myself to go beyond the known facts.
That said, this is a movie. That sounds really horrible to say it so bluntly, doesn’t it? While we have to be sensitive enough to understand that these characters are representing real people whose descendants are clearly uncomfortable that this film exists at all (again, I would be too), the very nature of the symbolism found in the pages of Wonder Woman’s 4-color exploits, combined with the known facts of the story, make for extremely fascinating possibility that simply will not be denied. The children are not responsible for their parents, but that doesn’t make it any less awkward under the prying eyes of society’s scrutiny. And the fact is, the character of Wonder Woman eclipses everyone who is a part of her tale. And so, turned into a sensual and psychological tale where the audience is invited to engage with these ideas… this is a tightrope to walk, and for what it’s worth, I think writer and director Angela Robinson handled this about as beautifully as possible where this interpretation of the story is concerned, with no disrespect intended. Quite the reverse, I think the idea was to demonstrate the love, courage, and dedication to one another that made them work so well together. As this film points out, “fantasy is possibility.” If we can divorce fact from a higher truth, this film has a great deal to say about human nature, feminism, sexuality, privacy, professional credentials, censorship, social perceptions of decency, and the nature of love itself.
The story centers first in the 1930s with Professor Marston (Luke Evans) teaching a psychology class at Harvard’s sister school, Radcliffe college, alongside his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall). His class centers around what he calls “DISC theory“: Dominance, Inducement, Submission, Compliance. This idea will become the very center for the themes found in the early years of Wonder Woman. Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), niece of notable activist icon Margaret Sanger, is the young student who volunteers to help further their private research, both in this and in the Marstons’ development of the lie detector test. As their research continues, the relationships develop, and their world unravels as a direct result, both professionally and personally. In the wake of this upheaval, the bridges are built that ultimately result in the creation of Wonder Woman in the early 40s and the sales pitch to Max Gaines (Oliver Platt) at National Periodical Publications (now DC Comics).
The story is told in flashback with Marston being interrogated by Josette Frank (Connie Britton) concerning themes of sadomasochism, lesbianism, and various examples of pornography (very much illegal at the time) found within the pages of Wonder Woman comics. Through this lens, the separation of personal and professional life, the development of the character as a scientific exploration as well as a personal release for the writer, and the contest between social acceptability and censorship all play out in a most human fashion.
I’m not the biggest fan of Luke Evans. I’ve found him pretty much miscast in most action roles so far, like he meant well, but something was missing somewhere that prevented a truly breakout performance. This feels like this role was perfect for him. He struck the balance here as ambitious in regards to his work and submissive to the women in his life that really helped to ground the portrayal of this entire story. Rebecca Hall as Elizabeth is most definitely the dominant intellectual libertine, and while she comes across strong and even crass, there’s still a vulnerability her that makes her believable. Incredible performance. Bella Heathcote’s Olive rounds out the trio brilliantly as the young student swept up in events, having to choose between what’s expected and what she wants. At no point do the performances here even come close to the lines of caricature or parody. These are honest portrayals, if not to the reality of the people they portray, certainly to the idea of their characters, and at all points to their seamless integration into a whole that would result in Wonder Woman.
After more than a decade of one heartbreaking disappointment after another, I walked away from my favorite comic book character last year. It seems that Wonder Woman, however, was not yet done with me. Truly, I’m impressed at how delicately this entire story is handled on every level, how well it’s presented. It’s not a film for the timid, and it’s certainly not a film for the closed-minded.
Then again, neither is Wonder Woman.
If the imagery found here is in any way shocking to you, you clearly have never read a Wonder Woman comic that predates 1948. If this is the case, then you don’t know Wonder Woman. From the beginning, she was a very different kind of superhero, designed from the ground up to be more than mere adolescent wish fulfillment. My advice, for whatever it’s worth, is to watch the film with an open mind, and then follow the rabbit hole into the details of the real story as history records it and see how it plays for you. For me, this story is a beautiful example of art (this film) reflecting life (the people involved in her creation) reflecting art (Wonder Woman herself) as a means to engage both the heart and the mind.
The film debuted in October 2017 and finds its way to Blu-ray on January 30, 2018.