Saturday, September 4, 2021

Comics BioPic Watch: Professor Marston & the Wonder Women (2017)

Watched:  09/04/2021
Format:  HBOmax
Viewing:  First
Decade:  2010's
Director/ Writer:  Angela Robinson

Why do biopics exist?  

No, really.  Because I don't think producers really know.  

Taking someone else's life and presenting it to the populace in order to tell a story that you want to tell, when you can't be bothered with reality or facts, is a tremendous disservice to the people you're speaking for.  It also means that whatever story you're telling - the point of it, whatever that might be - is now hopelessly compromised the moment someone googles the subject of your film.  Whatever homily you hoped to make of a life isn't going to survive first contact with anyone wondering why the hell you changed so many things.  The hubris, man.

Look, I am not a William Moulton Marston scholar.  I've read possibly three or four books about the history of Wonder Woman over the past 25 years, and I've done my fair share of reading of articles on and offline on same, and therefore touched upon the people at the center of Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017).  

As a seemingly small example of how the filmmaker in a biopic, in rushing to get to their point, can do everyone a disservice and also share misinformation:  The movie ends with a statement about how after Marston died, the character was taken away and National Comics stripped Wonder Woman of her  powers in the comics.  But... that was a window which occurred for about five years between 1968 and 1973 - ie: the change started twenty years after Marston's death.  And was done to make WW more relevant to pop culture.  It's wildly more complex than what that simple sentence states and frankly misrepresents in order to drive up vitriol against National/ DC - to what end?

When the movie came out, the living descendants of the Marstons and Olyve Byrne disavowed the film, but were more perturbed than the usual "that's not how Great Grampy was!".  And I can kind of guess why.  The movie reduces their parents largely to horndogs who decide to form a Thruple 90 years before a good portion of the population would kind of roll their eyes at the notion.  And it does it in a strange Reader's Digest format, skipping years at a time, moving events out of order, and never actually bothering to investigate the shared eroticism of the characters as presented.  There's a minimum of curiosity and a maximum of voyeurism on the part of the film.

Thus, I really can't figure what the movie is trying to say.  Their love was beautiful?  Marston sure did manage to work his personal kinks into Golden Age Wonder Woman?  Look, isn't this weeeird?

For some reason writer/director Angela Robinson does what many biopic creators do, and that's kinda make stuff up while ignoring important items that actually DO matter.  She's got down the "DISC" stuff, and she gets that Marston and Elizabeth developed the lie detector, but she makes up a rift that never existed, and she evaporates Marston and Byrne's career as hucksters of psychological advice in popular magazines, as well as Olive Byrne's contributions to Wonder Woman.  But it was Byrne and Marston's family magazine collaborations that got him in the door at DC who wanted him to help legitimize their company and material.  I mean - irony of ironies.  

They don't even have drawing tables in what's supposed to be the National offices.  Just... tables.

While I do believe people did eventually ask Marston some probing questions about his domestic situation as Wonder Woman became a strong seller, he held onto the character until his death in 1947.  The family didn't live in a suburb - they lived in the country a bit away from prying eyes.  In general, either people didn't clock to what was going on at their house or they did what people kinda tended to do: people just kept that shit to themselves.  

The film is utterly uninterested in how the Marstons managed their lives or what the kids did and didn't know.  The kids wind up more or less as inconvenient props, and we get minimal exploration of what the hell else was going on with the Marstons/ Byrne to make their lives go.  We see Elizabeth take a job well below her educational achievement, but it's never suggested anything but "what a bummer!".  What did that feel like year after year?  Was she bitter?  Did she find pride in the work?

It just wants to explore what is presented as a slow entry into various fun things to do in the bedroom.  Or on the stage of cafetorium.  What it does not seem to have any curiosity about is "who the hell is William Moulton Marston, who is Elizabeth Marston?  They seem to have some unconventional ideas."  It's just taken as an inevitability, except that Elizabeth does push back, but the motivation for why is barely discussed.   

Right or wrong, the movie kinda turns the courtship of the Marstons and Olyve Byrne into what seem like charismatic predators trying to pick a girl up, though I'm pretty sure that's not what the film intended.  But if you set this movie in the 1970's, the audience would nod knowingly and say "ah, they're perverted intellectuals taking advantage of a naive but curious young woman".  But in the context of pre-WWII America, it becomes upper-class and sexy-ish.  

And, man, does this movie want to be sexy.  And occasionally succeeds, but mostly is kinda cute about whatever is going on.  Look, call me jaded, but extraordinarily light BDSM and mostly suggested threeways are not exactly in my "find me some pearls so I may clutch them!" emergency list.  And I suspect I'm not alone in this POV.

The movie only really seals the deal once in what's a complicated and uncomfortable looking scene that - for absolutely no reason - suggests a Steve Trevor/ Diana/ Cheetah menage-a-trois in which our virginal third begins incorporating tying up her long-married couple, which... seems odd.  Frankly, the intrusion of Challenge of the Super Friends at this juncture is thematically confusing as it has meaning to do that with those characters which is probably a lot more awkward for viewers post Wonder Woman 1984.  But it also splinters the theme of the film - Wonder Woman is a combo of Marston's two ideals for women he finds in the pairing.  

But, yes, a huge amount of the movie is playing "spot the Wonder Woman comics reference!" which... I don't think in 2017 people were all that familiar with Wonder Woman's mythology and accoutrements - and they sure as shit didn't know about Cheetah, the Holiday House Girls, etc....

And, frankly, while it is biologically true that Marston fathered children with Byrne - it's almost entirely conjecture that Elizabeth and Olyve had a sexual relationship.  So really leaning into that as the core of your story is a bold call.  

The movie does have a few things going for it.  Rebecca Hall is in it.  And, frankly, all of the acting is solid.  The cinematography by Bryce Fortner is really, really impressive if properly fantasy-like.  Man is not afraid of a shadow or some dramatic lighting to make a scene work.  

Honestly, the dialog can feel like most biopics - unnuanced and very bullet-pointy.  We have to explain so much to people in such a short amount of time that people speak in exposition piles and declarative sentences.  

Anyway, I didn't hate it, exactly.  I'm not angry.  But I think... if you're making a movie about someone alive recently enough (the last of the 3 died in 1993, I think), and who actually does have an interesting enough story... I'm not sure I'm cool with just co-opting their story and doing whatever you want with their lives when you take it upon yourself to speak for them.  I don't quite get how you decide to merely fictionalize if you care about your subjects more than your own ego.

I need to stop watching biopics.  Even if they have Rebecca Hall.

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