“Professor Marston & The Wonder Women” Reveals The Queer Origins Behind America’s Most Famous Superheroine

"Being together represented a freedom to be their true selves in a totally unfettered way," says director Angela Robinson.

Eight years ago, filmmaker Angela Robinson became enamored with Wonder Woman’s back story—how she was created, by whom, and why—and was determined to bring it to the big screen.

Although it took years to come to fruition, the timing of Professor Marston & The Wonder Women’s could not be more fortuitous, coming on the heels of Patty Jenkins’ $820 million blockbuster feature film about the amazing Amazon. “I very conveniently plan my little indie film to come on its heels,” Robinson jokingly tells NewNowNext. “I had it all plotted out a long time ago!”

In truth, the DC Extended Universe’s Wonder Woman movie was itself in the works for at least a decade before it actually became this summer’s smash hit, and the timing of Robinson’s “love letter” to William Moulton Marston, Elizabeth Marston, and Olive Byrne was a happy accident.

Robinson says she became obsessed with the story of the Marstons after reading a book about them, one which detailed a polyamorous relationship between all three—as well as how the two women directly informed the creation of Diana Prince. “I was totally blown away by this story and I couldn’t believe that I’d never heard of it and that nobody else had.”

Professor Marston & The Wonder Women

It took her four years of writing on nights and weekends in-between TV jobs to finish the script, and four more to score financing and distributions (Sony Sage 6 and Annapurna Pictures, respectively.)

“Part of the reason I started writing this was that a friend and I were so frustrated that there had been all these multiple franchises and reboots of Superman and Batman, ad infinitum ,” she recalls “How many times can we see Bruce Wayne’s parents killed in an alley? I was like ’Again, really?'”

But Wonder Woman had never been on film until 2016’s Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice , 75 years after she first appeared in comic-book form.

“I feel like there’s this Wonder Woman renaissance and it’s all kind of feeding each other,” says Robinson. “It’s a really exciting time to go back and explore the story of how Wonder Woman all started. And it was important to honor these people who inspired her, and look at how it all began. Because it was very deliberate on their part to inject these ideas into Wonder Woman.”

Robinson’s film chronicles Dr. Marston’s time at Harvard, where he researched what is known as the DISC Theory—dividing personality types into Dominance, Influence, Submission, and Compliance. Simultaneously, he and his wife worked on a lie-detector machine and brought in psychology student Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) to help with their research. In the movie, Marston (Luke Evans) sees Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) as his equal—even if Harvard didn’t. (At the time, women were pointed toward Radclyffe).

Professor Marston & The Wonder Women

Robinson says Marston was a feminist, though he also had a misogynist streak.

“Throughout the film, there’s a really rigorous examination of Marston’s ideas—why he kind of has to engage with all these really strong, intelligent women,” she explains. “And, you know, they grill him on it. Connie Britton’s character [Josette Frank, the director of children’s books for the Child Study Association of America] quite literally… so it was also important to me. You can’t tell the story of Wonder Woman without exploring these women and their perspective.”

Marston’s creation of Wonder Woman was inspired from both Elizabeth and Byrne, and—in the film, at least—the unconventional polyamorous relationship they tried to keep secret from the world. Robinson’s script sees Elizabeth and Olive sexually involved with one another, and sharing an interest in bondage that fueled the creation of Wonder Woman’s bracelets, girdle and lasso.

“In the movie, they’re rarely—maybe never—questioning whether their feelings for each other are good or bad,” Robinson says. “There’s been a lot of films about that already. [Olivia and Elizabeth] acknowledge they’re feeling what they’re feeling—what they’re trying to work out is what they’ll have to sacrifice to sustain this relationship. What do they have to say? Why are they willing to lose? And what does it mean in relation to the world? To me, the dialectic of the movie was between fantasy and reality: Wonder Woman represented fantasy but being together represented a freedom to be their true selves in a totally unfettered way.”

The conflict wasn’t internal, she insists, but “whether the world was going to let them do that or not. Whether they could even live with their truth openly or not.”

Professor Marston is largely told in chronological order, but interjects scenes of Marston’s confrontational meeting with Josette Franks to parallel Wonder Woman’s story with Marston’s own. Robinson said she was inspired by All That Jazz, specifically in the way it focuses on a “man who has all these strong women in his life who are kind of calling him to task to defend his ideas and why.” But because it’s about the three of the Marstons and not just William, she said that she saw them as “tripod” — “They couldn’t exist without all three of them,” she said. “If one of them was treated unequally, the other two would fall down in the storytelling.”

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Perhaps because Robinson is herself a lesbian, and has written and directed queer-inclusive series like The L Word and True Blood, even the most erotic moments in Dr. Marston & The Wonder Women are portrayed sensitively rather than voyeuristically. Their shared interests in BDSM and group sex are displayed as a love story, rather than a lusty menage a trois.

“I didn’t want to ’otherize’ their experience,” Robinson says. “I just wanted to show how this could organically happen, and I wanted the audience to feel what you feel like when you fall in love… I wanted to really bring the audience inside what I imagine the experience would be so that you’re really rooting for them.”

She also didn’t focus on labels or identities that didn’t exist at the time.

“Now we have all these words—’poly’ or ’queer’ or ’gay,’—but they didn’t have those words then. The identity they were living was very new.” So new, she says, that they didn’t conceive of them as identities. “They were just following what the wanted to do and accepting the consequences or rejecting the consequences. So I wanted the movie to exist in that space.”

Sadly, Marston passed away in 1947, just six years after Wonder Woman’s debut in All Star Comics #8.. But Elizabeth and Olive continued to live together until Olive died in 1985. (Elizabeth died in 1993 at age 100) Although their children and grandchildren are still alive, Robinson says she made a “conscious choice” not to consult them for the film. “I wanted the freedom to explore a lot of the controversial themes that you see throughout the story without any preconceived notions about it from anybody.”

“I did a ton of research,” she adds, “but I wanted to come to my own interoperation of what I thought the story was. I wanted the freedom to explore without feeling I was being swayed by others.”
 

Robinson was only interested in telling the Marstons story if she could tell it fully—and in 2017, when BDSM and polyamory are more acceptable (if not fully condoned) it seemed she could.

“I come at it, first and foremost, as a Wonder Woman fan—I have a deep love and respect for the character,” she says, “But I really wanted to honor the Marstons and tell their story, too. Because I feel like their ideas are responsible for this pop-culture phenomenon that we all love today. And I feel like they had to hide. Their story was swept under the rug because of the fear that they wouldn’t be understood. But I feel like the time is right to honor them without shying away from what their story was or ignoring those aspects that I don’t think should be ignored.”
 

Professor Marston & The Wonder Women hits theaters October 13.

Trish Bendix is a Los Angeles-based writer.
@trishbendix