By Jennifer McClain
In 1948, a German born psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham began his crusade against comic books. While treating juvenile delinquents, he found them reading comic books and decided that comic books caused delinquency. This was a typical, correlation implies causation argument, proven false years later by Carol Tilley. However, a number of community leaders did rally against comic books, gathering them up in wagons, and burning them in huge pyres. A scene of this destruction opens the recently released Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, a cinematic romp into the man who inspired the heroine featured in this summer’s blockbuster, Wonder Woman.
The camera then zooms in on a man looking sadly at a burning Wonder Woman comic — this is the subject of the movie, William Moulton Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman and a graduate of Malden High School as well as the inventor of the lie detector. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t depict Martson’s high school years in Malden, nor his the incident in 1910, when he read his paper on “Woman Suffrage” to the Malden High School Literary Society. In fact, the film is really less about Marston and more about the two women in his life who become the inspiration for Wonder Woman.
After the opening scene, the film takes us to the questioning of Professor Marston by Josette Frank [requires NYT access], depicted as a very exaggeratedly made up woman . who was also on a crusade against comic books and especially Wonder Woman. Frank was considered an expert on children’s literature and the executive director of the Children’s Study Association of America.
The movies then switches between the questioning of Professor Marston and flashbacks to his past life. Each question about Wonder Woman finds a connection in his life as shown by the flashbacks, but which Professor Marston tries repeatedly to deny to Frank. Despite his denials, we the viewer know better.
The movie transports us to 1928 at Radcliffe College. Professor Marston is teaching a course in psychology and doing research with his wife Elizabeth Marston. He is charismatic and charming as he tells the ladies they should plan to “rule the world” because “woman are love” and the world would be better off with love than war. In his class is Olivia Byrne, who in the film and real life becomes his second “wife” and his wife’s lover and the real Wonder Woman.
Each flashback explores how Olive Byrne inspired the different facets of Wonder Woman. In the comic book, Wonder Woman has a band of girls that attend Holliday College and her escapades resemble Olive Byrne at her Radcliffe in her sorority the Alpha Omicron Pi. (In her well-researched book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Jill Lepore notes these events happened at Tufts not Radcliffe. This is one of the liberties the book took with facts.)
One of Wonder Women’s cry of frustration is: “Suffering Sappho!” Frank asks Marston, “Why use a poet [Sappho] known for her works about loving woman?” In the flashback after this question, Elizabeth Marston and Olivia Byrne become more involved romantically. Each question makes Professor Marston more combative as each scene cements the connection between Wonder Woman and his real life.
The movies well crafted but sometimes stilted and highly romanticized. Marston was not svelte or attractive as the actor who played him and it’s hard to believe some of the romantic adventures took place in public as portrayed in the film. Director Angela Robinson said at a screening in a question regarding the factual inaccuracies of the film: “I think that there’s a lot of facts that are indisputable about the Marstons, and I feel like there’s a lot of room for interpretation.”
Yet the film depicts with elegant beauty and intensity the relationship, made up or not, among the women and Professor Marston. These relationships were hidden at the time not because the love wasn’t real but because it was unacceptable to most of society. The film seems to be reminding us of those untold stories of romantic homoerotic love yet to be acknowledged.
“Why did you publish Wonder Woman under another name?” Josette Frank asks in the film. Was Marston hiding his true self? Was he afraid of the backlash associated with comic book writers at the time? Was he protecting himself and Olive and Elisabeth? We will never know because the relationship between the three has very limited historical evidence. It was only hinted at in some documents.
Either way, this is a very glamorously shot film with a very compelling story. Don’t expect to learn more about Wonder Woman or the story of the man behind it but come expecting a beautiful love story and just how powerful the concept of Wonder Woman might have been. In the film, when William Marston Moulton announces to the reporters that he is really William Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman, he emphatically says that his intent was to remind us that woman can be everything that Wonder Woman was and more. We know that because we’ve been with the real Wonder Women and seen how incredible they were.