Yesterday was a good movie watching day for me. I already posted my review of Happy Death Day earlier, but since I finally got my Movie Pass card, Steph and I decided to make it a double feature and went to another movie that I had been really looking forward to right after. The biopic Professor Marston and the Wonder Women. Unless you’re big into comic book behind the scenes lore and history, three years ago, this title might have sounded like a campy pulp action flick or dime store novel. With her recent resurgence in popularity though, I think some people are probably more likely to at least know who William Moulton Marston was. They may know he created Wonder Woman. They may also know he invented the lie detector. If they’ve been reading random articles that have been appearing in the wake of Wonder Woman Mania since the movie came out, they MAY know that he was polyamorous. And that’s probably it. They probably don’t know much about the man beyond that.
And if you watch this movie, you probably still won’t.
There’s a weird problem that happens when one reviews a biopic. There’s sort of a disconnect between viewing a film as a movie — that is, as an engaging story that is a piece of art on its own merit — and reviewing it as a piece of history. I ran into this same problem earlier this year when i reviewed Hidden Figures. Biopics have a built-in hook where you’re supposed to think about them as though they are history text books. You’re meant to say “oh my HOVA! This story is even more amazing because it’s true!” Only the story is not really “true.” It’s a story. It’s fictionalized. That’s what makes it a biopic and not a documentary.
Sometimes this doesn’t matter. I didn’t find myself trying to figure out what was real and what wasn’t when I reviewed Dunkirk or Detroit. I just enjoyed them for what they were and tried to think about the deeper social messages that the narratives were trying to present.
The problem becomes especially obvious when you know a lot about the event that that the movie fictionalizes. That was where I was with Hidden Figures. I had knowledge beyond what was being presented in the film that made me go “that didn’t happen.” That problem happens even more for me here because of how much I ended up studying comics and comic history and the like. I caught myself early on. Maybe 5 minutes into the movie I started leaning over to Steph and saying “that’s not what really happened there. Neither is that!” and then I stopped myself and remember… of course it isn’t. This is a movie!
Marston’s real life granddaughter, Christie Marston has been pretty vocal about her dislike for the film of late. This isn’t surprising. For everything that I might know about Marston and his family through my studies, she knows it through talking to her relatives. So seeing someone on screen professing to be telling the life story of your grandparents and getting it wrong has got to be weird. I know it would be odd if someone made a movie about my grandfather’s life story and changed the details in dramatic ways… I know this, because they did… I’ve mentioned before that my grandfather was a World War II veteran and a member of the Red Ball Express, a predominantly black military convoy. They made a movie about in 1952. It starred all white people… and Sidney Portier (back in 1952, you could pretend a movie was black just by putting Sidney Portier in it. And you wouldn’t even piss off white people because Sidney Portier was “one of the good ones”). Not exactly accurate… in any way shape or form.
But this isn’t really, a new thing. In essence all biopics are kind of broken. Some more fictionalized than others. I’ve already mentioned Hidden Figures, but to take another more recent Oscarbaity film, American Sniper SERIOUSLY sanitizes Chris Kyle‘s life to make it more Hollywood appropriate. Lincoln was extremely critically acclaimed by everyone… except historians who derided it for a lot of historical inaccuracies, half-truths and blatant omissions. And hell, I personally preferred the version with vampires anyway. And yes, that’s me being silly, but there’s some truth to it. Entertainment, even historic entertainment, is still entertainment first. Shakespeare wasn’t looking to be as accurate as possible when he wrote Julius Caesar or any of his other histories. The biopic filmmaker/playwright’s job is to craft an engaging story of their vision based on or inspired by the historical event. And then lie to us and sell it to us as the truth. I don’t need to know if Gandhi, Malcolm X, Schindler’s List, Amadeus, Goodfellas, Raging Bull, The Great White Hope, Wolf of Wall Street, Henry and June, Imitation Game, Straight Outta Compton, Ray, The Social Network, Tombstone, Froxt/Nixon or Braveheart are accurate or not. In fact, I’m willing to bet that some of you didn’t know that some of things on that list were evenbiopics. But they’re all great movies… all critically acclaimed. Most were Oscar contenders (Good HOVA the Academy loves a biopic). None of them are 100% accurate and some are even more fictionalized than others. So it can’t just be the accuracy that is important.
So, I tried to think about the film in that context. How does it work as a film regardless of the inaccuracies? What is it trying to say?
And it’s trying to say a lot. Maybe even too much. And that’s made a problem with it. It isn’t AWFUL. It’s not even bad. But there is a lot going on, and in trying to get to all of it, in a relatively short time block for a biopic, things feel very rushed and artificial at times.
In Jill Lepore‘s biography of Marston, The Secret History of Wonder Woman, (which is a book I very much enjoyed) she notes that “For a long time, no one paid much attention to the fact that the creator of Wonder Woman was also the inventor of the lie detector test…. mainly it’s because the people interested in the history of comic books are not the same as the people interested in the history of the polygraph. (And very few people in either group are also interested in the history of feminism.)”(295-296). This movie tries to deal with all three of those things, while also trying to make a statement about polyamory, bisexuality and BDSM lifestyles. In fact, it is probably MOSTLY invested in trying to normalize the concept of polyamory for its audience, probably assuming that this was the hardest sell.
And the poly love story is quite engaging. In particular, Bella Heathcoat as Olive Byrne does an amazing job of showing a character with nuance and depth who is torn between her personal feelings and societal expectations, as well the feelings of her lovers. Luke Evans and Rebecca Hall, are somewhat flatter in their portrayals of William and Elizabeth Marston. Part of this is the fault of the script which positions both of them as less complex than Olive. They have interpersonal issues and doubts to work through, but they’re just less conflicted… and when there is conflict, the story resolves it for them with less tension than it does for Olive.
If I have a problem with the love story is that it presents a rather simplistic vision of non-monogamy. The three leads are presented as a triad, with Olive serving as unicorn. There is not mention of relationships outside of the triad, and no expectation that they could exist. The goal of story seems to be not so much to say that romantic or sexual relationships can exist in a multitude of configurations as it is to say that a three person relationship is just as viable as a two-person relationship. And this message is important. However, the film seeks to normalize their relationship by framing it in as mononormative a way as possible for a relationship involving three people, It doesn’t say “all relationships are viable” so much as it says “a threeway marriage is as viable as a two-way one.”
It handles bisexuality in a similar manner, but devotes even less time to it because it is so focused on the polyamorous theme. There is tension as both Olive and Elizabeth try to come to grips with their bisexuality, and it is clear that the world at large disapproves of a sexual relationship between women (other than Bill Marston who is pretty much okay with it from the get go, presumedly because he’s a dude and it’s hot). The film uses a similar tactic here that it did with the polyamory angle. Rather than trying to make bisexuality acceptable in its own right, it positions it as “basically the same thing as heterosexuality” therefore setting heteronormativity as the standard. In both cases, the Marston triad is acceptable not because these are consenting adults, but because their primary goal appears to be lifetime commitment and child-rearing. The film goes through great lengths to show that there is love here and not just sex, so as to imply that there might be a problem with just wanting sex.
This is particularly obvious with Elizabeth’s character. She is written to be the most blunt and direct of the three. She is extremely progressive thinking and plainly outspoken. She frequently says the word “fuck” to imply that she like the pleasures of sexual intercourse in a way that is time period inappropriate for a proper woman. However, she is also the most hesitant of the three towards acknowledging their relationship. She is most affected by the outside sociological forces and shows the most fear. She is also the least willing to accept the BDSM elements that the three eventually discover, at least at first.
The BDSM elements are probably the biggest casualty of the runtime of the film. While the movie does briefly try to explore the psychological aspect of them and present BDSM as a viable and healthy type of sexuality, it rushes through it. For the most part the BDSM elements don’t affect the narrative at all. It is as thought they are presented simply because the filmmakers know that everyone is now aware that bondage is a part of the Wonder Woman story. The film utilizes it as a controversial far more for the appropriateness of the comics than it does as an element of the Marston triad relationship. Some interesting commentary on BDSM begins when the idea of bondage is first introduced. Bill is excited by the idea (because he’s a dude and it’s hot) and Olive appears to be into it, but Elizabeth is against it because she is a feminist and it implies the subjugation of women. However she changes her mind when Olive makes it clear how much she wants it. A tertiary character informs us that this makes sense because Olive is a submissive and it is her choice to engage in the activity. The film thus makes a strong case for the importance of consent in BDSM. However, after that point bondage is completely normalized for the triad. There is never an issue again. The next time you see it employed, it is Olive is tying up and dominating the other two as the movie has completely forgotten that she is supposed to be the submissive partner in the relationship and instead implies that all three are switches.
All of these elements could have been explored in more depth. Rushing through them all in an hour and 48 minutes while still trying to present the story of the lie detector, the invention of Wonder Woman and making a feminist statement, and trying to get the audience to care about all of these things means that shortcuts were taken that makes some things feel forced and artificial.
That said, on it’s own merits, accurate or not, the film is very well made and engaging. Despite the serious liberties taken with the story in regards to the real life historical figures and despite some vast simplification of complex sexual and gender issues into a One True Triad story, the story that came out of it was good. There are very few mainstream movies that even attempt to deal with issues of polyamory as a viable choice and bisexuality and BDSM (outside of Fifty Shades of Grey) aren’t much better. And so, while not a perfect movie, and while not the source one should ever be using if they were ever to do a paper on the life of William Marston, it is a movie worth watching. Just like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
This is an imaginary story… Aren’t they all?
★★★⅗☆ (3.6 out of 5 stars)