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‘Professor Marston and the Wonder Women’ review: Comics, stripped

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Posted on October 10, 2017 at 8:28 AM

'Professor Marston and the Wonder Women' review: Comics, strippedBella Heathcote is the living prototype for a classic superhero in ‘Professor Marston and the Wonder Women'(ANNAPURNA)

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By Stephen Whitty

In 1954, a psychologist named Frederic Werthem published a book called “Seduction of the Innocent.” An attack on “dangerous” comics, Werthem’s work insisted that horror stories encouraged juvenile delinquency, Batman and Robin were secret lovers and Wonder Woman was a lesbian heavily into spanking.

His first suggestion was based on flawed or faked research. The second never rose above anything but a campy joke (outside of two awful Joel Schumacher movies, perhaps, decades later). But the third… well, with the third, the doctor was onto something.

Even more, perhaps, than he knew.

The creator of “Wonder Woman” was a failed academic, fervent bondage enthusiast and dedicated free-love exponent who lived (and had children with) two equally liberated women. His comic-book creation wasn’t just a superhero, but the trio’s own personal heroine – someone fighting for feminism, polyamory and thigh-high boots.

Although Jill Lepore’s 2014 “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” had already explored this material – and with a definitely more suspicious eye — Angela Robinson’s “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” takes a more original, and even romantic approach.

Because to her, this is all a love story.

In real life, Marston was a bit of a huckster, but Robinson glides past that to present a gentler tale. Marston – and his partners, Elizabeth Holloway and Olive Byrne – are simply, genuinely, in love, one for all and all for one. And as they create a secret life, together, they live an even more fabulous one through fantasy.

It’s a dream that Robinson grounds in details. The first time the trio falls into a menage it’s backstage at a college theater, where discarded costumes – a soldier’s uniform, a Grecian gown – helps the roleplaying. Later, in a fast-cut flurry of comic-book panels, we see those private urges made public – as, in between getting constantly tied up, the brave Amazonian saves her war-hero boyfriend, and the nation.

Marston’s slightly cracked psychological theories revolved around dominance and submission, and Robinson’s smart script shows just how complex those simple ideas can be. Is Marston, the strutting male, ever really in charge? Is his wife, Holloway, quite the fierce force she pretends to be? Or is the simple, cow-eyed Byrne really the boss of both?

Robinson’s small, fine cast gives those ideas life. Luke Evans and Rebecca Hall perfectly embody the smart bohemian couple, brilliant about everything but, perhaps, their own motivations; Hall, a terrific actress, completely captures the impatience and outrage of a superior woman kept constantly in a second-class position, all raw nerves and sharp edges.

And Bella Heathcote gives a tremulous warmth to Olive, an innocent student soon doing graduate studies in the human heart. She has enormous eyes, and for much of her career, in the sort of parts she’s gotten, that’s all she’s needed. But here she uses them – daring about in fear, looking up in devotion, looking down in cool control.

The unconventional love story at the heart of this – and the three actors who act it out – help paper over some of the other problems. (Chief among them is the gimmick of having Marston interviewed by a humorless censor, played by Connie Britton; the situation seems fake, and the back-and-forth cutting is more of a distraction than anything else.)

Of course, there are some other things that feel slightly false here, too (the trio have bad habit of forgetting to lock the doors before they get frisky). And, true to Hollywood conventions, everyone is at least three times better-looking than the real people.

But it’s a blast to see the early, slightly surreal pages of old Wonder Woman comics (apparently, a large malevolent baby played an important role). The film gets the freewheeling feel of the early comic-book era, too, with Oliver Platt playing Max Gaines (champion of Wonder Woman, and father of Bill, himself the genius behind Mad).

And, in the end, it’s a nice tribute not only to one of the comics’ greatest characters (and this year’s favorite movie hero) but the sort of truly unhindered, uncensored imagination that makes all fiction possible — and all love real.

Ratings note: The film contains nudity, sexual situations, strong language and brief violence.

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