Thursday, April 19, 2018

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (Angela Robinson)


Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman makes no reference at all to the subject--partly I suspect because the multi-million dollar production is meant to earn that crucial PG-13 rating pulling in as many kids as permissible and still have Warner Brothers' DC Comics-style dark edgy feel. Which means no mention of the 'B' word (rhymes with 'suffrage') or the 'L' word (rhymes with 'primrose'--if you like 'thespian'), definitely no scenes with Gal Gadot uttering the superheroine's most infamous exclamation: "Suffering Sappho!" 

Enter Angela Robinson with golden lasso in one hand and Amazonian sword in the other slashing through the bull: Wonder Woman was the product of William Moulton Marston, drawing inspiration from his wife Elizabeth and student Olive Byrne (daughter of Ethel Byrne a famous feminist). He wasn't shy about his intentions in creating the character either: "Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world."

Jenkins was right to emphasize how much Princess Diana values love but what kind of love gets depicted onscreen seems well rather platonic, or at the very least soft-pedaled; we did get a brief scene of Chris Pine as Steve Trevor horse-whispering Diana into a rather tepid kiss then a discreet fade to black--I'd suggested back then that Diana should have taken charge and handcuffed Steve to the bed's brass frame, maybe hogtied him with her golden lasso for a few laughs. 

This is where Robinson comes in. Luke Evan's stockier more rugged-looking Marston seems closer to the comics' Trevor than Pine could ever hope to be (still struggle with the idea of him as Captain Kirk) and yet when confronted by Rebecca Hall's Elizabeth and her fierce intelligence his masculine fire seems visibly banked; she's every bit his equal and in some ways superior and he's content to play happy somewhat spoiled child to Elizabeth's stern matriarch. They're already a sexy couple when Robinson introduces Bella Heathcote's Olive; she not only resembles the original Diana--at times Robinson lights and shoots her like an Amazonian goddess--she combines Diana's baby cheeks and rounded chin with a warrior's level gaze.

That's the base fuel of course, three minds in a pile. The match that ignites the pile happens to be the project Marston has been working on all this time: his polygraph test, a machine that (thanks to Olive's suggestions) finally gets to work properly by measuring the subject's blood pressure, the (at that time anyway) one expression of bodily function that cannot lie (later tests would improve with properly designed questions). Magic spell cast, the machine proceeds to peel away social inhibitions revealing the emotions simmering beneath: their as-yet unconsummated desire for each other.  

Evan's Marston gets marquee prominence and the most screen time--not surprising since his character's is the most easily recognizable name--but surprisingly he doesn't feel like the main character; he's at best the menage a trois' passive needy center. He wants Olive and it's to please him that Elizabeth accepts Olive; after a falling out he asks Olive and Elizabeth to reconcile and for his sake Olive agrees. He's like a babe the two women indulge all the time, only to discover that in indulging him they're really indulging their own inmost longings (turns out William has his own built-in detector, perfectly attuned to the psyches of the women in his life). 

Is the film persuasive? Is it even realistic? Not really but considering that there's little we actually know about Marston and his home life Robinson apparently felt free to project not just her speculations and theories but fantasies too, only in a specific way--the seduction scene isn't just erotic it somehow has the taint of wholesomeness, as if love between a man and two women was the most natural thing in the world, as if a home life with two women and their children by the same man was the most natural thing in the world. 

This kind of Disneyfied approach to what can easily be a lurid subject may turn off some folks. I don't know; personally I had the opposite reaction and this I suspect is the reason why: Robinson thanks to the dearth of actual biographical material has fallen on weaving less an origin story then an origin myth about the creation of Wonder Woman, and in realizing that myth adopts the tone and tenor of a comic book. The film isn't so much Disney as it is innocent, basically Disney minus the cynical calculations needed to appeal to the broadest possible demographic (if it were more calculating it wouldn't even try hinting at the possibility of either the "L" or the "B" word--would in effect be more like Jenkins' movie). It's Robinson speaking from inside herself, through the voice of three dreamers, envisioning the world she'd like to see on both printed pulp and big screen. A dream, if you like--if you allow it to land and take hold; a charming beautiful dream.

First published in Businessworld 4.13.18

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