The first full trailer for Professor Marston & The Wonder Women, a film about the lives of the creator of Wonder Woman and his two partners Elizabeth Marston and Olive Byrne, premiered yesterday, and I’ve got some mixed feelings about it. I’m excited for the film; the Marstons are fascinating, and their lives and beliefs led to the creation of Wonder Woman. Plus the movie’s got a fantastic writer/director in Angela Robinson, as well as a stellar cast. I mean, Connie Britton is playing Josette Frank and Oliver Platt is Max Gaines. If you’re a Golden Age comic book history nerd like I am, that’s just amazing.
This trailer, however, left me a little bit underwhelmed and somewhat concerned:
It’s entertaining in and of itself, I suppose. It’s sexy and mysterious and intriguing, and it looks like a compelling story. My problem is that it doesn’t seem to be a very accurate story. There are some changes I can understand, like having Josette Frank grill Luke Evan’s Marston in person. In reality, their contact was mainly through letters. As part of her role on DC’s advisory board, Frank sent letters to Marston’s publisher objecting to Wonder Woman‘s bondage imagery, which Gaines then relayed to Marston, whose messages back to Gaines were then relayed to Frank. None of that would make for a interesting film, really, so it makes sense to put them in the same room for a tense standoff. It’s far more dramatic that way.
My larger issue is with the depiction of the Marston family, and the liberties the film seems to be taking with them. They were an unconventional family; they lived together in a polyamorous relationship, and Marston had two children with each woman. The problem is that beyond this, we really don’t know much about how their relationship worked. Elizabeth had a day job and Olive stayed home with the kids, and they both had a considerable influence on the creation of Wonder Woman. Other than that, details are few. They were a very private family, and most of what’s been written about their personal lives beyond those broad strokes is questionable research and guesswork.
Take, for example, the bondage issue. Marston’s Wonder Woman comics were FULL of bondage. I wrote a book about it; the imagery is considerable, and while it’s there for a specific purpose that ties into Marston’s psychological theories, it wasn’t without its problematic aspects. So yes, Marston’s use of bondage is a historical fact, and I think it’s fair to suggest that there was a fetishistic aspect to it. He basically said so in his own correspondence. However, we have no proof that the Marstons were into bondage activities in their private lives. They could have been, but suggesting they were is pure speculation without any facts to back it up. Marston seeming to have a kink does not mean that he explored it with his wives.
This trailer appears to suggest otherwise, with Bella Heathcote’s Olive Byrne getting tied into a leather corset and the trailer clearly conflating the bondage imagery in the comics with the Marstons’ personal lives. But suggesting that the Marstons were into bondage is pure conjecture. Now, I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with bondage, or that suggesting that the Marstons were into it besmirches them in some way. It doesn’t. There’s just no real evidence for it.
The same can be said about the relationship between Elizabeth and Olive. We know they were both with Marston, and that they lived together for decades after his death, but the exact nature of their relationship with each other is ill-defined. It may have been romantic. It may have been sexual. It may have been companionate. Again, we just do not know. But like with the bondage aspect, the film seems to be putting them together in a sexual way that’s just not historically provable.
Professor Marston & The Wonder Woman looks like it’s taking theories about the Marstons’ relationship that are maybes at best and presenting it as fact. It’s leaning into salacious speculation rather than what we definitively do know about the Marstons, which is fascinating material on its own. The Marstons are unique and interesting without these elements, and the movie playing fast and loose with history makes me worry that the filmmakers may not fully understand what is compelling about their subjects.
At the same time, this is only a trailer. And making it eye-catching is just smart marketing. There’s always a bit of embellishment and sensationalizing with biopics, and I understand that. I remain curious to see what the movie actually says about the Marstons, and it would be nice to see it try to stay true to established facts. We’ll find out this October, and I’m hoping for the best.