Here’s how Angela Robinson turned an unconventional story into a conventional biopic, to the benefit of both.
One of the most bittersweet moments you can have as a film critic is when someone else finds the perfect angle on a movie you’ve been trying to crack. I walked away from Angela Robinson‘s Professor Marston and the Wonder Women trying to articulate what it was about the film that seemed so odd to me. It wasn’t until days later that another film critic found the exact words I needed to hear. Katie Rife, news editor at The A.V. Club, wrote that the film is “a progressive love story, conventionally (and intentionally) told,” and no film I’ve ever seen has clicked into place with such a resounding noise. Of course, the film adheres so strictly to biopic conventions: it is the Trojan Horse of historical films, embedding – as Rife so succinctly noted – a progressive sexual and political message in the most inoffensive of cinematic templates. This is exactly the source of the film’s power.
And despite the fact that I desperately feel the need for a do-over on my conversation with Robinson as a result of this epiphany, there are still plenty of inroads to understanding Professor Marston for those who may not approach it from the same perspective. This is a film that finds hope and joy in sex, power, and consent, and to hear Robinson describe her movie, one of the all-consuming stories of her Hollywood career.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of Professor Marston – the part that forms the basis for everything that follows – is the exploration of the academic theories of William and Elizabeth Marston. This meant that the most difficult part for Robinson was finding the best way to research and contextualize some of the history of the evolution of American psychology. “I had to do a lot of research on early psychology, which was just splitting off from philosophy into its own,” Robinson explained, noting that the Marstons were looking to transition psychology into more of a “hard science.” “They thought there were ‘X’ amounts of units of anger in you, or love, that you could biologically measure what amount of emotion you had.” To understand the science behind the Marstons is to understand Wonder Woman as a subversive work of art, but conveying that audiences in the film required a solid understanding of DISC Theory, the process through which the Marstons would come to view their world. “It was really important to me to explain what DISC Theory was,” Robinson continued, “and all of the scenes revolve around dominance, inducement, submission, or compliance.”
In this way, Robinson’s film sets an academic basis for some of the intimacy that follows. What’s so surprising about Professor Marston isn’t that there are polyamorous love scenes or explorations of BDSM; it’s that Robinson has no interest in portraying these love scenes as taboo, regardless of how they may have been perceived at the time. “A lot of times, the acting kind of stops in movies, and then they shoot the sex scene and then the acting resumes,” Robinson explained, noting that, in her film, “there’s so much character, that they’re really, to me, about freedom and fantasy and being your truest self. How they’re negotiating how free they can be in this fantasy world they’re creating together. So the sex comes out of that, but it’s not sex to have sex, it’s sex to create.” The interplay of sex and creation was at the forefront of Robinson’s mind when she originally described the film to the studio. “‘The lie detector scenes are about sex,'” Robinson recalled telling executives at Stage 6 Films, “and the sex scenes are about fantasy and Wonder Woman and freedom.'” This harkens back to Rife’s comments about the film intentionally telling a conventional story; the phrase ‘normalizing’ tends to receive a bad wrap these days, but here Robinson’s film quietly makes it clear that this relationship is healthy and sincere.
In fact, the most illicit thrill from the film’s multiple sex scenes seems to come in the connections – drawing on the archived correspondence of William Marston – between Wonder Woman’s signature weapons and specific elements of the BDSM community. When talking about her film, Robinson notes that Marston wasn’t particularly shy about pointing to the inspirations for Wonder Woman’s bracelets or lasso. As a result, Professor Marston is peppered with these so-called “Easter Eggs” from the family’s history, although a few elements were not able to make their way into the final version of the film. “The only thing I’m really I wasn’t able to put into the movie is that Olive wrote these articles for the Family Circle magazine as a journalist,” Robinson admitted, “where she posed as a friend of the Marstons, who was coming to interview Marston on the state of the comics or other topics. They had this really kind of fun, tongue-in-cheek game, where they’d pretend that they didn’t live together.” Robinson described this as another of example of the characters “hiding in plain sight,” only getting removed from the film because she ran out of time for the story.
And while it wasn’t necessarily Robinson’s intention to have people rethink their understanding of Wonder Woman as a character, she wouldn’t shy away from that as an outcome, either. “I really feel strongly that the reason that Wonder Woman is such a phenomenon and such a success is that she’s the only superhero that was created with a message to stop violence,” Robinson explained. “I started as a Wonder Woman fan, so I’m deeply respectful of the character, and also her fandoms and how important she is to people around the globe. I think it’s the perfect time to explore the ideas and the ideals of the people who created them, who’ve been hidden from history.” Perhaps thanks to Angela Robinson and Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, the origin of the character – and the important role she played in the evolution of American culture – will be more than a footnote in comic book history going forward. For now, though, Professor Marston can and should be regarded as a movie befitting its inspiration: a progressive story in the guise of convention.