Sex and gender

Man and woman intertwined

'Professor Marston and the Wonder Women', reviewed by George Sik.

20 November 2017

If I told you that Carl Jung created Aquaman or that The Incredible Hulk was invented by Ivan Pavlov, you’d correctly suspect that I was lying to you. Nevertheless, Wonder Woman, the most popular female superhero of all time – featured in two major blockbusters this year alone – was the brainchild of controversial psychologist Dr William Moulton Marston. This film about him is never less than compelling.

While his research on systolic blood pressure and deception, which led to the polygraph lie-detector test, was dealt its final blow when occupational psychologist Clive Fletcher and his crack British Psychological Society review team discredited the instrument to the point where now only Jeremy Kyle will still use it, his DISC model of emotion has – perhaps inexplicably – proved more durable. Marston felt people were a combination of Dominance, Inducement, Submission and Compliance. After his death, this formed the basis of a 1958 personality questionnaire still widely used in occupational selection and available in various guises from various publishers. Most of them have changed the names of a couple of the scales (and not necessarily the same ones) because it all sounds so kinky. And indeed it is.

Marston’s private life created scandal (the film begins in 1928 when prohibition was in full swing and, while Cole Porter might have penned Anything Goes in 1934, it was clear that, at the time, very little went – in the American bedroom at least). He had a complex three-way relationship with his wife Elizabeth and research student Olive Byrne, the three of them often sleeping together, which lost him his job as a lecturer and got him kicked off campus. Like Liam Neeson’s Kinsey (2004), here was one psychologist whose theories and sex life became deeply intertwined… quite literally in this case as Marston’s fondness for ropes and sado-masochistic role-play became more and more apparent. It is fascinating how much it dominated – if that’s the mot juste – the early Wonder Woman comic strips.

The film somehow avoids making it seem salacious, however. By concentrating heavily on Elizabeth and Olive, one strident, one shy, and played superbly by Rebecca Hall and Bella Heathcote, the two emerge as characters more interesting and maybe more important than Luke Evans’s Marston. In fact, there is a deliberately feminist tone to the proceedings, a touch ironic given how much Marston made of the differences between men and women. Like Hitchcock (2012), which emphasised how important his wife Alma was to the Master of Suspense’s films, so it is here with Marston’s theories and indeed Wonder Woman herself, at least as much an empowered female icon as a fetishistic male fantasy. Marston put it this way: 'Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.'

This is a mature, accurate (as much as any biopic can be) and immensely entertaining film. Marston, like Freud, was to some extent a product of the era in which he lived, though in many ways was considerably more ahead of his time. After all, Fifty Shades of Grey wasn’t published until 2011.

- Dr George Sik is a Consultant Psychologist at eras ltd

Read more of the origin story of Wonder Woman, including in our own archive