Finally, a Movie About the Kinky Threesome That Inspired Wonder Woman 

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Professor Marston and the Wonder Women. Photo: Claire Folger/Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

This article was originally published during the Toronto International Film Festival. Spoilers below for Professor Marston and the Wonder Women.

Suffering Sappho! Wonder Woman was inspired by bondage fetishism, sadomasochism, and polyamory!?

If you’re a comics superfan, or have read Jill Lepore’s 2014 The Secret History of Wonder Woman (Fresh Air episode here), you already knew this. You’re also probably in the minority, judging from the tittering gasps that kept erupting around the theater during the world premiere of Professor Marston & the Wonder Woman — detailing the true, kinky origin story of the most popular female superhero of all time — at the Toronto International Film Festival. I can’t wait to see what happens when the millions of fans of the Gal Gadot–Patty Jenkins blockbuster accidentally (or very intentionally) stumble upon this one. It’s quite the female-on-female-on-male bodice ripper.

And what incredible timing, too. Director Angela Robinson (The L WordTrue Blood) actually started working on the script eight years ago, and it took a village of extremely smart queer women (Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures is the U.S. distributor, and Jill Soloway is listed as an executive producer) to bring it to life at the perfect moment to capitalize on the momentum of this summer’s $816 million megahit. But apparently, it’s all coincidental: Robinson — a lifelong Wonder Woman fan who’d stumbled upon the story of the Marston family by accident and then dug through primary sources like Marston’s letters at the Smithsonian Museum to tell it — had almost given up on her project when the one-two of Jenkins’s film being announced and Lepore’s book coming out suddenly sent interest through the roof. Still, it’s insane that pop culture went over 70 years without a big-screen depiction of the Amazonian super-warrior, only to have two movies dedicated to her, both from female directors, coming out within four months of one another. (Marston hits theaters on October 13.)

There’s no flying or bullet-dodging in this one, though. Robinson’s film centers instead on Wonder Woman’s creator, the Harvard psychologist and, later, BDSM enthusiast, Dr. William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans), who invented the lie detector in the early 1920s and, long before such things were socially acceptable, lived in a polyamorous relationship with his psychologist wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston (Rebecca Hall), and their mutual lover Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote). Structurally, the film is told in flashback; throughout, William is being interrogated by a morality watchdog (Connie Britton) who wants to know why a psychologist would stoop to write a comic book, why he’s using a pseudonym, and why every issue of WW is filled with “bondage, spanking, homosexuality, and other perversions.” Oh, just you wait.

The year is 1928. Olive is one of Williams’s students at Radcliffe, and Elizabeth, despite being frequently told by her husband that she’s by far the more brilliant member of their pair, has yet again been denied a Ph.D. from “those cocksuckers” at Harvard “because I have a vagina.” We know pretty early on that this is a highly progressive couple. It’s mid-Prohibition and they’re drinking homemade booze out of Erlenmeyer flasks, and having steamy coitus on the tables of Williams’s laboratory. Afterward, they adjourn to the quad, where, wrapped in each other’s arms, they remark from afar on Olive’s beauty and the advantages and disadvantages it gives her with men and women — like they’re stalking prey, or at least a psychological test subject. William hires Olive as his aide, which Elizabeth is totally not jealous about, until she meets Olive and tells her, “All I ask is that you please not fuck my husband.”

This isn’t a story of marital betrayal, though. When Olive balks at Elizabeth’s bluntness, the couple respond by taking her out to a speakeasy where they discuss penis envy and Olive reveals that she is the daughter of radical feminist Ethel Byrne (a birth-control advocate) and the niece of Margaret Sanger, who’d go on to found Planned Parenthood — but was raised by nuns since her mother needed to concentrate on the movement. True story! Soon, they’re sneaking into Olive’s sorority, for psychological study of course, where they find themselves getting off watching her punish a pledge sister by spanking her with a paddle. Something is clearly happening among them that’s too taboo to admit, which is where the lie detector comes in, as the three of them take turns strapping one another in, and doing the interrogations. It was actually Elizabeth’s idea that there might be a link between blood pressure and emotion, and that a person’s body might always betray whether or not he or she was telling the truth. But the questions must have significant stakes, such as, “Do you want to have sex with my husband?” and “Do you want to have sex with me?” Who knew that a needle skipping up and down with someone’s rapidly accelerating heartbeat, or a chest heaving beneath lie-detector wires, could be such delicious foreplay?

Denial impossible, it is Elizabeth who makes the first move with Olive, then invites William to join them. They are in an auditorium, conveniently surrounded by costumes, to allow for the donning of nurses’ outfits, or swaddling oneself in leopard-print furs, while writhing in ecstasy, free, for once, to explore all those suppressed desires. It is unrushed, sensuous, and exquisitely shot. And, wow, is the casting perfect. Evans, Hall, and Heathcote drip with chemistry, no matter who’s paired up with whom.

Their secret, though, doesn’t stay that for long. This is the 1920s, and the consequences are severe: loss of relationships, loss of jobs, loss of prospects. And it is here that Robinson begins making the links between the throuple’s life and what Wonder Woman would become. Each is forced to take on a secret identity, hiding an essential part of his or herself. Elizabeth works as a secretary; William can no longer teach and is scrounging for gigs while watching others make fortunes off the lie-detector research he published but neglected to patent; and once Olive moves in with them and bears two of William’s children (Elizabeth will have two of her own), she must pretend to be a widow who’s surviving on the couple’s kindness. William, it seems, made Wonder Woman an Amazon as a way of living out his fantasy that the brilliant women of his life could be anything they wanted to be, free from the limitations of Man’s World — a lesson he hoped to pass on to young girls. Likewise, Wonder Woman’s frequent exclamation, “Suffering Sappho!” refers to the Greek poet from the isle of Lesbos who is widely used as a symbol of female homosexuality. “Passionate devotion between women is natural,” he tells one of his lecture classes.

The bondage comes in when he visits a burlesque shop looking for an outfit for his wife, and strikes up a friendship with the proprietor, who calls himself “The G-String Kid.” What follows is the movie’s other juicy extended sex scene, which begins in a backroom lesson in rope play, with Olive dressed in the corseted bodice, tiara, knee-high boots, and silver cuffs that would become Wonder Woman’s uniform. Soon, William is diving into images of sadomasochistic pornography and making links between it and the psychological theory he’s been working on his entire life about how submission to another person is the true route to happiness. His books aren’t selling, and money’s tight, but what if he could use the country’s most popular medium to further the rights of women? In other words, all the accusations were true: Wonder Woman was definitely a love letter to bondage-enthusiasm, and feminist psychological propaganda.

But Marston, the movie, is simply a love letter to the amazing people who inhabit it. The tone can be uneven, the score overbearing, and William’s voice a little too much of a driving presence — as the Playlist’s Gregory Ellwood pointed out to me, you’d think that a movie with these themes and a woman behind the camera would have at least one scene of the guy getting tied up and made to submit. But, beyond those quibbles, it really is moving, and very relevant, to witness the injustice and human cost that comes when society declares a certain form of love to be deviant. The Marstons made it out okay; Elizabeth and Olive lived together and raised their children for 38 years after William’s death. Perhaps if more people can make the link between Wonder Woman’s golden lasso and the S&M love story that inspired it, and emerge a little more open-minded, that would be the greatest legacy of all.

The Kinky Threesome That Inspired Wonder Woman