NEW YORK (AP) — Superman and Batman were born, like brothers, in 1938 and 1939, respectively. But psychology professor William Moulton Marston had grander and more progressive aspirations for his comic creation.
"Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world," Marston said around the character's launch in 1941.
The female-empowerment ideals Marston intended Wonder Woman to espouse have perhaps — as plenty of recent events in Hollywood and elsewhere have attested — not advanced as much as he and his feminist wife and colleague Elizabeth Holloway would have hoped. But 76 years later, worldwide dominion has indeed arrived for Wonder Woman.
Just months after Patty Jenkins' "Wonder Woman" became a worldwide box-office smash — making Jenkins the first female filmmaker to helm such a massive blockbuster — the story behind the lasso-wielding superhero has also landed on the big screen.
Angela Robinson's "Professor Marston and the Wonder Women," which Annapurna Pictures released in theaters last Friday, charts an origin story to beat them all: the creation of Wonder Woman by the free-thinking Marston (played by Luke Evans) and his unorthodox family. Marston lived with both Holloway (Rebecca Hall) and Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), a researcher who moved in with the couple in 1926. They were a threesome who harmoniously raised four children together.
The Marstons were collectively influenced by early feminists and suffragettes. (Olive's aunt, Margaret Sanger coined the phrase "birth control" and opened the first birth-control clinic in the U.S.) Marston studied gender, behavior and sexuality, and his studies later filtered into Wonder Woman. He brought bondage imagery to the early comics, for one. Wonder Woman's lasso, which forces people to tell the truth, was a version of the lie-detector test Marston helped invent.
When Robinson ("D.E.B.S." ''Herbie: Fully Loaded," ''The L Word") came across the back-story to the sole superhero to ever capture her heart, she was floored.
"It just blew my mind. I literally couldn't believe the story," says Robinson. "I became totally obsessed."
Since Robinson first encountered the Marstons, their story has been notably recounted by author Jill Lepore in "The Secret History of Wonder Woman." But the tale has, Robinson says, been a passion project for a decade — long before a "Wonder Woman" movie was a reality.
Hall was brought to Robinson's project initially after she, herself, sought the rights to Lepore's book. Robinson's desire to make the film, Hall says, was overwhelming.
"She wanted to make a romance about three people filled with love and hope," says Hall. "It's quite brave to try to make in some sense a conventional romance where you ask your audience to accept that the romance is legitimately happening between three people — and not only ask them to accept it, but to root for it."
"Professor Marston" was shot last fall when Hillary Clinton was presumed by many to be on the cusp of the presidency. Robinson initially worried that the film's ideas might be "passe" by the time it came out.
"What struck me to begin with was how contemporary a story it is," says Robinson. "The Marstons were ahead of their time and they're still ahead of their time."
In a 1937 press conference, Marston declared that women would one day rule the world. The Associated Press picked up the story, and articles ran nationwide reporting: "Feminine rule declared fact."
Robinson initially had mixed feelings about some of Marston's teachings but she's "come to love him," she says. What most won her over was Marston's 1928 book "Emotions of Normal People." Published while he was teaching at Columbia (and before disapproval of his family's arrangement would damage his career), Marston argued that what many consider "abnormal" in relationships and sex is quite natural.
"I as a filmmaker came to a conclusion that this movie does, which is that he was on to a lot of stuff, and the core of his message was about love and being true to who you are," says Robinson. "The first line of 'Emotions of Normal People' is: 'Are you normal?' And that just slayed me. He himself was grappling with what that means."
Audiences didn't initially respond to the much lower budgeted, more lightly marketed "Professor Marston and the Wonder Women" as eagerly on opening weekend quite like they did to Jenkins' "Wonder Woman." (The film debuted poorly with $737,000 on about 1,200 screens.) But its makers believe strongly in the relevance of the story behind the superhero iconography.
"Their story seemed to be so metaphorically significant to so many other things, like the history of 20th century feminism, the changing ways we look at conventional relationships and family values," says Hall. "There's just too much in this story."
Robinson says she was both deeply moved by Jenkins' film and saddened that such a film — a big-budget release starring a woman, directed by a woman — remains an overwhelming rarity.
"I feel like not just women but men are really desperate for new ideas, a new message — not the same old thing," says Robinson. "It's the perfect time to examine the ideas and the ideals, the people who were behind this thing that we all grew up loving, but also in some ways taking for granted, not knowing that there's this incredible love story and these radical free-thinkers who conjured her into being with their lives."