Everything you think you know about Wonder Woman is wrong. Or, at least that's what we're meant to glean from Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, writer-director Angela Robinson's take on the superhero's backstory. Following the lives of Wonder Woman creator William Marston (Luke Evans), his wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston (Rebecca Hall), and live-in partner, Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), the film uses the trio's relationship (the true nature of which being recently debated) as a way of illuminating Marston's creative trajectory, as well as the beliefs that inspired Wonder Woman's feminist rhetoric. The Globe and Mail sat down with Robinson shortly after the film's premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last month and spoke to her about reclamation, the controversy surrounding the comic and Marston's misogyny.
Do you think the world's ready to know the truth behind Wonder Woman?
I guess we'll find out! I started this project about eight or nine years ago and at the time the story was really not known. And in the past three or four years there's been this revisiting and celebration of Marston's ideas that were hidden from history for a long time because they weren't accepted. But people keep complimenting me on the timing of having my film come out within months of Patti Jenkins's extraordinary Wonder Woman movie, [and] to me that's kind of funny because I'm an indie filmmaker and I've been trying to make this movie for a long time. It's an accident of history.
What part of yourself did you reclaim while you were writing this story of reclamation?
The writing process for me was wrestling with Marston's ideas about women, sex and feminism. He deliberately put a bunch of potent ideas together in one soup. Some movies, you know how they're going to end, but in writing this I had no idea. I was discovering the film with the characters. And his core notion is submission being love, and that is what I came to. The journey of the movie is my journey of writing it, and I feel like my personal arc was raging against the machine and then coming to some sort of peace with it by the end of this process.
Marston was ahead of the curve in some capacity, but he goes on to talk about two women forming the perfect woman and that's a myth.
[And] that was deliberate. I wanted to represent Marston's feminism and his misogyny simultaneously. I wanted to put moments in the script where he was frustrating. Marston's theory was that men were inherently violent and anarchistic, and women were inherently loving and nurturing. So he wanted to understand women, but he himself understood that as a man he could never fully understand them. He was always inside his own man-ness. But you can't write a movie about Wonder Woman without exploring the women. And I was struck by how erased Elizabeth and Olive were, and how [Marston] got all the credit for Wonder Woman. That would've happened even if they weren't in the unconventional relationship. He was a feminist, but he was also complicit in erasing them, too.
What surprised you most about the evolution of Wonder Woman?
When I first read about the story, it blew my mind. It's an extraordinary story – any piece of it, you could just make a movie about. That's why it took so long for me to put all the ideas into one movie. But what surprised me the most was how contemporary a story it was; how ahead of their time – and not only their relationship, but their ideas – they were. Because he got push back. And if you read the first seven years of Marston's Wonder Woman, they are so radical. He called it psychological propaganda to teach a generation of men and boys to respect and revere powerful women. And then radically that shifted after he died.
Why do you think we're so apt to push against ideas we don't understand?
That's just human nature. Mostly, Marston was a psychologist and his thing was the study of human emotion and behaviour. That's a very baseline human reaction toward fear of anything "other." We're experiencing it now, this constant pendulum.
This interview has been condensed and edited.