Even if you’re familiar with Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, the film about the man behind Wonder Woman, you might not know that a black woman wrote and directed it. Probably because most of Angela Robinson’s career has largely been in the shadows of television, directing and producing such hit series as The L Word, True Blood, Hung and How to Get Away With Murder, even though she did write and direct the 2004 feature film D.E.B.S., co-starring Meagan Good.
Coming on the heels of the multimillion-dollar global box-office phenomenon Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins this summer, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women has the potential to lift Robinson out of those shadows. At the very least, it uncovers one of the most interesting backstories in superhero history.
As it is for many women, Robinson’s interest in Wonder Woman began as a little girl, but she didn’t become aware of creator William Moulton Marston until many years later when one of the actors in her first feature film gave her a book on Wonder Woman and she found the chapter on the Marstons.
“I just couldn’t believe the story,” she says. “It was just an incredible story.”
The story prompted Robinson to spend eight years on the film, writing it for four and then trying to get it made for another four. In fact, when she shot the film last fall, Robinson had no idea if it would even get a theatrical release. But she never lost faith in the story.
Marston—an early innovator of the lie-detector test, which inspired Wonder Woman’s truth-seeking lasso—developed and taught his “DISC theory,” focusing on dominance, inducement, submission and compliance. It was his belief that women were the superior sex and should and would rule the world.
By some accounts, he predicted 2037 as the year of reckoning. His high esteem for women was manifested through his wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, who was one of just three women to graduate from Boston University School of Law in 1918.
Later, when the Marstons entered into a relationship with Olive Byrne, a former student who became a research assistant to him and his wife, William Marston reportedly felt that the combination of Elizabeth and Olive created the perfect woman and they, along with his DISC theory, became the main spark behind Wonder Woman, a comic he penned under the name Charles Moulton, which appeared in 1941.
“They were out of this early psychology, which really thought that you could change the world with your ideas,” Robinson explains. “So Wonder Woman is the only superhero that was created with the premise of stopping war. That was her purpose.”
The polyamorous relationship depicted in the film among William; his wife, Elizabeth; and Byrne—who is, coincidentally, the niece of birth control champion Margaret Sanger—is probably one of the aspects of the film that casual Wonder Woman fans may find the most shocking, especially given the times. For that reason, it’s the aspect Robinson treated with the most care.
“I really didn’t want it to be exploitative or gratuitous,” she says of depicting the sexual and emotional relationship among the three. “Since the subject matter could be so potentially controversial, I kind of made a decision early on to direct it just so I could try to tell an organic love story, not to make a huge deal about what they were doing [sexually].”
(Last week, during a panel at New York Comic Con, Robinson defended her depiction of the characters’ sexuality after a few attendees raised questions about whether Elizabeth and Byrne were actually sexually involved, and that William Marston’s relationship with the two women was actually polygamous. “I think that there’s a lot of facts that are indisputable about the Marstons, and I feel like there’s a lot of room for interpretation,” Robinson said during the panel.)
Robinson made the relationship among the three very simple.
“It’s just a love story between three people instead of a love story between two people, so I just directed it the way I would approach any kind of romance or any biopic,” she says. “I think a lot of times people portray polyamory or BDSM [bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism] in a way that’s like, ‘Oh, they’re so crazy, they’re so kinky,’ and I didn’t want to do it like that. I just kind of wanted to be really respectful and treat it like I would treat anything else.”
Besides, Robinson says, such relationships aren’t exactly new ones. Instead, we are deluded into thinking they are. “People tend to look back on history and think nobody ever had sex and nobody ever did anything,” she notes.
“I think people were a lot more liberated,” she adds. “There’s always been these kinds of unconventional relationships. It’s just that they’ve been erased from history.”
Ultimately, what shines through most in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is their idealism and courage.
“They were trying to save the world with their ideas through pop culture,” Robinson says. “He was just like, ‘That’s going to reach way more people than my academic books. So I’m going to make a superhero, but I’m going to put my ideas into this superhero.’”
And, decades later, Robinson, like many other young girls familiar with the comic book and/or the 1970s TV series starring Lynda Carter, is proof positive of Marston’s theory.
“Seeing Wonder Woman when I was a kid definitely helped me,” says Robinson, who also adores the first-ever, big-screen version of Wonder Woman starring Gal Gadot. “She was the only girl around, and that made me feel empowered. She still makes me feel empowered. I think Wonder Woman is the greatest!”
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, starring Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall and Bella Heathcote, is in theaters Friday.