10:51 AM EST, February 15, 2013
If comic book characters are a driving force in Hollywood, it's worth noting that Wonder Woman, one of the most iconic characters of the last 70 years, has yet to star in her own live-action movie.
She hasn't been completely ignored. Two years ago, David E. Kelley teamed with NBC for a reboot of the 1970s TV series, which was roundly mocked from all corners of the Internet when production photos leaked online. NBC canceled their efforts before the show even made it to air.
Perhaps it was for the best. The website Den of Geek got a look at the unaired pilot and deemed it depressing: "She just exists and is still heartbroken over choosing to fight evil, instead of setting up home with Steve Trevor." Well, now, that is depressing.
The character's evolution and influence since her debut in 1941 is the basis of the new documentary, "Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines," which screens twice next week, each show followed by a panel discussion with local comic book artists, including Lyra Hill.
"I think about sex and femininity and comics a lot," Hill said when we spoke this week. "Wonder Woman definitely influenced me even though I don't follow mainstream comics. I've never read her comics and I've never watched the show, but she's important to me because she exists — and actually because of the story of her creation."
Bingo. If only the film had been about that and only that. Director Kristy Guevara-Flanagan does spend time exploring the Wonder Woman back story, but not enough, and the film often feels overly broad as it strains to make a larger point about female empowerment.
The story of Wonder Woman's creators, on the other hand — a threesome who lived in a polyamorous relationship — is a far more intriguing thread, left largely unexplored in the film.
Officially, Wonder Woman was the work of William Moulton Marston, a Harvard inventor with degrees in both law and psychology. Unofficially (and more interestingly), Wonder Woman sprang to life largely because of the influence of two women in his household. The first was his wife, Elizabeth, a career woman who was very much Marston's equal at a time, the 1910s and '20s, when such a thing was rare. (Her degrees in law and psychology were from Boston University because, as she later told The New York Times, "those dumb bunnies at Harvard wouldn't take women.")
The final piece of the puzzle was a former student and researcher named Olive Byrne, who was also Marston's mistress. She moved in with the couple in the 1920s, and by all accounts it was a happy arrangement. Each woman bore two children by Marston. (Their professional and personal lives sound as complex and fascinating as that of the Kinseys.) "Olive stayed home with the kids, while Mom continued to work," Elizabeth's son Pete told BU's alumni magazine in 2001. "It was a wonderful situation, a win-win deal for everyone." (The Marstons legally adopted Olive's boys as well.)
During their time in academia, Marston and Elizabeth's research focused on exposing deception. It was Elizabeth who suggested they devise a blood pressure test based on the realization that "when she got mad or excited, her blood pressure seemed to climb," (according to son Pete). That eventually led Marston to invent the polygraph, aka the lie detector test. Suddenly, Wonder Woman's Lasso of Truth seems very much of a piece with Marston's agenda.
He later constructed a personality test outlined in the book "The Emotions of Normal People." Marston also put forth a premise that presumed women to be more honest, reliable and levelheaded than men: "When women rule, there won't be any more (war) because the girls won't want to waste time killing men." The idea for Wonder Woman's persona was slowly coming together.
After leaving academia for a short stint at Universal Pictures, Marston gave an interview to Family Circle magazine (conducted by Olive — yes, that Olive — who kept the nature of their relationship concealed from readers under the pen name Olive Richard). The piece ran with the headline "Don't Laugh at the Comics" and it paved the way for a job at All-American Comics (a precursor to DC Comics), where Marston put his theories to work. When he talked with Elizabeth about creating a new superhero, she reportedly told him, "'Fine, but make her a woman."
He didn't need much convincing. "Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lack force, strength and power," Marston wrote in 1943. "The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman, plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman."
She was originally to be called Suprema before an editor changed her name to Wonder Woman. Her qualities were based on those of both Elizabeth and Olive (particularly Olive's appearance). Then there is what I'll call the "50 Shades of Wonder Woman" bondage and submission themes.
"Marston believed that submission to 'loving authority' was the key to overcoming mankind's violent urges," according to the website Comic Book Resources. "That strong, self-realized women were the hope for a better future. Wonder Woman was very consciously Marston's means of spreading these notions to impressionable young minds ... (and) with this unusual brand of feminism as his stated aim, Marston filled his stories with bondage (both male and female), spanking, sorority initiation rituals, cross-dressing, infantilism, and playful domination."
Boys, Marston said, would eat it up and then some: "Give them an alluring woman stronger than themselves to submit to, and they'll be proud to become her willing slaves!" Hill, who will be at Wednesday's screening, said: "What's so interesting was that he wanted little boys to read this comic and feel that submitting to a woman was a positive and strengthening experience. To see woman as a dominant gender was his view for world peace." (Not surprisingly, Marston's comics stoked the ire of certain segments of those including psychologist Fredric Wertham, who deemed Wonder Woman a threat to masculinity, among other crimes, in his 1954 book "Seduction of the Innocent.")
Marston would continue to write for the Wonder Woman series until his death in 1947, after which the bondage themes (and Wonder Woman's singular strength and equanimity) became less pronounced. As for Elizabeth and Olive, they remained together until Olive's death in the late '80s. Elizabeth supported the family with a job at MetLife that (along with Wonder Woman royalties) allowed her to put all four children through college and grad school. She died in 1993 at the age of 100.
"She always said, 'I'm not Wonder Woman,'" her granddaughter Susan Grupposo told her alma mater BU in 2001. "But I always told her, 'You are to me.'"
"Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines" screens at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Columbia College and 7:30 p.m. Feb. 23 at Chicago Filmmakers. Both screenings will be followed by post-show discussions led by local comic book artists. Go to chicagofilmmakers.org.
TV in Chicago
With pilot season gearing up, so far two ABC pilots are confirmed to shoot in Chicago next month, with a third looking likely. The legal drama "Doubt" (from "House" creator David Shore) centers on a cop-turned-lawyer who relies on his street smarts. (Shore himself was an attorney before turning to television.) "Betrayal" (from "ER" executive producer David Zabel) is based on a Dutch series about a woman who has an affair with a defense attorney facing off with her prosecutor husband in a murder trial.
Lastly, chances look good that “Influence” from Kyle Killen (best known for the short-lived but critically lauded 2010 series “Lone Star”) will land here as well. The criminal procedural centers on a pair of brothers--one an ex-con, the other a genius--who use behavioral science to solve their cases.
"The Insanity Retrial of Mary Todd Lincoln," a restaging of the real-life court proceedings that sent the former first lady to the Bellevue Place sanitarium in Batavia, airs at 9 p.m. Friday on WTTW. Taped last fall at the Murphy Auditorium on Erie Street, the 90-minute reenactment features actors playing Lincoln and her son Robert interacting with a roster of (non-actor) attorneys, judges and expert witness. For more info go to wttw.com/lincolntrial.
The life of Whitney Young Jr., who was born in segregated Kentucky and would go on to become a civil rights leader (as well as the namesake of the Whitney Young Magnet High School on the Near West Side) gets the documentary treatment in the film "The Powerbroker," which follows Young as he "shuttles between the streets of Harlem and the boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies," per the film's website, "tying the needs of Main Street to the interests of Wall Street." It screens at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Chicago Cultural Center.
Block Cinema (at Northwestern University) screens a group of five short docs about Chicago niches at 7 p.m. Thursday. Dubbed "Never a City So Reel," the lineup includes "Now We Live on Clifton" (about the gentrification of Lincoln Park), "Paraiso" (about Mexican immigrants who work as skyscraper window washers) and "Jerry's Deli" (about the old-school eatery once located on Grand Avenue and its famously and hilariously cantankerous owner), with director Tom Palazzolo in attendance for a post-show discussion. Go to blockmuseum.northwestern.edu/view/cinema.
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