The return of Lisbeth Salander to the big screen should be a big deal. As one of the most fascinating heroines to come out of literature in this century, Stieg Larsson’s avenging goth angel took millions of readers by storm, and then by heartache, as Larsson’s death prevented the plan to continue her adventures for years to come. Yet in Hollywood, the girl with the dragon tattoo remains an elusive figure. David Fincher’s vision and Rooney Mara’s magnetism couldn’t quite turn her into a global franchise for adults, and now The Girl in the Spider’s Web is content to simply reimagine her as something jejune and small: it turns her into a superhero.
This too is the wrong impulse.
Admittedly, there was always something fantastical about Lisbeth, which made her mystique evermore inscrutable. A genius hacker but altruistic do-gooder, and an axe-wielding bisexual cyberpunk but also wry revision of Pipi Longstocking, she could have easily become cartoonish in other hands. Which is something made apparent in the novels, and now films, created out of whole cloth after Larsson’s death. Whereas the hero on the page, as well as both Mara and Noomi Rapace’s interpretations, was an extremely flawed but indefatigable wraith determined to rip the weeds of misogyny from their roots, and then otherwise be left the hell alone, The Girl in the Spider’s Web is desperate for attention and commercial appeal. It wants to be admired. It’s also a bland action vehicle that previous Lisbeths would have sneered at and vandalized on their way to the club.
Picking up roughly three years after The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the new movie is an abstract sequel to the 2011 film starring Mara, but it also feels like its own new universe—one that ignores the other two Larsson stories that were never filmed in English (The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest) and even contradicts major backstory elements from them. In this new canon, Lisbeth’s life began the day she ran away from her gangster father who doted (and worse) on Lisbeth’s blonde twin sister. When Lisbeth flees, she leaves them both behind. Sixteen years later, Lisbeth (Claire Foy) is now a minor celebrity in Stockholm thanks to the writings of crusading journalist Mikael Bomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason), her onetime lover who still carries the flame for her. Even so, the celebrity is able to keep a low profile while turning her moments of vengeance on abusive husbands and seedy CEOs into a fulltime business.
It also attracts the attention of Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant), a fellow computer genius who has seller’s remorse for selling an apocalyptic program to the United States’ NSA. So at Frans’ behest, Lisbeth hacks into the NSA and steals it back, all the while attracting the attention of American spymaster Edwin Needham (Lakeith Stanfield), as well as a criminal syndicate that wouldn’t be out of place in a Daniel Craig Bond movie. Their leader, as revealed in the trailers, is Lisbeth’s icy blonde sister Camilla (Sylvia Hoeks), all-grown up and out for revenge after being left behind. Her “Spiders” have one design: to steal the apocalyptic program from Lisbeth and then frame her for any murders they commit along the way.
With any new Lisbeth film, the most compelling question mark is about the woman who wears that fabled tattoos. Donning those inks and facial piercings is Claire Foy, a terrific actor whose range is implicit since her credible Lisbeth follows on the heels of a regal Queen Elizabeth II on The Crown. But credible is as far as it goes. Certainly a less extreme physical transformation than what either Rapace or Mara did in previous adaptations, Foy’s Lisbeth is also older and less concerned about how others view her, which feels like a natural evolution for the character. And Foy brings a curt intensity to the part, enjoying thousand-yard stares that act as battlements around her fortressed demeanor. Yet gone is either the feral rage of Rapace’s Lisbeth or the subtle wintry vulnerability of Mara’s. Instead this Lisbeth wears her attitude like a cape, and has a depth that is similarly threadbare.
These shortcomings are the result of material and an approach that ill-suits both character and actor. It is understandable why Sony Pictures opted for David Lagercrantz’s authorized sequel to the Larsson trilogy as opposed to Larsson’s next two books. One of the likely reasons Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo underperformed is many moviegoers had already watched the excellent Swedish adaptation starring Rapace on Netflix. And unlike any of the Larsson books, no one else could adapt Spider’s Web but Sony, even if it is a rather mediocre novel.
Also to his credit, director Fede Alvarez, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jay Basu and Steven Knight, recognizes this by making major alterations, including by reemphasizing Lisbeth instead of Mikael, who in the finished film is so minor a presence that it could be argued the film is attempting subversion with the male lead being in the equivalent of a typical Bond girl part (all the more ironic given the charisma-free Gudnasson is attempting to stand in for Daniel Craig). But this would give the film too much credit. Rather the picture is of the workmanlike aesthetic of a late ‘90s thriller about the dangers of “The Net,” complete with an overabundance of car chases and a total lack of bite. Mikael is second string because the movie is trying to fit this complex, violent, and kinky round-pegged shape of a universe into the square hole of mass market clichés.
Hence any critical consideration of Sweden’s media or the dangers of systemic patriarchal abuse (the cornerstone of the Larsson novels) is sidestepped, Lisbeth’s sexual fluidity becomes a literally distant blur, and Hoeks’ hammy evil twin sister, a conceit that didn’t work in Lagercrantz’s novel and plays even less well here, is draped in a red cloak worthy of Dracula. This coupled with an affectation unintentionally veering toward Blofeld camp does not do the main conflict any favors. Stanfield and Merchant get some juicy moments in the margins, but as a whole, the entire spider web constructed around them is a piecemeal tangle of better action films.
There is a chance the calculations that conspired to water Lisbeth down into a female Jason Bourne will be rewarded. Empty of identity and with even less to say than its taciturn star, this relentlessly bourgeois calcification of a once creative and politically challenging property is just benign enough to appeal to a larger audience. Venom’s formula is proof enough of that. But if this is the future of the girl who played with fire, it’s probably best to let it burn.
The Girl in the Spider’s Web opens on Nov. 9. This article also originally noted the film to be PG-13. It is rated R.
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