Is Lisbeth Salander The Female James Bond We’ve Been Hoping For?

Photo: courtesy of Sony Pictures.
“Are you not Lisbeth Salander, the righter of wrongs?” a voice says in the trailer for The Girl in the Spider’s Web. The way she says the name, it sounds like “Lisbeth Salander” carries some weight, and not just in the universe of the film. If you don’t listen too hard, you might as well be hearing, “Bond, James Bond.” Lisbeth Salander, the character created by late Swedish author Steig Larsson and carried on by David Lagercrantz, is a strange follow-up to James Bond, but she just might work. Lisbeth has it all. Memorable name? Check. A badass job? Check. Iconic lewk? Check. Sleek gadgets and seemingly endless secret skills? Check. Nerdy but caring lackey? Check on that, too! The only thing she doesn’t have — at least, not yet — is a go-to drink order. The girl with the dragon tattoo and legendary hacking skills might just be the female equivalent of James Bond.
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The most important thing she has in common with Bond is her series of movies, which now span eight years and three actresses. Noomi Rapace played Lisbeth in the three original Swedish films back in 2009. Two years later, Rooney Mara took the mantle, donning a mohawk for David Fincher’s 2011 adaptation. While this is mostly the result of scheduling, it’s exciting that movie studios have enough faith in a female character to see her through two casting changes. There’s a nice parallel, too, in that Foy recently passed on the role of Queen Elizabeth to Olivia Coleman for The Crown. Foy has yet to sign onto another Millennium movie, but the implication seems to be that the girl with the dragon tattoo will fold into modern mythology.
That’s been Bond’s path, too, for the most part. James Bond is one of many characters in pop culture who, arguably, belongs to the public in the same way as mythological and folklore figures. Created by novelist Ian Fleming in , he’s appeared in 24 movies — soon to be 25 with Cary Fukunaga’s Bond 25 — in addition to radio plays, comic strips, video games, and just a few classic pop songs. Over the course of these movies, eight actors have played Bond. He morphed from a character in literature to ubiquitous spy guy, and now, we’re stuck with him, like it or not. We’ve all just assumed that Bond will survive, like cockroaches after the nuclear apocalypse. He’s up there with Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan and Doctor Who, who will live on ad infinitum, regardless of how decent the latest iterations are. There are, notably, few women characters in this field. Cue the harumphing chorus.
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Which is maybe why The Girl in the Spider’s Web is so Bond-y. Girl in the Spider’s Web is one of the less complicated stories from the Millennium series, following Lisbeth as she tries to make sure a weaponizing software doesn’t end up in the wrong hands. A U.S. computer hacker asks her to retrieve a system named Firewall, and, when she does try to get it, a violent criminal group does everything in its power to stop her. Her perennial sidekick, the journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason), eventually becomes involved, but only when she asks him for help.
The atmosphere is markedly different from the 2011 David Fincher adaptation. Directed by Fede Alvarez, The Girl in the Spider’s Web is an action movie almost from the moment it begins. Lisbeth Salander’s apartment even looks sleeker in this movie, spacious and empty like a bachelor pad in Williamsburg. In the movie’s first big action sequence, Lisbeth leaps into a bathtub, taking a respite from an explosion in the water where, earlier, she’d taken a bath. (Lisbeth bathes a lot in this film. It’s a good opportunity for us to see her dragon tat!) She later gets on her bike — a tricked-out Ducati — and motors across a frozen lake, traveling so fast that her bike doesn’t break the ice. It’s all very cool, very slick, and very Bond. Plus, she’s doing this in the name of preventing a nuclear disaster, a goal that feels a little out of Lisbeth’s purview.
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“I have a client asking for the impossible,” her boss, a proto-Moneypenny, says to her early in the film. It is implied that Lisbeth is the girl who can do the impossible. At the screening I attended, a spokesperson for the brand The Phluid Project, an androgynous label, told the crowd that Lisbeth was a “badass bitch” who “encourages people to be themselves.” While that’s not exactly Bond’s motto, there’s some sort of mold being formed about Lisbeth. Whereas James Bond was once considered a paragon of virile masculinity, Lisbeth is a gender-fluid, queer archetype for the politically active generation’s franchise hero. Bond is a chauvinist, anyway. Even Daniel Craig says so.
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The people want a female James Bond! Or, at least, the people want a female character who is as consistent and ubiquitous as Bond. Someone who possesses the badassery required to rock a flawless tuxedo throughout a battle. The easy solution was to literally get a woman 007. This idea has been circulating in the past few years, especially as Daniel Craig hints that he wants out. Idris Elba, who has himself been rumored to be the next Bond, told Vanity Fair in January that the next Bond should be a woman. This raised the question, though, of whether or not we even need one. In February, Rachel Weisz (Craig’s wife, by the way) told The Telegraph that she didn’t think a female Bond was necessary. Instead, she said, we need more female roles with Bond’s clout. Last month, producer Barbara Broccoli stated that there would “never” be a woman in the role.
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“And that’s fine,” Broccoli said. “We don’t have to turn male characters into women. Let’s just create more female characters and make the story fit those female characters.”
Okay, then — looks to camera — is that going to be Lisbeth Salander?
The trouble with Lisbeth, though, is that she’s maybe not the kind to be handed off to the next person. Lisbeth’s story is rooted in trauma, and the first three books are careful explorations of her resultant lifestyle. She’s an expert hacker because she knows she must be careful. She’s ruthless because she hasn’t known much mercy. And, in her experience, a lot of men aren’t capable of being kind. It’s hard to see a world in which Lisbeth has the insouciance of James Bond. In fact, she’s the opposite — a spitfire branded by her temperament.

It’s hard to see a world in which Lisbeth has the insouciance of James Bond. In fact, she’s the opposite — a spitfire branded by her temperament.

She’s a fringe hero, really, which might be better than a Bond. Her temperament feels fitting for today, when moviegoers might be more inclined to rage against the machine than coolly fight within it. Lisbeth’s opponents aren’t the wacky Dr. Evils that the Bond movies contain (which Austin Powers so lovingly mocked). Instead, she’s aiming more at the system, taking down chauvinistic serial killers and sex traffickers one painful fight at a time.
Alack, alas, Lisbeth’s track record doesn’t seem to prove that she’ll last. The book series is popular, each one topping international bestseller lists. They’re so ubiquitous that the styling of the titles — the blank with the blank — is an acceptable formula for any parody title. (E.g., Amy Schumer named her 2016 memoir The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo and, in 2010, Nora Ephron wrote a Shouts & Murmurs titled “The Girl who Fixed the Umlaut.”) But the films haven’t been rearing, in-your-face successes. Both film versions of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo land in the mid-80s in their Rotten Tomatoes scores, and neither surpassed $500 million in global profit. Meanwhile, Spectre, the 2015 Bond movie, earned $880 million worldwide. Skyfall, the 2012 movie, earned over a billion. While Fincher’s movie did earn an Academy award nomination for Mara, the conclusion everyone seemed to agree on was that Girl with the Dragon Tattoo wasn’t worth picking up again.
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“I would be happy for everyone involved as that would mean a lot of people went to see it and enjoyed it. Do I need to see a sequel? No, there’s a little bit of an emotional cliffhanger at the end, but the story is complete,” Fincher told IndieWire in 2011. In the same interview, he implied that Mara was too exhausted from her time working on Dragon Tattoo to pick up the role again.
So, Sony turned to a new actress and a new novel, this one not by original author Stieg Larsson, to keep the franchise alive. The movie was reportedly cheaper, in part because Daniel Craig didn’t return, and, simply put, Girl in the Spider’s Web isn’t a brilliant movie. Lisbeth Salander, just as she is hard to understand, is hard to get right.
And there’s just something bland about Bond. Fleming himself has said that Bond was supposed to be boring — his life was interesting, but Bond himself was not. Bond could be a happy shell, a sort of John Doe for really cool spies. Lisbeth isn’t quite as blunt. She’s sharp, so much so that Rooney Mara had to put the character down after one movie.
Larsson apparently wanted to write 10 novels; Lagercrantz has written another sequel, The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye, which arrived last year. Sony also has a script for The Girl who Played with Fire on hand, which the studio can adapt at any time. People keep poking Lisbeth as a potential savior, but it’s like we’re playing with fire; a franchise would only water her down.
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