The Girl in the Spider’s Web is what happens when Hollywood executives get ahold of an interesting, complex, and weird female character. The studio system’s hamfisted answer to the #MeToo movement turns Lisbeth Salander into a generic action hero with an unnecessarily convoluted and nonsensical backstory, smoothing the edges of everything that made her compelling in the first place.
When Stieg Larrson introduced Lisbeth in the first novel of his best-selling Millennium series, it was as a Scandi-noir punk feminist revenge hero, a transgressive protagonist whose aim was to protect women from the men who hate them by any means necessary. (In fact, the Swedish title of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is Män som hatar kvinnor, which literally translates as “Men Who Hate Women.”) The character has since been played onscreen by Noomi Rapace in the initial Swedish film adaptation, Rooney Mara in David Fincher’s sleek studio English-language remake in 2011, and now Claire Foy. The character’s chameleonic ability to be played by multiple actors has elicited comparisons to James Bond, and to a certain extent, I applaud the concept of having a fresh, updated take on Lisbeth with every installment. But not if that means subbing in her deeply human qualities for near-superhero skills.
Much has been made of Foy’s gritty, distinctly un-Queen Elizabeth-like look for the film, but it’s all window-dressing, a rebellious veneer for a character that’s pretty much as square as they come, even if she does — gasp! — walk around in her underwear at home. Unlike Fincher’s film, a big-budget thriller that also sought to deliver a potent and intimate portrait of female trauma,The Girl In The Spider’s Web goes full 007, turning Lisbeth into the kind of person who would dive into a bathtub full of water to survive an explosion — a far cry from the searing scene in which Mara’s Lisbeth unflinchingly tattooed her rapist’s chest with a warning for any future partner. This new Lisbeth feels stale and empty, a man’s view of what a female vigilante should be. She doesn’t feel real.
Directed by Fede Alvarez, and based on the fourth book in the series written by David Lagercrantz (Larrson died of a heart attack in 2004), Girl in The Spider’s Web picks up a couple of years after the events in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Lisbeth has developed a reputation as an avenger of wronged women, a plotline that has been much touted in the film’s marketing, but doesn’t take up nearly enough space in the actual film to justify that self-pat on the back. The opening scene, which shows Lisbeth as a vengeful dark angel (there’s even a conveniently winged statue for her to stand in front of) trussing up a newly acquitted Swedish businessman (a vastly underused Volker Bruch of Babylon Berlin) accused of beating up prostitutes and his wife, is the only indication we get of the passion for justice that supposedly drives her.
Instead, the plot pivots to an unforgivably boring technology heist as Lisbeth is hired by Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant) to steal a potentially devastating program he created for the NSA. Nicknamed Project FireFall (which sounds close enough to Skyfall to immediately launch Adele’s James Bond theme in my brain) the program could allegedly give its owner access to and control over all global online missile systems, to potentially catastrophic effect. It’s a premise so bland as to border on the absurd, made even more so with the unfortunate arrival of Edward Needham (poor, poor Lakeith Stanfield deserves better) an NSA agent tasked with retrieving FireFall from Lisbeth, and a convenient way for Hollywood to have an American save the day.
The movie also brings back Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason, hereby dubbed Icelandic-Swedish Tom Hiddleston), the journalist played by Daniel Craig in the previous iteration, to whom Lisbeth turns when she discovers that some nefarious people from her past are also after FireFall: a crime ring known as “The Spiders,” led by — of all people — Lisbeth’s long-lost sister Camilla (Sylvia Hoeks).
Putting aside the fact that Camilla is the flattest, least-interesting villain to ever wear a signature monochromatic outfit (she spends the entirety of the film clad in an enviable all-red ensemble) the choice to pit two women against each other in a narrative meant to redress the many wrongs perpetrated against women seems like something that should have set off alarm bells somewhere along the way.
Foy does her best with what she’s given to work with, but it’s not enough to save such a dreary slog. She’s bringing Oscar-caliber acting to at-best an amateur rendition of Tomorrow Never Dies. Even her relationship with Mikael is telegraphed in, under the assumption that viewers would have seen the first movie, and therefore understand that the two are supposed to have chemistry.
And speaking of relationships — for a movie that was supposed to break rules, this one is astoundingly conventional when it comes to sexuality. Lisbeth’s bisexuality is briefly alluded to, but the film shows no physicality, and in fact depicts monogamy as something to be desired above all, rendering the whole thing basically PG. Vicky Krieps (who, as Alma from Phantom Thread, should get more respect) plays Mikael’s long-suffering co-editor and lover. But even when the movie meekly alludes to the fact that she has a husband, it lacks the brazen acceptance of open relationships that made Robin Wright’s character in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo feel so Scandi-chic.
Though Alvarez does punctuate the whole affair with some stylish action scenes, it’s hard to get lost in them when the backstory feels so thin. Fincher’s film managed to convey a stifling environment of constant danger for women, where every interaction was poisoned with hatred and fear. It’s a feeling we’ve grown to know only too well in years since, yet The Girl in the Spider’s Web appears to exist in a universe apart, where women are safe enough for Lisbeth Salander to go off and save the world instead. No mention is made of Lisbeth’s former life as a ward of the state fighting for emancipation, nor of her own violent sexual assault at the hands of her guardian. Ultimately, you’re left wondering why the action is happening in the first place. The same could be said for this sequel.