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Lisbeth Salander returns in the limp, faux-feminist The Girl in the Spider’s Web

Claire Foy stars as a mere shadow of the vigilante superhacker with the dragon tattoo.

Claire Foy plays Lisbeth Salander in The Girl in the Spider’s Web
Claire Foy plays Lisbeth Salander in The Girl in the Spider’s Web.
Columbia Pictures
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

In both her Swedish and American incarnations, Lisbeth Salander — the girl with the famous dragon tattoo — is no “strong woman protagonist” caricature. She is a bundle of paradoxes that naturally occur all the time in real life but less frequently on the big screen: damaged yet strong; prickly yet vulnerable; brilliant about so many things, yet apparently clueless when it comes to human interaction; both a victim and a conqueror.

Such a character resists glossy packaging, especially since the stories in the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson (who died before the books were published) are also rife with violence, much of it sexual in nature, much of it against women. In fact, the Swedish title of the original 2005 Larsson novel Americans know as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo doesn’t mention girls or dragons; it’s Män som hatar kvinnor, which in English translates to Men Who Hate Women. The brutal sexual assaults that Lisbeth experienced as a child are partly an explanation for her seemingly antisocial behavior and partly the motivator for her unsparing willingness to go after men who abuse women.

But Larsson’s best-selling trilogy of novels and their largely successful film adaptations — three Swedish-language films starring Noomi Rapace, all released in 2009, and Hollywood’s 2011 version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, starring Rooney Mara and directed by David Fincher — testify to the enduring appeal of Lisbeth Salander to some audiences. She’s been praised and criticized. Whether or not she’s a feminist heroine has been debated. But she has always been, at minimum, intriguing.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web is the second English-language movie about the character — the second and third books in the original trilogy were never adapted for American audiences — as well as the first based on a non-Larsson novel. Its source material is Swedish journalist David Lagercrantz’s novel by the same name, considered the fourth in the series. In this go-round, Claire Foy, fresh off The Queen and First Man, plays Lisbeth, under the direction of Fede Álvarez (Evil Dead) from a screenplay by Steven Knight, Álvarez, and Jay Basu.

Claire Foy in The Girl in the Spider’s Web.
Claire Foy in The Girl in the Spider’s Web.
Columbia Pictures

The new film tries very hard to capture the menacing appeal of its predecessors, and occasionally pulls it off. But Lisbeth has lost a dimension in the process, and the darkness of the story has gone flat. As a result, The Girl in the Spider’s Web feels more like a Batman knockoff than a movie with its own notions about assault, revenge, and the effects of generational violence — and as a film produced by and marked to an industry and culture in the midst of upheaval over those very issues, that seems like too much of an oversight to excuse.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web is a murky, conventional thriller

The plot of The Girl in the Spider’s Web has to do with Lisbeth’s sister Camilla (Sylvia Hoeks), who went essentially unmentioned in Larsson’s original trilogy. Their father was an incestuous pedophile who, it is strongly implied, molested the girls when they were young. Lisbeth’s response was to run; Camilla’s was something more like Stockholm syndrome.

You don’t really have to be familiar with either the novels or the other films for this movie to make sense. The Girl in the Spider’s Web provides all the necessary backstory in flashbacks, along with an early scene in which Lisbeth exacts revenge on a bad man who never abused her but stands in for a host of others — the men who hate women, in other words.

It’s the kind of movie where the plot curls and kinks so much that recounting it in too much detail spoils any pleasures it has to offer, but basically: There’s a guy named Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant) who wrote a piece of software called Firefall. Firefall powers the world’s nuclear arsenals, and he is concerned because the US now has control of it.

Claire Foy in The Girl in the Spider’s Web
Lisbeth exacts her revenge.
Columbia Pictures

So he enlists Lisbeth, who is a superhacker, to help him get it out of their hands, which triggers some interest from the National Security Agency. The NSA sends a specialist, Edwin Needham (the always great Lakeith Stanfield) to Sweden to figure things out. Meanwhile, Lisbeth’s occasional investigative partner, the journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason), ends up on the case as well, and back in Lisbeth’s penumbra. (Vicky Krieps, the stunning star of last year’s Phantom Thread, also appears in this movie, as Blomkvist’s publisher/lover, but she’s criminally underused; so is Claes Bang, the breakout Swedish star of The Square.)

Everyone converges on a path toward Camilla, whom Lisbeth long assumed was dead. There are some chases and a lot of action shots, explosions, and double-crossings, set against gloomy, bleak wintry landscapes (if you trust the movies, it only ever snows in Sweden, the better to show off the blood, I guess) — most of what you’d expect in a thriller.

Which is pretty much the problem.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web flattens its main character into just another desultory “strong female protagonist,” and guts the whole story

Love them or hate them, what the other Lisbeth Salander movies indisputably had going for them was a sense that danger — not just standard-issue explosions and crashes but real, intimate, life-changing brutality — lurks around every corner, especially for women. Lisbeth is smart enough and violent enough to make abusers pay; the revenge fantasy is part of the series’ core appeal.

Yet all of that feels weirdly empty in The Girl in the Spider’s Web. Claire Foy does as well as can be expected with the paucity of character development in the film — itself remarkable for how spare it is, given that it deals with Lisbeth’s own childhood trauma.

Sylvia Hoeks as Lisbeth’s sister Camilla in The Girl in the Spider’s Web.
Sylvia Hoeks as Lisbeth’s sister Camilla in The Girl in the Spider’s Web.
Columbia Pictures

But her previously compelling mix of that all-too-grounded childhood trauma and otherworldly mystery is crushed down in The Girl in the Spider’s Web, reducing it to some conventional badassery of the sort that feels cooked up by someone trying to build a simulacrum of feminism. “Strong female heroines” are all the rage these days, but it’s easy to separate the ones who think of women as people from the ones who think of women as 2D characters onto which you can bolt some “badass” (meaning conventionally masculine) attributes — less empathy, more leather duds and punching. For the most part, The Girl in the Spider’s Web easily falls into the latter camp.

Too bad. I left the movie and found it instantly difficult to recall what it did, what it looked like, or how it made me feel. Was I meant to judge Lisbeth as somehow inconsistent for abandoning her sister when she was an abused child, then taking up a life of vigilante justice as an adult? Was I supposed to feel bad for both of them? Or just angry at their suffering? Or despaired over the futility of revenge? Or (gulp) empowered as a woman? And if the answers to any of these questions were “yes,” then why did I just feel glad the movie was over?

It’s probably all too telling that even a nuanced, paradoxical character like Lisbeth Salander can’t escape the Hollywood superhero-making machine, or that seemingly supernatural powers are the only ones the sequel-making factory can really handle for a character like this. Lisbeth is a wounded woman who refuses to stay inside the lines drawn for her, but that refusal doesn’t sanctify her — a rich internal conflict to explore. Sadly, in this sequel, she gets too stuck in the web of action-movie tropes to really go anywhere at all.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web opens in theaters on November 9.

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