The Girl in the Spider's Web: Is a less punk, more pumped Lisbeth Salander just another action hero?

By Karen Gordon

Rating: B-

In her latest incarnation in the stylish but underwhelming The Girl In The Spider’s Web, punk cyber-genius and vigilante Lisbeth Salander is repositioned as a modern day superhero: a combination of Joan of Arc, Robin Hood and James Bond.

British actress Claire Foy is now the third actress to take on the role of the emotionally damaged Salander. And early in The Girl in the Spider’s Web, we get a hint of that emotional damage’s origin.  

In a flashback, we learn Lisbeth had an equally hyper-intelligent twin sister named Camilla (Sylvia Hoeks).  And in a brief but chilling scene, they’re summoned to their father’s bedroom. Although the scene only hints at his personality, we get the message of just how predatory, perverse and psychopathic he was. 

 Haunted street kid no more: Lisbeth Salander (Claire Foy) kills cars and people with impunity.

Haunted street kid no more: Lisbeth Salander (Claire Foy) kills cars and people with impunity.

Flash forward to the present. Lisbeth, who is a world class hacker, is hired by Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant), to steal back a computer program he wrote when he was an employee of the NSA

The program gives a single user the ability to access nuclear codes around the world. Balder, who is in Stockholm with his young son August (Christopher Convery), deeply regrets creating it. And he wants Lisbeth to help him destroy it, before the Americans, or anyone else, can access it. 

Lisbeth successfully steals the program, downloading it onto her computer. But the download has been tracked, and two different operatives are on her trail.

The first is Edwin Neeham, played by Lakeith Stanfield, an American NSA security expert who is in Sweden to retrieve the program. For unexplained reasons he’s there unofficially, and yet is on the radar of the Swedish Security agency, who are treating him as a threat.  But the real danger to Lisbeth comes from a group of merciless and violent Russian mobsters, nicknamed The Spiders. 

As things intensify Lisbeth turns to the one person she trusts, kind of - her former lover, journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason), still working for Millenium Magazine, and apparently, still pining for her. 

With all of this in play, the movie goes into action-film template mode as Lisbeth tries to save Balder and his son, keep the program out of enemy hands, stay alive, and face the horrors of her childhood

Unlike the previous movies that had more of a balance between Salandar and Blomkvist, 

The Girl in The Spider’s Web is all Lisbeth nearly all the time, more like a Bond or Bourne action film. Even the stunning title sequence seems Bondian.

Visually the movie is beautiful. The action takes place in a cold wintry Sweden, and director/co-writer Fede Alvarez, takes full advantage of the Scandinavian lighting and pallet.

The art direction is gorgeous, modern with hard angles. There are powerful women at every turn, again in the Bond mold, all pencil thin, groomed to the nth degree, and libidinous (in this case, largely lusting after each other). 

Claire Foy makes an impressive Lisbeth, taciturn and damaged, brilliant and courageous. When we first see her, she’s in the home of a rich, but violently abusive man, and hiding in plain sight in front of a life-size sculpture that gives her the wings of an avenging angel.   

It’s like a branding image for what appears to be the beginning of Lisbeth as a new movie franchise action hero. With her Joan of Arc haircut and a wardrobe of expensive leathers evoking a medieval warrior’s uniform, the intent seems to be to position her as a  heroine straight out of legend, fighting the good fight against all the evil in the world (especially the evils that afflict women and children). 

To that end, the character has become sleeker and more adept in the ways of a super spy. Lisbeth, the once socially awkward hacker, seems to have acquired the field and fighting skills of a highly trained government operative, with an advanced understanding of diversionary tactics and equipment.  In other words, there is no situation you can throw at her that she can’t magically elude, which starts to get less interesting as the film goes on.  

Fans of the previous movies might wonder where this one is meant to fit. Is it a follow to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? Or does it crassly cherry pick elements from Lisbeth’s storyline, and ask us to adjust?

Among other things, the role of Mikael Blomkvist seems to have been downgraded and revised. He’s been reduced to a seemingly weak-willed, handsome shell, exchanging longing looks with Lisbeth from afar. 

There are other puzzles in the story that read like flaws: early on Lisbeth takes action as a vigilante, robbing from the abuser and giving to his victims. As she speeds away on her Ducati motorcycle, we hear an apparent news report, identifying her as the perpetrator and describing her history of aggravated assaults. But no police ever show up to question her. 

Later in the film she steals a Lamborghini to make her escape, and continues to drive it without drawing attention.  It feels like a choice of cool spy style over substance. Lisbeth breaks the law at every turn, and sure she’s on the side of the angels, but her impunity from consequences seems incongruous at best and false at worst.

The Girl In The Spider’s Web. Directed by Fede Alvarez. Starring Claire Foy, Stephen Merchant and Lakeith Stanfield. Opens wide November 9.