The problem with the Lisbeth Salander franchise

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CLAIRE FOY is the third person to play Lisbeth Salander on the big screen in a decade—a turnover rate which is even higher than that of Spider-Man actors. First Lisbeth was played by Noomi Rapace in a Swedish film of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2009) and its two made-for-TV sequels, which used up all the source material from the “Millennium” novels written by Stieg Larsson before his death in 2004. Then she was played by Rooney Mara in a Hollywood adaptation of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2011), directed by David Fincher. And now the hacker, avenger and gothic fashion icon is back in “The Girl in the Spider’s Web”, which is based on one of the two authorised “Millennium” novels by David Lagercrantz, the series’ new author.

Ms Foy (Queen Elizabeth in “The Crown”) is at least the equal of her predecessors. With an impressive Swedish accent, as well as the boyish haircut of a medieval monk, she brings a surprising air of pain and anguish to a character who often has the sullen toughness of the Terminator. Sadly, the film around her is less convincing. Mr Larsson’s bestselling thrillers, as pulpy as they were, exposed the dark side of Stockholm society: its violence, its ingrained misogyny, its undercurrent of Nazi white supremacism (a topic which seemed a lot less resonant when the first “Dragon Tattoo” came out than it does today). But “The Girl in The Spider’s Web” is little more than a calculated attempt to establish a long-running action franchise with a woman—or a “Girl”—in the lead role. 

Directed by Fede Alvarez (“Don’t Breathe”), the film has its share of Scandi-noir motifs, from the dour colour scheme to the snowy evergreens, and it retains some of the novels’ kinkiness: at one point Lisbeth is vacuum-packed in black latex. But these elements are all that distinguish it from any other slick but gloomy James Bond knock-off.

After an early sequence in which Lisbeth blackmails a wife-beating CEO, the film leaps into blockbuster territory. Its heroine is employed by a scientist named Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant, who, as ever, sticks with his West Country accent) to steal a computer program he wrote for the American government. Complete with its own catchy, Bond-ish codename, “Firefall”, the program allows its user to take control of the world’s nuclear arsenals. Balder has decided, belatedly, that maybe it wasn’t such a great idea to let one government have it.

Salander carries out this cyber-theft in no time, even though the mission was “impossible”. But before she can hand a laptop containing the program to Balder—why not just erase it?—a group of masked thugs breaks into her spartan warehouse apartment and sets off a bomb. Her decor was so minimalist that the apartment looks much the same after the explosion as it did beforehand, but Salander is determined to investigate, and so she contacts her journalist sidekick, Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason, taking over the role played in the last film by 007 himself, Daniel Craig).

Blomkvist identifies the thugs as members of a crime syndicate called The Spiders, but they aren’t the only people interested in Firefall. Also on the case is an American secret agent, played by Lakeith Stanfield, who has little narrative purpose except to make the generic goodies-vs-baddies plot seem more intricate and international than it really is. And, as the trailer gives away the film’s main twist, it is no spoiler to say that the boss of the Spiders is none other than Lisbeth’s own psychotic sister Camilla, played by Sylvia Hoeks. 

Camilla is as blonde as Lisbeth is dark, so when these two Swedish characters are in the same scene you can have the pleasure of pretending you are watching an ABBA biopic instead. But Camilla, a megalomaniac in a bright red outfit, is as far over-the-top as any Bond villain. Indeed, the last Bond movie, “Spectre”, declared that 007’s arch-enemy, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, was really his foster brother, so “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” is hardly breaking new ground by mixing petty sibling rivalry with global-domination conspiracies.

The super-spy nonsense outweighs any socio-political themes. Mr Alvarez stages regular preposterous action set-pieces which demonstrate that Salander has both the physical capabilities of Jason Bourne and the genius of Sherlock Holmes. She was once a punky computer nerd with a kickboxing hobby—now she wrestles an assassin twice her size and zooms across a frozen lake on a Ducati motorbike.

These sequences are efficiently assembled, if never exactly exciting, and it may seem churlish to complain when there are so few female heroines in blockbusters. But “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” is pulling so hard in two opposing directions that it doesn’t go anywhere. It is trying to be both a goofy popcorn movie about a superheroine and a moody drama about an abuse survivor, and the results are too sombre to laugh along with yet too daft to take seriously. The question now is whether a sequel can find a more expedient tone, or whether there will be another reboot and another Lisbeth in a few years’ time.

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