When in doubt, choose violence. That’s the moral of the latest addition to Hollywood’s action-violence genre, “The Girl in The Spider’s Web,” which slips into the box office this weekend under the guise of a sequel. But with a completely new cast, all new production team and even a different writer for the source material, the film has an only surface-level resemblance to the films that came before it, let alone the novel. The characters may bear the same names as before, but who they are, and the story’s underlying theme, has been radically altered.
The original novels were about the ways men hurt and abuse women. In a way it was a story ahead of its time. Lisbeth’s revenge against the men who do ghastly things to women would fit in nicely — in a hyperbolic way — with the #MeToo era. But in its subsequent retellings, this central thesis has been watered down and stylized. This latest version is a movie that attempts to turn Lisbeth into a sort of female vigilante James Bond — franchise potential and all — by removing her feminist rage against the male patriarchy and instead turning the female characters against each other.
This latest version is a movie that attempts to turn Lisbeth into a sort of female vigilante James Bond — franchise potential and all.
The original Swedish title of “The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo” was “Män Som Hatar Kvinnor,” which translates to “Men Who Hate Women.” The author, Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson, claimed it was inspired by a gang rape he witnessed as a teen. Larsson hoped it would be the first installment in a ten-volume cycle, known as the Millennium series, all of which would focus on feminist social commentary and Sweden’s political climate — where equality is heavily preached, though not always heavily practiced.
Unfortunately, Larsson only completed three of the installments, all of which were published posthumously: “The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo,” “The Girl Who Played with Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest.” Note that none of these titles match the current film being released. But "Dragon Tattoo” was made into a Swedish language movie in 2009. It did so well in North America, Hollywood remade it in English in 2011, where it was a hit all over again. Larsson’s publisher then commissioned new stories to be written by crime journalist David Lagercrantz to add to the originals. “The Girl in the Spider's Web” was the first one to arrive in 2015, followed by “The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye” last year.
To compare the newest film to James Bond therefore works on more than one level. “Spider’s Web” is a sequel to “Dragon Tattoo” in the same way “License To Kill” is a sequel to “Dr. No;” different author, different attitude, different theme, different cast. Obviously, sometimes this concept does turn into a successful franchise. But what made “The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo” so startling as a story and arresting as a movie has been lost — perhaps permanently.
Both versions of the “Dragon Tattoo” film were crime thrillers, punctuated with moments of extreme vengeance. The Swedish version was a bit sexier, the America a bit more violent, but their themes stayed on point. Though Lisbeth Salander (played by Noomi Rapace in 2009 and Rooney Mara in 2011) is the heroine, her story is seen through the eyes of Larsson’s avatar, journalist Mikael Blomkvist (played first by Michael Nyqvist and then Daniel Craig), who recognizes her rage and genius. He’s the Watson to her avenging angel Holmes. The mysteries are plotted like Sherlock-style stories too, with careful twists and turns only Lisbeth seems to follow while everyone else blunders behind her.
Both versions of the “Dragon Tattoo” film were crime thrillers, punctuated with moments of extreme vengeance. The Swedish version was a bit sexier, the America a bit more violent, but their themes stayed on point.
The new film is all about the blundering. Lisbeth (now played by Claire Foy) has no true foil or partner. The only two other names in the cast who are even semi-recognizable are LaKeith Standfield (best known for playing Snoop Dogg in “Straight Outta Compton”) and Stephen Merchant (best known for being the writer behind Ricky Gervais’ version of “The Office”). Almost everyone else, including Blomkvist, are played by Swedish, Icelandic and Dutch actors, and their roles feel as secondary as their name recognition.
On paper, pushing Lisbeth front and center of the story sounds like it should make “Spider’s Web” more feminist than a story told through or by a man. But while she may be the lead, the movie strips away most of what made Lisbeth fascinating. It’s hard to admire a Holmes figure without the framing of a Watson. Moreover, there’s little mystery to the story when seen through her eyes. All the answers become simplified — they are obvious to her, and so they must be obvious to the audience. Obviously, there is a conspiracy, obviously this is a set-up where someone is being framed and obviously she’s going to pull every piece of technology out of her bag of high-tech tricks to solve it. (The movie is made by Sony Pictures, which you will never forget given the heavy-handed use of product placement.)
Without mystery, the movie must rely on pyrotechnics and martial arts, the latter of which is not really Foy’s forte. She does her best, but the camera work on the fight scenes is hard to follow anyway so it doesn’t matter.
If at least Lisbeth was aiming to take out misogynistic abusers and brutes, one could cheer along with the explosions. But instead, the villain Lisbeth is confronted by is her own sister Camilla (Sylvia Hoeks). Lisbeth is no longer being tortured by men, but by a woman who we are supposed to believe was made this way by their sexually abusive father. On top of this, she’s also tasked with saving a child in distress, because apparently Hollywood cannot imagine a female character who doesn’t have mothering instincts. It seems all the men so eager to make a profit off this series totally missed the memo about who the real monsters are — or buried it.
Claire Foy is, as usual, magnetic to watch. She may not be Queen Elizabeth II anymore, but she can certainly command the same level of respect. And yet, the possibilities of her role are curtailed by the production’s lack of vision. I suppose that’s at least a win for equal rights: Women can now star in mediocre action franchises too.