The Girl in the Spider’s Web Review: Lisbeth Slander gets an action hero makeover

The Girl in the Spider's Web

Lisbeth Salander returns, this time played by Claire Foy, in a slick but shallow sequel that trades in the series' nuance for Bond-ian action.

Pre-screening chatter before The Girl in the Spider’s Web all seemed to center on the same questions: “What happened in the last movie?” “Is this actually a sequel?” “Which book is this based on, again?”

The confusion is understandable. The Girl in the Spider’s Web is a vague sequel to/soft reboot of David Fincher’s 2011 thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which itself was an adaptation of the first book of Stieg Larsson’s posthumously published Millennium trilogy. Fincher’s film was predated by a trilogy of Swedish films, which adapted all three original novels. Author David Lagercrantz has since taken over Larsson’s series, and The Girl in the Spider’s Web is an adaptation of his first novel—the fourth overall in the series.

For those who aren’t immersed in the world of Millennium it can feel a bit like trying to keep track of the comic book plotlines behind your favorite superhero movies. Thankfully, rather that require a host of prerequisites, The Girl in the Spider’s Web is probably best enjoyed by those who don’t know anything about the Millennium series—or at least by those who are willing to go in with an open mind.

In this version, steely Swedish hacker Lisbeth Salander (Claire Foy, taking over for Rooney Mara) is less of a small-scale meddler and more like Stockholm’s Batman. She’s developed a public reputation as “the girl who hurts men who hurts women,” and when we first meet her, she’s stringing up an abusive billionaire in his own home and transferring his funds to the battered women in his life. Lisbeth’s impressive skillset rests somewhere between Jason Bourne and James Bond. She can fight off hordes of baddies, drive cool vehicles in high-speed car chases, and set up elaborate plans that time out down to the exact second.

Befitting her new action hero status, the film swiftly moves Lisbeth away from her vigilante work and onto an adventure about saving the world. Regretful NSA designer Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant) hires her to steal Firefall, a program that can single-handedly take control of every nuclear weapon in the world. Nabbing the program puts Lisbeth in the crosshairs of NSA security expert Edwin Neeham (LaKeith Stanfield), who’s trying to quietly steal back the stolen program before anyone knows it’s missing. Once a brutal Russian crime organization known as “the Spiders” manage to steal it first, however, Neeham joins Lisbeth’s makeshift team of allies. 

The Girl in the Spider’s Web requires plenty of action movie suspension of disbelief. A massive apartment explosion burns everything but the crucial documents one character needs to track down another. Lisbeth easily steals Firefall only to be stumped by its riddle-based password system, which can only be solved by Balder’s neurodivergent son August (Christopher Convery). The Spiders are a massive, well-armed crime organization whose members all seem to have terrible aim. Yet the film’s overfamiliar plot beats are elevated by Fede Álvarez’s confident action direction. Save for one unexpectedly gruesome image, Álvarez doesn’t bring much of his horror movie roots to The Girl in the Spider’s Web (Álvarez previously helmed Don’t Breathe and the 2013 Evil Dead remake), but he clearly knows his way around an action sequence. August and Firefall soon become joint MacGuffins for Lisbeth and co. to chase across multiple snowy setpieces, including an exhilarating car chase featuring an inconvenient dead body and a mansion-break-in with a maze-like aesthetic. The film’s best action scenes allow Lisbeth to show off her mental cleverness, like when she aims her trusty taser at a metal stairwell handle to electrocute the goon holding on to it.

Still, this is definitely a shallower, more conventional action thriller than any of the previous adaptations. Yet there are pleasures to be had in this re-configuring of the source material. In fact, given its new tone, the movie could’ve stood to cut more ties with the past, especially journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason, taking over for Daniel Craig) and his editor/lover Erika Berger (Phantom Thread’s Vicky Krieps, taking over for Robin Wright) who are awkwardly shoehorned into a story that doesn’t need them given the way it centers Lisbeth as its true protagonist. Playing a particularly thinly written version of the character, Foy at least brings a steely physical presence and empathetic, wide-eyed stare that allows you to project some emotional depth onto the material. She’s a more vulnerable, almost mournful version of Lisbeth than we’ve previously seen.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web eventually circles back to its story of abuse and vengeance by pivoting to Lisbeth’s relationship with her estranged sister Camilla, who appears in an opening flashback and is later played by Sylvia Hoeks as a slinky Bond villain. It’s the Firefall program that rather coincidentally brings the two sisters together, but their reunion becomes a moment of reckoning over the fact that young Lisbeth fled from their sexually abusive criminal father while Camilla stayed and took over his empire. Yet what should be a story about the wide-reaching impact of parental abuse becomes a much more simplistic story about sisterly betrayal. Watching someone write and then delete the words “legacy of abuse” is about the closest the film comes to adding any actual nuance to the material.

Dancing around the edges of the Millennium series in all its forms is the question of whether there’s an exploitative edge to this female revenge fantasy, which so far has been told exclusively by men. (The Girl in the Spider’s Web is written by Álvarez, Steven Knight, and Fede Jay Basu.) Fincher’s version took Lisbeth’s trauma more seriously, but also assumed the audience wouldn’t understand her desire for revenge unless we saw a lengthy, graphic depiction of her rape first. The Girl in the Spider’s Web is less overtly exploitative in its images (it also avoids the lengthy shots of female nudity that filled Fincher’s film), but also far shallower in its exploration of abuse and survival.

Netflix’s Jessica Jones proved that fun genre thrills and nuanced explorations of rape culture can exist side by side. With The Girl in the Spider’s Web clearly so much more interested in the former than the latter, however, the superficial evocation of such difficult topics winds up leaving a bit of a bad taste in an otherwise enjoyable thriller.

The Girl In The Spider’s Web spins its way in theaters Friday, November 9th.

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About Caroline Siede

Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.

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