The Girl in the Spider’s Web isn’t so much meant to tell a story as it is designed to launch a new property. Stieg Larsson’s posthumously published 2005 novel The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was essentially a cozy mystery. The 2011 American film version was distinguished by its thoughtful character sketches and its moments of unexpected intimacy. But Girl in the Spider’s Web shoots for a broader, more explosive canvas.
Based on a novel that wasn’t written by Larsson (David Lagercrantz took over the series after Larsson’s death), the film replaces the delicately expressive Rooney Mara with the mostly blank Claire Foy in the role of traumatized supercomputer hacker Lisbeth Salander. Director Fede Álvarez has been tasked with turning a personal creation into a predictable moneymaker. Along the way, he somewhat inadvertently demonstrates how individual trauma can be detached from its specific victims and become an excuse for generic violence—whether in the service of entertainment or something bleaker.
The plot of The Girl in the Spider’s Web is familiar James Bond boilerplate. Various people are trying to steal an NSA program that will grant them control over the world’s nuclear weapons. Lisbeth is also given an archenemy in the form of her twin sister, Camilla (Sylvia Hoeks). Intrepid investigative reporter Mikael Blomkvist, played with wearily assured compassion by Daniel Craig in the earlier film, is here rendered as a mooning dishmop by Sverrir Gudnason. It is deeply unclear why Salander wants to have anything to do with him.
Though, to be fair, it’s not clear why Salander does much of anything she does in the movie. In Dragon Tattoo, she was motivated by curiosity, self-preservation, and commitment to friends as well as by a hatred of male violence linked to her own history of abuse. What makes Girl With the Dragon Tattoo special is that it’s a rape-revenge narrative in which the main character isn’t defined by either the sexual violence done to her or the revenge she takes on those who harm her or others. What was done to her matters, but it’s not all of who she is. Her imperious confidence, her frank earthiness, her love of a puzzle, her rare smile: those are who she is, not her trauma.
In the reboot, though, everything but the trauma is tossed aside—or, given the FX budget, blown up. Salander has become a kind of Batman figure, consumed by her lonely quest for justice, hunting down and punishing a string of abusive men and then disappearing into the night. In Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Salander doesn’t even fire a gun; her big action-hero moment involves swinging a golf club. Now, though, she’s suddenly a ninja superspy and an expert with firearms of all sorts, leaping from car chase to firefight like any other action hero.
Previously, Salander used violence in extremis, to protect herself or people she cared about. But in Spider’s Web, her particular history of trauma becomes (again like Batman’s) a kind of all-purpose excuse for, and spur to, vigilante action and hyperbolic violence. Body counts escalate, shootouts splash into public places. The old Salander’s vulnerability and trauma spurred her to do what she needed to do to survive. The new filmmakers, in contrast, use trauma as an excuse for Salander to do anything she wants, no matter how destructive.
Girl in the Spider’s Web is at least vaguely aware of the moral problems that can result from the careless use of revenge narratives. Salander’s sister, Camilla, was also abused by their father; she blames Lisbeth for running away and leaving her behind to suffer. Her career as a criminal mastermind is fueled by her trauma and ends with her planning to destroy the world to get back at her sister. Victimization has become detached from a particular person and turned into an all-purpose excuse.
That’s a common trope in Hollywood—and, for that matter, in politics, where opportunists like Trump peddle gaseous narratives of grievance to justify any range of atrocities. You have made America less great, the argument goes, so it’s OK to put your children in camps. Not coincidentally, the film gratuitously glorifies America’s security services, as NSA operative Edwin Neeham (Lakeith Stanfield) shows up to save the day from the nefarious Swedish government. The story of one abused Swedish woman is rerouted, via the magic of American filmmaking, into an apology for U.S. global hegemony.
Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was in part an empowerment narrative; it was a story about how men who abuse and harm women are forced to answer for their crimes at the hands of those they’ve tormented. Girl in the Spider’s Web is a story about how the desire for retribution can be picked up for cynical ends that have little to do with justice, much less with sympathy for the abused. Lisbeth Salander has suffered a great deal. But turning her into a vehicle for overdetermined, conscienceless violence still hurts. v