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The Girl in the Spider’s Web

I somehow feel that I should like this franchise way more than I actually do. On paper, Lisbeth Salander has everything I could want in a female lead. She’s crazy-smart and tough as nails. She’s unapologetically sexual, but not conventionally sexy. She’s the proactive and well-defined protagonist of a distinctly feminist action/mystery franchise. I was perfectly happy to see both versions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but neither one of them left me clamoring for a sequel. I’m not a hundred percent sure why.

Then I saw The Girl in the Spider’s Web, and now I think I have a better idea.

While Dragon Tattoo was about some wealthy family of jackasses and intrigue around a missing girl, the plot to Spider’s Web revolves around a computer program designed as a skeleton key to access basically any of the world’s defense systems. Which means that any one person with this program would have access to every nuke in the world. And so with that outrageously ludicrous premise, we’re off to an international spy thriller romp.

With all respect to the previous directors who took a crack at this franchise — most especially the grandmaster David Fincher — Fede Alvarez was pretty much the perfect choice to direct this. While he’s a relatively new director with few credits to his name, Alvarez’ output has been consistently solid and exciting. Given his affinity for female protagonists and his penchant for making them suffer, Alvarez was a natural fit for this material. Sure enough, this movie is beautifully shot and edited, with expert use of Steadicam and handheld camera. It speaks volumes that Alvarez could shoot four people crammed into a bathroom for a tooth-and-nail deathmatch, yet keep everything coherent and fast-paced. Oh, and there’s a recurring spider motif, very elegantly used.

Then of course we have the cast. Claire Foy continues to prove herself a bona fide chameleon in the lead role, ditto for Sylvia Hoeks as our villain. Lakeith Stanfield is always a welcome presence, and he did perfectly well as a rogue NSA agent. Claes Bang serves as our comic relief without making a clown of himself, and he totally makes it work. Synnove Macody Lund plays our resident top cop, and she does a decent job with what she’s given. Sverrir Gudnason plays Mikael Blomkvist this time — noticeably younger than the previous two actors in the role, but I think it works. Of course, it also helps that while Mikael is of material assistance as a supporting character, he and his personal drama take a backseat to the far more interesting Lisbeth.

Which brings me to the crux of all this.

On the one hand, dropping Lisbeth into the middle of a spy thriller makes a lot of sense. She’s a larger-than-life character who can drag her way out of any life-or-death scenario, face down any kind of danger, plan strategies and escape routes like a mastermind, and bring down the wealthy and powerful with only a few keystrokes. She’s practically Jason Bourne with a smartphone.

On the other hand, dropping Lisbeth into the middle of a spy thriller makes no sense. Yes, the “computer program” angle plays directly into Lisbeth’s specialty as a hacker, but that’s ultimately not what sets Lisbeth apart. At her heart and core, Lisbeth Salander is The Girl Who Hurts Men Who Hurt Women. That’s what her whole persona was built around, that’s what makes her unique in the pantheon of franchise leads, and it has absolutely jack to do with the central conflict in this particular story.

Granted, the movie does open with Lisbeth taking down a wife-beating corporate exec, in a scene that connects to the rest of the movie in absolutely no way whatsoever. And the movie does end with Lisbeth confronting her fucked-up family history and the one girl she refused to save, both of which actually do connect to the main plot in ridiculously contrived ways.

This is the paradox of our main character. Lisbeth Salander’s feminist MO and her brand of vigilante justice against misogynists make her a better fit for smaller stakes and more intimate plotlines, yet her prodigious skill set and her outsized personality make her more at home with global plotlines and massive stakes. I don’t know how to square that circle, and I don’t think there’s been a filmmaker yet who could manage it either.

So is The Girl in the Spider’s Web a good movie? Well, it’s certainly fun. I’m still not convinced that the character is franchise material, and it’s not even the best spy thriller we’ve seen this year (Mission: Impossible — Fallout, anyone?). But as a disposable standalone action thriller, I found it to be more than intelligent and exciting enough to be worthwhile. Moreover, it’s a neat little alternative to the holiday films and awards contenders flooding the multiplex right now.

While I’m glad I missed out on opening weekend, I’d say that this is easily worth a discount ticket or a rental.

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