Superheroes are inescapable at the box office these days. But I confess that I never expected Lisbeth Salander, the moody Swedish hacker of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium novels, to join their ranks. Yes, Salander is a fearsome opponent of predatory men, and in earlier Larsson works such as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, she’s a valuable asset in solving a decades-old murder mystery. But she has always been very much a free agent, often focused on personal vendettas. Not anymore.
In The Girl in the Spider’s Web, a new film based on the fourth Millennium book (which was written by David Lagercrantz in 2015, 11 years after Larsson’s death), Lisbeth has become a vigilante goth version of James Bond, toting guns, allying with an NSA agent, and trying to stop nuclear codes from falling into the wrong hands. It’s a jarring left turn, and the confusion is fueled by the film’s approach as a quasi-reboot. While it’s based on a later novel in the series and features an entirely new cast, the movie still expects viewers to remember some basics from David Fincher’s 2011 The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and tries to fill in the plot details from the intervening books through hurried flashbacks.
It is, in short, a muddy mess that doesn’t really succeed as an action thriller, a franchise-starter that plays like a tired sequel. Though some of the new actors assembled here—Lakeith Stanfield, Sylvia Hoeks, Vicky Krieps—are surprising and interesting talents, they’re largely wasted. The Girl in the Spider’s Web has too much plot to get through and too many glitzy shoot-outs to arrange. Fincher’s film may have been excessively grim and suffered from a bloated runtime. But it was also a bleakly beautiful creation—a singular blockbuster that marinated in all of Larsson’s musings on Sweden’s history of misogyny and Nazism. The Girl in the Spider’s Web, intentionally or not, sands all that nuance away in the name of more thrills.