On its own, The Girl in the Spider’s Web: A New Dragon Tattoo Story is a fairly generic thriller. But taken as a part of a canon that might be the closest thing we have to James Bond that isn’t James Bond, the film, adapted from the Millennium series by Swedish writer Stieg Larsson, which continued posthumously by David Lagercrantz, it’s a much stranger (and more interesting) creature.
For almost as long as 007 has been around, the question of which star should inherit the “licence to kill” has been a subject of contention, with the recent arguments campaigning for a non-white Bond (Idris Elba was a popular favorite for ages) or a female iteration of the super spy. Though the idea of a female Bond was nixed by boss Barbara Broccoli, Sony Pictures seems to be pushing the Girl With series to fill the void. As a character, Lisbeth Salander, the hacker genius and vigilante, “the girl who hurts men who hurt women,” is up to the task.
Though she’s a tech mastermind rather than a spy, Lisbeth Salander is operating out of the same toolkit as Bond. No obstacle can restrict where she goes or what she does (not for lack of trying on the part of those opposing her); she’s got gadgets; she’s got an on-again, off-again sidekick and love interest to stress that her past traumas and seeming invincibility haven’t totally closed her off from the people around her; she faces off against visually striking villains; and her goth-punk style is as distinct a signature as Bond’s tux and martini order. The American Dragon Tattoo movies even sport slick opening credits that make the 007 comparison even more impossible to avoid.
There’s also a certain parallelism to the way that the role is bigger than the actor; becoming Bond (or Salander, to a lesser extent) is a star-making turn, but the larger franchise (and the character’s effective immortality) is the kind of thing that will subsume most, if not all, efforts by the actors in question to break free of the association. Few other franchises — including the nascent comic-book universes — can boast the kind of longevity that means they’ll survive no matter who’s attached to it.
Since 2009, and over the course of five films, we’ve seen three Lisbeth Salanders. Noomi Rapace, in the Swedish trilogy; Rooney Mara, in David Fincher’s 2011 adaptation; and now Claire Foy, in Fede Alvarez’s take on one of Lagercrantz’s books. As with each Bond, each Salander is different by necessity — each actress has a different physicality — but Lisbeth Salander is still Lisbeth Salander. Foy’s features, for instance, are inherently softer than Mara’s or Rapace’s, making her Salander more immediately vulnerable and slightly less physically threatening, but she’s still unquestionably the same character.
Beyond that framework, however, the differences between the two franchises are striking. Salander possesses an open aggression that Bond doesn’t — even in blunter iterations like Daniel Craig’s take are meant to be charming. Even the title bestowed upon Salander’s semi-mythical status in her world is predicated on violence. There are other characters who have operated with similar relentlessness, but they’ve been male (The Punisher) or a step removed, either in terms of historical context or a tendency to lean into pulp (Atomic Blonde).
Until relatively recently, Bond was held up as a paragon of masculinity. In tandem, the idea of exacting vengeance upon one’s abusers and preventing similar abuse from befalling others is one that has become more openly popular, as per the most recent installment of a different franchise, Mad Max: Fury Road.
The Dragon Tattoo franchise’s success suggests a similar desire for Lisbeth to be a surrogate for an idealized version of the self on the part of a female audience. At the very least, the series is a rebuke of the degree to which female characters have had a bad go of it in the genre. The Bond franchise has been derided for its treatment of women as largely expendable sex objects, and other tentpoles, while shifting along with the conversation around gender parity (the character of Ilsa Faust in the Mission: Impossible movies is one of the best things to happen to the franchise besides Tom Cruise’s apparent death wish), are still male-dominated.
It’s why the finale of The Girl in the Spider’s Web is so disappointing, as the story, which pits Lisbeth against her sister Camilla (Sylvia Hoeks), crumbles into territory that steals agency from its female characters rather than offering them any resolution or empowerment — their problems eventually boil down to a jarringly tone deaf instance of misplaced blame for past trauma. Maybe that’s part of the point, as the Dragon Tattoo series has a definite nihilistic bent, but it feels like a misstep in an installment of the series that seems meant to serve as this franchise’s Skyfall.
That the sequel is so unremarkable is a pity, as the series is likely still too nascent to continue following a flop. Despite those flaws (and growing pains in the stateside iterations, including a male gaze-y focus on rape as a narrative device and the tendency to flip-flop between coding more “traditionally” feminine qualities as weak, or as part of some larger point about how women are underestimated), the Dragon Tattoo series is fascinating as a female-centric franchise in a landscape dominated by male characters, particularly as it seems to be positioning itself as a counterpart to James Bond, one of the biggest and most durable franchises of all time.
On the other hand, this is a sequel that’s hit seven years after the last installment, and a series that has already had three different actresses attached to the main role. As reboots and remakes have proliferated (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a little bit of both, as the Swedish film trilogy began with an adaptation of the same Larsson book), the Dragon Tattoo may be in the perfect position for another go-round.