It seems fair to acknowledge that Daniel Craig has a complicated relationship with his most iconic role.
In 2015, Craig famously stated that he would “rather slash (his) wrists” than reprise the role of James Bond. The following year, he described playing the iconic superspy as “a drag.” While Craig has since tempered and qualified those remarks, this is not a unique situation. Sean Connery remains perhaps the definitive James Bond, and even his career was informed by complicated feelings to the character, once lamenting, “I have always hated that damn James Bond. I’d like to kill him.”
Since Craig first played James Bond in Casino Royale in 2006, many of his high-profile roles have been defined in opposition to the suave screen icon. When he played the hillbilly demolitions expert with the initials JB for Steven Soderbergh in Logan Lucky in 2017, the trailers jokingly teased “and introducing Daniel Craig as Joe Bang!!” Craig’s similarly accented Benoit Blanc in Rian Johnson’s Knives Out has been described as “the latest of his string of anti-James Bond roles.”
However, few of these roles exist in as direct a dialogue with James Bond as Craig’s performance in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. David Fincher’s adaptation of the Stieg Larsson novel arrived in cinemas in December 2011, less than a year before Craig’s third turn in the tuxedo in Skyfall. Both Fincher and Craig spend a lot of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo consciously playing with Craig’s screen persona and, in particular, his association with James Bond.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is often overlooked. The film earned positive reviews and picked up some technical Oscar nominations, but outside of a (surprise) nomination for Rooney Mara, it remained locked out of the major categories. It earned $239M worldwide and is Fincher’s fourth highest-grossing movie, but it also made a minor loss. Despite stirrings of a potential sequel, the series would only return to American screens with a soft reboot in The Girl in the Spider’s Web in 2017.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo invites comparisons to the James Bond franchise almost immediately. The film opens with a short teaser focusing on Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) receiving a mysterious drawing that hearkens back to an unsolved mystery, segueing neatly into an impressive and elaborate credits sequence. This is the traditional structure of a James Bond film, an opening scene that may or may not obliquely set up the movie to follow.
Some of Fincher’s other films, including Se7en, adopt this structure. However, the opening titles of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are more elaborate. They reportedly cost $800,000 to produce and were overseen by future Deadpool director Tim Miller. They are set to Karen O, Atticus Ross, and Trent Reznor’s version of “Immigrant Song” and foreshadow much of the movie to follow. Fincher reportedly told Miller that it should “look like James Bond, if he was a 22-year-old disturbed cutter.”
Craig received top billing on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, playing disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist. However, Blomkvist is largely a passive participant. The movie’s real protagonist is Lisbeth Salander (Mara), the eponymous woman with the distinctive body art. The film’s first hour illustrates this divide, contrasting Blomkvist’s slow and steady investigation into the Vanger family with Salander’s more dynamic confrontation with rapist Nils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen).
Salander is a breakout character. Richard Schnickel singled out Salander as “something new and unique” while Sarah Seltzer called her “an utterly original literary character.” Her distinctive appearance ensures a great deal of continuity between the three actors to play the role — Noomi Rapace, Rooney Mara, and Claire Foy. The word “iconic” is perhaps overused, but it certainly applies to Salander. Riding her motorbike and carrying a gun, Salander is an action hero for the 21st century.
In contrast, Blomkvist is a much more generic character. While Salander is consistently empowered, Blomkvist constantly seems out of his depth. While Salander is knowledgeable and resourceful enough to deal with Bjurman’s abuse on her own terms, Blomkvist is introduced crushed under the weight of a lawsuit from industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerström (Ulf Friberg). Blomkvist relies on the support of his editor Erika Berger (Robin Wright) and the patronage of Henrik Vanger to stay afloat.
Indeed, Blomkvist is consistently defined by his relationship to more powerful women. He is engaged in an affair with Berger, which “wrecked his marriage, but not hers.” In her research on Blomkvist, Salander determines that “sometimes he performs cunnilingus. Not often enough, in my opinion.” The power politics of oral sex can be quite charged and are tied to ongoing debates about conventional masculinity, demonstrated by the 2018 furor between the Rock and DJ Khaled.
As Blomkvist, Craig plays against the idea of James Bond as a masculine ideal. In the context of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Craig is cast in a role equivalent to that of a Bond girl. He is hired by Henrik Vanger to investigate the mysterious disappearance of his niece Harriet 40 years earlier but quickly finds himself out of his depth. When Vanger is incapacitated and rushed to hospital, Blomkvist realizes that his position is precarious. He brings Salander into the investigation.
Blomkvist and Salander inevitably become romantically entangled. However, it’s notable that Salander is consistently portrayed as the more proactive of the pair. Early in their working relationship, he wakes to find her working away as he lazes in bed. They first sleep together after she tends to his wounds. In their sex scenes, Salander is portrayed as assertive while Blomkvist is much more vulnerable. As Blomkvist babbles, Salander cuts him off, “You need to stop talking.”
Towards the end of the film, Blomkvist lounges around their hotel room in a bathrobe, draping himself around Salander as she works. As they talk about the loose ends, Blomkvist withdraws slightly. “Put your hand back in my shirt,” Salander instructs. Later, as they have sex, Blomkvist continues to muse on the mystery. “Just one second,” she instructs, as she finishes. Blomkvist exists largely as an object for Salander’s pleasure, like so many female leads in Bond movies.
Indeed, it is Blomkvist who serves as the story’s damsel in distress. He is consistently terrorized and brutalized. At one point, a cat is murdered and left at his doorstep. While Blomkvist is horrified, Salander immediately grabs a camera to document the atrocity. Later on, while walking in the woods, Blomkvist comes under fire from a sniper. Rather than improvising or retaliating, Blomkvist flees for his life like a panicked animal.
Following a lead that suggests Martin Vanger (Stellan Skarsgård) as the murderer, Blomkvist haplessly wanders into the killer’s house. Martin takes the reporter down to the basement and prepares to torture him as he has all his other victims. To this point, those victims have all been women. The torture is explicitly sexualized, as Martin begins by suffocating Blomkvist and ripping open his shirt. “I’ve never had a man in here before,” Martin muses, unbuttoning Blomkvist’s jeans.
The sequence does invite comparisons to the torture scene in Casino Royale, where Bond is stripped naked and threatened with castration by the villainous Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen). However, even in Casino Royale, the torture is tied to Bond’s masculinity. After all, Le Chiffre threatens that when he is done, there will be “little left to identify Bond as a man.” Bond even mocks the absurdity of the torture, boasting, “Now, the whole world’s gonna know that you died scratching my balls!”
Even incapacitated, Bond is in some control of the situation. In contrast, Blomkvist is completely powerless. Salander shows up at the last minute to save Blomkvist. As Blomkvist lies on the floor recovering, Salander chases after Martin on her motorbike. When Martin’s car crashes at the side of the road, Salander produces a pistol with the intention of shooting her quarry. Salander is spared that choice when the car explodes. Still, there’s no doubt that Salander can take care of herself.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an underappreciated film, one that is surprisingly playful and self-aware. Throughout, Fincher and Craig show a canny willingness to play with Craig’s established screen persona, offering what amounts to an extended riff on Craig’s tenure as James Bond. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is many things, including a compelling study and subversion of gendered norms and expectations. Part of that involves casting Daniel Craig as Bond girl.