By Darren Franich
Updated June 21, 2011 at 07:41 PM EDT

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is one of the most inconsequential movies ever made. It is also very, very close to making a billion dollars at the global box office. It has already moved onto the list of the top ten highest-grossing movies ever, according to Box Office Mojo, thus joining the other two Pirates of the Caribbean sequels. Add in Alice in Wonderland — the swamp-candy mediocrity which grossed a billion dollars thanks to 3-D price-gouging and the misplaced interest of an audience desperate for another Avatar — and you notice something remarkable: Johnny Depp — a performer who seemed practically unmarketable ten years ago, even as he cut a swath across the ’90s with indelible performances in Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Donnie Brasco, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas — has now starred in four of the ten highest grossing films ever. And then you can’t help but notice something disheartening: Those four films are arguably the worst four films Johnny Depp has ever made.

Now, that might be an oversimplification. There was a time when Depp had to take paychecks in bland Hollywood chaff like The Astronaut’s Wife, and he’s had his fair share of navel-gazing vanity projects (like the miserable The Libertine or the still-unreleased-in-America The Brave.) But there is something uniquely relentless — and perfectly modern — about the frantic badness of Alice and the Latter Pirateses. All of the films cost so much that we probably can’t even conceive of their actual budgets (although most reports place them all between $200 and $300 million). All four films are narratively incoherent, and are set in magical worlds where the only rule seems to be “If it looks cool, it is possible.” None of them are original stories: The Pirates films are all sequels to a (pretty good!) film that was itself based on a theme park ride, and Alice in Wonderland is a pseudo-sequel/remake/reboot/mulch of Lewis Carroll’s novel.

And they all star Johnny Depp. And understand: I’m not criticizing Depp for starring in bad movies. For one thing, his actor-ly bona fides are impeccable: Even putting aside those great performances listed above, his sheer willingness to push to the far extremes of actor-ly bombast has rightfully turned him into a global treasure. His role as the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland isn’t one of his best, but it’s still a legitimate performance. (By comparison, consider Paul Walker, who just looks blandly confused even in his best movies.) On a deeper level, there’s something essentially inspiring about Depp’s success. The same freakish inspiration that created his mesmerizingly off-kilter director in Ed Wood also created Captain Jack Sparrow. Like Robert Downey, Jr., Depp didn’t so much sell out to Hollywood as force Hollywood to lay the groundwork for his success. And it’s not like Depp is all Pirates, all the time: His voice role in Rango was endearingly manic, and later this year he’ll be returning to Hunter S. Thompson territory in The Rum Diary.

Still, when you consider that Depp has has become one of the last true commercial stars in Hollywood, it’s a bit depressing to see which of his films have proven the most successful. By way of comparison, consider the career trajectory of Russell Crowe, who became a superstar a few years before the first Pirates with Gladiator. Whatever you think of Crowe’s last few films, he’s one of the few Hollywood stars who didn’t latch onto a franchise at some point — even Tom Hanks has the Da Vinci movies — and he’s paid for it at the box office. (Maybe he’s learned his lesson.)

PopWatchers, do you think a film based on original material starring Depp could even come close to the grosses of Alice and the latter Pirateses? (Also, wouldn’t “Alice and the Latter Pirateses” be a great name for a terrible punk band?) Or is this even a problem? Would you be happy seeing Depp inject a bit of whimsy into bombastic $250 million movies from here to eternity?

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

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