The complicated, unfinished legacy of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies
There are two good Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and then also there are two Pirates of the Caribbean movies that belong on any accurate list of the absolute worst films ever made. This new one is okay. They all make money, which proves that money proves nothing.
Specific opinions may vary: Everyone has seen some Pirates movies, and nobody likes all of them. (Well, almost nobody.) And maybe qualitative analysis is pointless. Could we expect better? Didn’t we all expect the worst? The mere wonderful fact of The Curse of the Black Pearl‘s existence is proof miracles can happen. The director of a slow-burn J-Horror remake and Tim Burton’s chief weirdo and the elf from Lord of the Rings and Natalie Portman’s Phantom Menace body double and the guys who wrote The Road to El Dorado adapted the best ride in Disneyland into the last great summer movie. Not to say the last great movie released in summer or even the last great “summer blockbuster.”
But Curse of the Black Pearl looks like summer, radiates heat. It feels like a pop song. The sweat, the beaches, the sense that everything under the sun smells like candy and everything in the moonlight smells like rum. Summer blockbusters trended self-serious post-2003, maybe because times were so serious, more likely because “self-seriousness” became the de facto mode for Hollywood and humanity. There’s nothing serious about Curse of the Black Pearl. Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom are so attractively blank they could be your video game avatars from some forgotten PS2 curio. More accurately, they’re tourists, vacationing in one of those boozy-sexy destination adventures you read about on billboards, sailing and spelunking and swordplay lessons after lunch.
Jack Sparrow is their tour guide, and at the time, the fact of Johnny Depp in a Disney production felt transgressive. Rumors of Depp’s rebellious streak were maybe overblown even then, maybe. We remember his dudes-named-Edward Tim Burton duology, and die-hards declare that he fixed the Western with Dead Man. He was the druggy demi-god symbolizing Anti-Everything for any bored teen who caught Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas on videotape. People point to Donnie Brasco as evidence that he could be a good “normal” actor. But in the grand scheme, he wasn’t not a cute ’80s TV actor who became another hot ’90s white dude with a million chances to succeed. He’d make a bold choice, and then he’d make Nick of Time, or The Astronaut’s Wife. Pre-Pirates, he was entering his Madonna-talks-British phase, testing out the bad accents for which he would soon receive Oscar nominations.
But he was a proud weirdo, and he looked dangerous if you weren’t dangerous. He gave Black Pearl a kick. He channeled Keith Richards, he vibed androgynous, he looked proudly perpetually inebriated. The first time we meet Jack Sparrow, he’s astride the mast of his ship. The music swells. There’s wind blowing through his braided goatee, casting strands of Patti Smith hair about like arachnoid tentacles. The scene’s a gag: His “ship” is a little sinking dinghy. But Depp still had swagger then, so the joke becomes sincere and then David Lean-level grand: The boat sinks right when it hits dock, and he strolls onto land, looking for all the world like a charismatic ballerino imitating Mr. Magoo.
Beyond Depp: Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, the aforementioned tourists, both skinny, both pretty, both anachronistically modern in the films’ genially anachronistic colonial world. She’s the captive, he’s the rescuer; even when that binary flips it’s still a binary. But she’s much tougher than him, quicker with a scowl than with a smirk, and Knightley gets the only line in the film that sounds even remotely like a badass action one-liner: “You like pain?” she sneers at an attacking brigand. “Try wearing a corset!”
That leaves Bloom in the Danny-from-Caddyshack role, a protagonist with nothing to do but watch the more interesting characters do their thing. Black Pearl wants to structure Jack Sparrow’s relationship with Will Turner as a buddy-cop bromance, with Jack even cast as a mentor figure for the young man. (Star Wars is all over these movies, and surely Jack is at least half a Kenobi, a wise elder who knew the hero’s dad; replace “Jedi” with “Pirate” and “lightsaber” with “actual sabre.”)
But in the first Pirates movie, and never again, “piracy” clearly symbolizes hedonism, transgression, a break from the norms, no corsets, no parents… no monogamy? It strikes me that what Jack does in the first film is less of a mentorship than a double seduction, Rocky Horror-style, teaching innocent blandroid babes Elizabeth and Will how to get down and get funky. By the end, Will’s cosplaying Jack, and Elizabeth likes the look. There’s a one-percent-kinkier subtext to the movie where the three of them form a ménage a trois, but maybe you don’t even need to dig into the subtext. In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the title heroes go domestic with Katharine Ross, one of the few times Hollywood has ever bothered to present the peculiar emotional ballet of an old married throuple.
You might think this is a deep read on thin cartoon material, and surely the modern sin of film criticism is looking for something where there’s merely profitable nothing. But never forget that the modern blockbuster film is self-censored by corporate conglomerates with an eye toward appealing to even the most conservative citizen in the most authoritarian regime. (Fill-in-the-blank with your least favorite regime, and don’t be afraid of looking in the mirror.) The raucous fun of Curse of the Black Pearl is all tied up with the bold sense of play, the feeling that here, in this sun-dappled water tank, people are getting away with something, and looking great while they do it.
This weekend the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie opens. Ten years ago yesterday, the third one hit theaters. This decade is all about cinematic universes and never-ending franchises. So Dead Men Tell No Tales reflects the obvious influence of Marvel and the intriguing influence of Fast & Furious. There are old characters who come back, and dead characters who come back, and we meet the children of old characters because everyone needs their own X-23.
What “Cinematic Universe” is for this decade, “Trilogy” was for the last one. Every obsessive young filmmaker with a hit blockbuster movie wanted to make their own Star Wars, and with diminishing returns, they all did. The Matrix was already winding down when Pirates hit. The third, utterly awful X-Men movie boldly put the word “last” in the title. The third Spider-Man film became a synonym for franchise bloat, eventually thrown under the bus by its own filmmaker. Lingering over all were the Star Wars prequels, a six-year slog filled with forward-looking magical thinking (surely the next one will be better!).
At World’s End is the worst of that whole sad bunch. By some metrics, it was the most expensive movie ever made at the time. When we think of the Hollywood excess of an earlier decade, the jokes run druggy: How stoned were they making Apocalypse Now? How much cocaine powered Scarface? But the sheer, enervating decadence of At World’s End pushes all aside. It’s like walking through an empty Nevada housing development that never made a water deal: The houses big and garish and unmemorable, the lawns made of plastic. Half of At World’s End is people explaining At World’s End – this is the movie where the whole idea of a “mythology” gets pushed past the point of absurdity, they travel to purgatory and randomly someone is a goddess and somewhere along the way “pirates” basically became the mutants from X-Men, a subculture hated and feared by encroachingly fascist British people.
It’s easy to hate the third Pirates movie, but that film’s spirit is everywhere: You can feel its influence much more than Curse of the Black Pearl. The film depends on building a coherent structure for its universe, both spiritual and governmental. There are Pirate Kings and a Pirate Code and a Brethren Court. The latter strikes me as the most convincing predecessor for the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s version of S.H.I.E.L.D. or whatever Mon Mothma analogue is standing around the Big Tactical Hologram in the next Star Wars, a tired symbol for onscreen order that never doesn’t feel like a studio board of directors giving notes to the stars.
If piracy originally epitomized rebellion, by At World’s End, the counterculture has become the omniculture. So, of course, it’s at this moment that Keith Richards himself shows up. I guess we should just shut up and laugh at this moment – the only thing worse than “surprise cameos” is taking surprise cameos too seriously – but it feels to me like the end of something. In the first Pirates movie, Jack Sparrow expressed the transgressive possibility that the mainstream could get funky. By the third film, the whole Sparrow family reflects something much darker: the inevitable suspicion that even the boldest avatar for rebellion will become a Disney action figure someday.
In the new Pirates movie, Paul McCartney cameos as Jack’s uncle: So that’s the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, then, stunt-cast as Jack Sparrow’s spiritual ancestors. I don’t want to sound like this is a deep betrayal: People have been saying that Paul McCartney sold out since before most people were born, and anyhow this is the fifth movie based on a theme park ride owned and operated by a company so family-friendly they basically invented the term “family-friendly.”
But the most dispiriting part of Dead Men Tell No Tales is how it recodes the only convincing “story” this franchise ever told. No longer is piracy some magnificent break from tradition; now, piracy is the tradition. Will Turner’s son, Henry, is the nominal male lead; he’s played by Brenton Thwaites, who makes Orlando Bloom look like Johnny Depp. He’s on a quest to save his father. He meets a Keiroid love interest, Carina, played by Maze Runner refugee Kaya Scodelario. Carina is the only halfway interesting character in the movie, a scientist on a quest who keeps getting accused of witchcraft. Times being what they are, Carina’s also on a quest to honor her father, the single dumbest plotline in the movie and also the only one with any remote emotional weight.
Meanwhile, the film’s dominated by three ghosts. There’s Captain Salazar, the latest watersogged ghoul, played by Javier Bardem. There’s Captain Barbossa, who died way back in Curse of the Black Pearl but long since returned, a fact that would be bothersome if Geoffrey Rush weren’t the only actor left who still looks like he’s having a good time.
And there’s Depp himself as Sparrow, not technically undead but certainly a ghost of happy memories past. There’s a lengthy flashback sequence that doubles as Jack Sparrow’s origin story, and you want to complain about the weird digital de-aging makeup, but it actually looks convincing. Worse: Young Digital Johnny Depp looks like an actor, eyes blazing with ambition and dark humor, while actual flesh-and-blood Depp looks like he lost interest after he signed the contract. Any Keith Richards comparisons have long since fallen by the wayside. Yeesh, Buckethead is less gimmicky than Depp in Pirates 5, and Buckethead wears a bucket on his head.
Now might be the time to prognosticate about the franchise’s future – its fortunes here at the domestic box office have declined, but it’s still popular globally. Depp himself has declined as a box office draw, a fact that incredibly hasn’t prevented two other megafranchises from hiring him on: Between Warner Bros’ Fantastic Beasts and Universal’s Dark Universe, Depp really is the reigning profiteer of our franchise age.
But instead of looking forward, let’s indulge our own lengthy flashback sequence, shall we? Before the decadent carcass of At World’s End, before the somehow-even-worse landlogged On Stranger Tides, there was the second Pirates film, Dead Man’s Chest. All of the problems that would define the series begin here. It’s bloated with characters and sets and effects, a sprawling two-and-a-half-hours of people chasing people and things rolling places. There are three or four bad guys, and the fundamental faceslapping repetition of building another movie around another cursed pirate crew. But this time the curse is different sorta. There are cannibal villagers who declare a visiting white man their god, and that combined with the looming presence of the British East India Company pushes the whole theme-park dangerously close to actual colonial history.
In that sense, Dead Man’s Chest is arguably a warm-up for director Gore Verbinski, who would soon enough join Depp and Pirates producer Jerry Bruckheimer in The Lone Ranger, a hilariously misdirected attempt to rationalize the dumb pop myth of The Lone Ranger with the brutal genocidal reality of the American West.
Verbinski’s a tricky director to understand. He’s more of an animator than a director, but besides Rango (and the Budweiser Frogs advertising campaign), he has made films with actual flesh-and-blood people. This means that, especially after Pirates, all of his films are insanely expensive and remarkably hyper-detailed and technically magnificent but utterly lightweight — like if Francis Ford Coppola went deep into the forest to make George of the Jungle.
But Verbinski’s real achievements in the original Pirates trilogy become apparent when you compare his work to those who came after (On Stranger Tides‘ Rob Marshall and Dead Men Tell No Tales‘ duo of Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg). And as little as Dead Man’s Chest works on a plot level, it is a marvelous showcase for Verbinski as a decadent craftsman, an anthology of live-action Looney Tunes episodes populated with actual actors and some actual sets and digital effects that look impressively real until they look clownishly surreal.
People don’t like the second movie because it betrays the grand reality of the first film. The silent-comedy fight scenes, with rolling windmills and cliffside cage-spheres, are cartoonish to Speed Racer-y extremes. After that, the franchise could never recover the particular magic of the first film. Tragically, it trended more serious, tried to turn At World’s End into its own Return of the King and then now Dead Men Tell No Tales into its Force Awakens.
Dead Man’s Chest isn’t serious. But it is horrific. Cut to Davy Jones, swaggering Bill Nighy performance-captured into a Lovecraftian nightmare brought to life. Onboard his Flying Dutchman, he commands a crew of glorpy monstrosities made of ocean: Hammerheads, reef-faces, a pirate with a brain made of brain coral. There is a grand, somewhat lost tradition of Weird Disney – think “Night on Bald Mountain” or the gaseous bayou in The Rescuers or all the times Walt himself tried to collaborate with Salvador Dali. Davy Jones is Weird Disney brought to squidling life.
The crew of the Flying Dutchman, meanwhile, just look effing gross. And they’re flanked by the Kraken, an uncanny incoherence of tentacular consumption. The last time we see Jack Sparrow in Dead Man’s Chest, he’s turned towards the Kraken’s gaping Carkoon maw, covered in squid phlegm, waving his sword in the air as death claims him with a thousand teeth.
That would have been a satisfying end for Jack Sparrow, all suicidal confidence and unsubtle dentata imagery. But Gandalf should’ve stayed dead in Khazad-dum, and Sherlock Holmes should’ve stayed dead at Reichenbach. The bigger question going forward: Can Jack Sparrow become like those characters, something larger than life, an icon that outlasts its original creators, that changes times and changes with the times? And can Pirates of the Caribbean reclaim its former madcap glory? Or is this just another cinematic universe, a film-franchise legacy band, playing the hits and bringing in new young people to pretend they’re having fun onscreen?
Dead Man’s Chest was the last time I ever felt truly astounded by the radical new-ness of digital effects: The pores on Davy Jones’ skin, the looming Kraken that moved like a breathing natural disaster. But watching Young Johnny Depp in Dead Men Tell No Tales is astounding, too. You’re aware that you’re watching a simulacrum, but it’s a convincing simulacrum – more convincing, frankly, than the simulacrum Depp has transformed Jack Sparrow into. (When you’re a willing understudy for a theme-park robot, you have maybe given up the idea of bringing any element of reality to your character.) Does Depp even need to be directly involved in these movies? I look at Verbinski, languishing in director jail, and I wonder what he could do with a fully-animated Pirates movie, with a Jack Sparrow played by willing terabytes of information instead of disinterested molecules. I wonder what will happen 30 years from now, when they’ve really perfected this whole digital-person thing, and Depp has signed away eternal Jack Sparrow rights for a large upfront sum plus a percentage of the gross for his descendants, and some future filmmaker can make a movie about Young Jack Sparrow’s first boyfriend.
These movies are advertisements, sure. But I still like the Budweiser Frogs, and I never liked Budweiser.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales