Originally published on Flickering Myth on 27/05/17.
Despite being one of Disney’s mainline franchises for nearly 15 years, building sequel after sequel into what is now a multi-billion dollar series, the old-timey, Johnny Depp-led Pirates of the Caribbean is in something of a tricky place.
Caught between different generations of fans and apparently now incapable of catering to all, the latest instalment, this week’s Salazar’s Revenge has seemingly confirmed what 2011’s On Stranger Tides quite seriously hinted towards: in terms of quality, Depp and co. are pretty much lost without a paddle.
There’s no denying that the Pirates movies are money-makers, and I’m sure good movie or bad, they’ll still be raking in the dough for many years to come (arguably the worst in the series ended up as the biggest cash draw overall). But there’s nothing that says the most profitable releases have to sacrifice clever storytelling (or, by this point, even just coherency) in order to make those big box office bucks.
So here’re a handful of suggestions on how to get Captain Jack back on track once and for all, whilst still keeping an eye on those all important market figures.
1. Bring back the sword-fighting
It’s safe to say that the single most standout film in the series remains 2003’s original Curse of the Black Pearl, that rather lovingly set the scene with not only some extraordinarily clever (and hugely effective) character introductions, but also plenty of comedically-tinged action too. It’s something Gore Verbinski, director of that first trilogy, carried through to the slightly more jumbled, but still massively enjoyable initial sequels too. Everything from Captain Jack and Will Turner’s opening sword battle, to the totally bonkers water-wheel chase that closes out Dead Man’s Chest showed off just how important these huge-scale, but lovingly (and practically) choreographed sequences were to the series.
More recently though, with this latest effort being one of the biggest offenders here, the Pirates sequels have morphed into a barely-recognisable mess of CGI-heavy nonsense, that usually results in either all of the major characters running away, or a totally uninspired and forgettable 2-minute trade of blows. From a franchise that used to take our breath away with its action, it’s a sorry affair. Especially when there’s room in the series’ tone for something that could be as crazy as Fury Road on water.
2. Start new legends, don’t constantly bother old ones
It didn’t come as much of a surprise when Disney pushed on with further sequels, even after Verbinski had closed out his original trilogy and put the stories of most of the main characters officially to bed. There was so much life and possibility left in the Pirates world, with so many avenues still left unexplored, that in many ways it even sort of made sense. It’s a shame then that time and time again, the studio and filmmakers involved have been pulled back into that same old story, with those same old, now fairly worn-out, characters. The cinematic equivalent of flogging a dead horse. In fact, in Will Turner’s case, quite literally so.
And whilst On Stranger Tides certainly tried (but ultimately didn’t help matters in this department), happily going rogue but failing to find any new or remotely satisfying ground; what’s happened with Salazar’s Revenge is totally despondent. At the centre of it all is actually a fairly fresh (if a little cliched) story, but one that ends up so overwhelmingly suffocated with past Pirates lore, with fan-favourite characters seemingly crowbarred in at every possible opportunity, that the whole thing just ends up sinking almost immediately on arrival. If the series is going to live on any further, it needs to head back to basics, ease its vice-like grip on what came before it and, maybe even *gulp* reboot itself. Which brings me cautiously onto the next point…
3. Make Captain Jack relevant again (or ditch him altogether)
The series’ one consistent lead, and probably its biggest overall box office draw too, there’s no denying that Captain Jack Sparrow has quickly become one of this generation’s most iconic new creations. A charmingly selfish drunk-turned-supremely unlikely anti-hero, he’s a character whose legacy knows no bounds. It’s such a shame then that he’s never actually given anything even remotely interesting to do anymore.
The Jack of the early Pirates efforts was a difficult one to pin down, and that’s exactly what made him so fun to watch. A total wild-card, at any point the camera could spin round to find him ditching the heroes and high-tailing it across the seven-seas, saving, and looking out for, nobody but himself. He was courageous, daring, and fronted some of the series’ most thrilling action set-pieces, sometimes single-handedly. More recently though, Depp’s Sparrow has taken to just hanging around in the background of others’ adventures, offering up nothing more than drunken pointing and the occasional silly one-liner, more of a creepy uncle than a swashbuckling adventurer.
Some have put this down to Johnny Depp’s own furiously mounting star-power, taking himself out of any sequences that look particularly strenuous or could take longer than a handful of hours to film, but the real answer is most likely something a bit more straightforward: bad writing. Jack worked so well originally because his character was at total odds with Elizabeth and Will. He was the wonky third-wheel and now he’s stuck without any new fully-fleshed characters to bounce off of appropriately. He lacks relevance, sliding quietly into the background and coming dangerously close to turning himself into the franchise’s very own pirate-themed Jar Jar Binks.
So while scrapping his character altogether and starting afresh Curse of the Black Pearl-style might seem a little drastic/hugely unlikely from a business point of view, there are still ways to get him back on track. Stronger characters, stronger relationships, and a more devoted Depp would certainly be a start.
There’s so much promise built into the Pirates world; it just needs a new set of pipes. An ambitious new team of filmmakers and writers who aren’t afraid to push the boat out with the film’s action, twinned with a fresh new story that actually makes sense, and the right amount of understanding and creative backing from the studio could set them up for a whole extra decade of new sequels. Just please, for the love of God, stop trying to do the same thing over and over again, it’s not getting any of us anywhere.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge is out in UK cinemas now.