Remember When the Pirates of the Caribbean Movies Were Fun?

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (aka: Salazar’s Revenge) hit theaters over the weekend. It’s the fifth movie in a series that arguably should have finished after the third one, and it’s coming out at a time when its star is not so much in decline as plummeting back down to Earth in flames. Enthusiasm for the franchise as a whole, is…well…it’s actually still relatively massive given that the previous film, On Stranger Tides, took just over a billion dollars at the box office. But despite that, Dead Men Tell No Tales is a movie that no one seems quite sure they really wanted.

So I figured now would be a perfect time to take a look at what made the first movies work and if they still stand up…turns out, they do!

Mostly.

The first four movies share a remarkable amount of DNA, and the overarching concepts and motifs bind the first three in particular together very strongly. Let’s deal with the fading icon in the room, first off. For all the countless legions of faults Johnny Depp is reported to possess off-screen, Captain Jack Sparrow remains an iconic performance in an iconic role. From that epic first appearance, sailing heroically into Port Royal as his ship sinks under him, Jack is a perfect combination of eccentric chess genius and completely, totally rubbish pirate. He’s very funny, very clever, and very careful to ensure that the first one of those qualities obfuscates the second.

As we’ll see, the first two sequels have some pretty serious problems, but Jack’s character development isn’t one of them. Dead Man’s Chest forces him to face up to who he actually is and the consequences of his actions. The charming moral grey area he sits in through The Curse of the Black Pearl is replaced by the frantic energy of a man running so fast to keep up with his own hype that he laps himself. The end of Dead Man’s Chest—in which Jack is outmaneuvered by Elizabeth, who uses the exact tactics he would normally employ—is one of the standout moments in the entire series, not just because Jack gets to die (temporarily) on his own terms but because of how impressed he is by Elizabeth’s strategic coup. The series is genuinely brilliant at callbacks, and the returning use of the word “pirate” in the climactic scene is bitter, proud, sad, and resentful all at once.

Of course, death is the one thing that doesn’t stick in these movies. At World’s End takes the war between Jack the hero and Jack the embodiment of Do What Thou Wilt to its logical extreme. We see every one of his internal impulses externalised in Davy Jones’ Locker and, later, in the real world. In doing so the movie implies several things, all of them really interesting. The first is that Jack is clearly a genius. The second is that he’s permanently scarred by his time in the Locker—a welcome change, given how often every sort of injury is shaken off in these movies. The third is arguably the most interesting; that Jack is genuinely conflicted about whether to do the right thing, the profitable thing, the fun thing, or the shiny thing.

This being Jack, he manages to do all four at once while picking your pocket, but it still gives him a level of intellectual depth that lead franchise characters can often lack. It’s a shame, then, that depth isn’t continued into On Stranger Tides: without the emotional balance of Elizabeth and Will, he’s not much more than a feral id in a good hat.

Speaking of the future Mr. and Mrs. Turner, they too get progressively more interesting as the movies go on. The Curse of the Black Pearl cleverly plays on Orlando Bloom’s colossally earnest screen presence to give Jack a very good straight man to bounce his jokes off. That in itself is fun, but the evolution Will goes through in the following two movies is brave, ambitious, and pretty successful. Will’s transition from reluctant accomplice to accomplished pirate becomes apparent right around the time that Dead Man’s Chest goes full pirate noir, and it does wonders for him. Will, Jack, and Elizabeth all become far more alike as the movies go on and Will’s development, through a combination of lightening up and maturing, is one of the anchors that grounds the entire first trilogy. Like Norrington, he’s out of his depth. Unlike Norrington, he’s able to find his feet and adapt.

And there’s Elizabeth: the most badass character in the entire series.

Elizabeth Swann is no one’s damsel. She spends the first movie standing toe to toe with undead pirates, using pirate culture to serve her own ends, and saving both of the other two lead characters. Her transition from respectable young woman to pirate is partially forced on her by the actions of the East India Company, but they merely accelerate a process she’d already begun. Having her wedding sabotaged annoys her. Being sidelined by everyone makes her angry. Some of the very best stuff in Dead Man’s Chest is all Elizabeth, especially the way she manipulates the crew’s fundamental fear of women to her own ends and the noir-ish way she plays with Jack’s affections, even as he does the same with her.

At World’s End, however, is where Elizabeth truly comes into her own, as the circle of guilt, attraction, regret, and annoyance she’s trapped in with Jack is finally resolved. Elizabeth’s speech as Pirate Queen is chilling—she’s a young woman who has lost almost everything using the sheer force of her will to marshal forces toward an impossible goal. She knows this, and does it anyway. Like Will, she adapts to the endless chaos of their lives. Unlike Will, she does so completely on her own terms, instead of embracing familial expectations or a preexisting destiny. Both paths are understandable; Will’s fate lies with the Flying Dutchman, after all, but Elizabeth’s continual battle with the expectations of others and her own darker impulses is by far the more interesting narrative. Will was born into the same chaos as Jack. Elizabeth is thrown into it and chooses not just to swim but to thrive.

That chaos suffuses this world. One of the most successful elements of the first trilogy is the way it uses the East India Company to expose the fragility of this way of life. As well as putting its officers in constant physical peril, the Company’s way of life represents a cultural model that’s under constant threat. This thematic undercurrent becomes more pointed in the second and third movies with the arrival of Lord Beckett (played with wonderfully smarmy aplomb by Tom Hollander. No, not Spider-Man). Beckett is a memorable villain precisely because he’s so resolutely mundane. Commodore Norrington is as much of a swashbuckler as Jack, he just happens to be on the other side (well, most of the time). Beckett doesn’t just want to control the oceans, he wants to tabulate them. He wants things to conform to his strict definition of “normal,” and monstrous evil lurks inside that desire—witness the moment where Jack finds the Kraken’s corpse, murdered by Davy Jones on Beckett’s orders. Or Beckett’s earlier, chilling line, “The immaterial has become…immaterial.” Beckett sees a world where everything is good business, everything is for sale, and individuality, freedom, and humanity are simply not relevant—they have no columns on the balance sheet.

That ethical and cultural collision leads to some surprising turns. Barbossa’s multiple shifts in allegiance throughout the series are a product of this larger conflict, but it’s the darkest turns in At World’s End that really stand out. The death of Elizabeth’s father, murdered off screen, is a truly tragic note that not only severs her last tie with her old life but shows just how savage Beckett’s banal evil really is. Likewise, Commodore Norrington’s realisation that he’s sacrificed everything for a career that no longer means anything is unflinchingly grim.

Most tellingly, the catastrophic attempt to bind Calypso, and the price that Will pays for his father’s life, show that this world has been in a state of flux long before the first movie began. It also sends a clear message that attempting to subvert the natural (or supernatural) order is a recipe for disaster. So, no wonder Jack does it all the time.

That chaotic, almost self-destructive element driving the action in At World’s End ties back into the noir elements that work so well in the second and third films. Loyalty is as constantly shifting as the tides the pirates rely on and that instability, when coupled with the action beats of these movies, makes for exuberantly over-the-top fights and chase scenes. The three-sided sword fight between Jack, Will, and Norrington in Dead Man’s Chest—which starts on the beach and returns there ten minutes later thanks to a giant runaway mill wheel—is a franchise high point, not just because it’s a great fight (it is) or it’s funny (it really is) but because it’s action driven by and focused on character. All three men have very personal, very good reasons for fighting. None of them are entirely right. None of them are entirely wrong. They’re off the ethical map and making it up as they go, the danger and humour and joy of these movies encoded in every sword stroke.

That comes to a head in the closing scenes of At Worlds End. In the history of Hollywood, there certainly are more over-the-top action sequences than a pair of ships blasting away at each, circling a whirlpool, during a storm, while the two crews duel to the death and one captain marries two of his occasional allies…but none spring to mind right now. The action scenes throughout the series are almost musical in how they combine, build, and resolve—but none of them are more musical, or larger in scale, than this glorious exuberant mess. The fact that Barbossa’s laughing the whole way through, especially while he officiates the marriage of Will and Elizabeth mid-fight, is just barnacled icing on the ship’s biscuit.

For all of these strengths, though, the movies are far from free of problems. Elizabeth and Tia Dalma aside, there’s a notable dearth of decent female roles in the series, with On Stranger Tides’ Angelica ultimately far less nuanced or interesting than she should be. Likewise, much like in the early seasons of Black Sails, this is far too often a remarkably Caucasian Caribbean. Worse still, the series never met a negative stereotype it didn’t like—every native is a savage cannibal, every Asian character is a piratical gangster.

On the practical side of things, there’s a notable stylistic shift from the second movie onwards. The obvious increase in CGI means that much of the later three movies is shot through that dirty sea green/grey filter often used to cover or obscure CGI’s sins. Some of the action scenes (especially the second Kraken attack) feel oddly weightless for the same reason.

Worst of all, there’s the sneaking suspicion that these movies have taken one victory lap too many. On Stranger Tides counts Penelope Cruz, Ian McShane, and Sam Claflin among its principle cast members, and only McShane really registers. Cruz’s Angelica should work: she’s Blackbeard’s daughter, a former lover of Jack’s, and every bit his equal. Instead she’s little more than a foil, easily overshadowed and lacking the spark of Elizabeth or the forceful screen presence of Tia Dalma (as portrayed by Naomie Harris). There’s also a massively overlong opening sequence set in London, as well as an equally dragged-out first act—not to mention a ton of broad Spanish stereotypes along the way.

Some elements of the film, especially McShane’s Blackbeard, do work very well…but ultimately it’s not enough. The fourth movie feels distinct from the others and far less successful. The stakes feel lower, the characters more rote. It’s no surprise, then, that Dead Men Tell No Tales reportedly features the return of several familiar faces. Even then, there’s still a lot of work needed to right the ship and return the Pirates franchise to its former glory, especially as it’s purportedly the first part of a two-part grand finale for the series.

Of course, if any movie franchise were to buck the law of diminishing returns, it would be this one.

I don’t know, yet, if Dead Men Tell No Tales is any good. I do know that the original three movies have aged far better than I expected. Five movies may be a bit much, but as for the first three? It’s a pirate’s life for me. Avast, me hearties, and yo ho…

Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape PodPseudopodPodcastleCast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.

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