When watching the completely watchable new Pirates of the Caribbean movie, Dead Men Tell No Tales, I was reminded that there was a fourth movie in that series that I never watched. This was odd, because if you had asked me, I would have somewhat sheepishly replied that I was a fan of the series. It seems like the sort of movie I would have seen at some point in the 5+ years since it was released.
While I’ve gotten more into going to the movies over the last few years than I was in 2011 when it came out, even then I was not the kind of fan to skip an entry in a series I liked. I not only skipped On Stranger Tides, I had all but forgotten it existed. The generally accepted opinion is that after the first movie, the quality of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies dropped off of a cliff. I would not have been the only person to check out after that first trilogy had ended. However, even though I hadn’t watched any of the movies, aside from catching stretches on TNT or something, since 2009, I had fond memories of all of the first three movies. If I liked the first three movies, why had I not seen the first? I thought the question worthy of an investigation that involved watching the 4 Pirates movies to see how they hold up and, in the case of On Stranger Tides, if they are any good to begin with.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl is, if not a masterpiece, than at least a damn fine adventure movie. Like all of these movies, it is absolutely gorgeous. The two leads, played by Kiera Knightley and Orlando Bloom, are thin characters. Knightley especially is given nothing to except be a captive for most of the runtime. Bloom is doing a perfectly serviceable Errol Flynn impersonation that gives the move on solid piece to build off of. Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow deservedly got a lot of attention in this movie. His entrance, perched atop the mast of a sinking little sailboat, is among the best character introductions I’ve ever seen. He is a complete wild card, though he shows very early on that deep down he is on the side of the angels by saving a drowning woman. Much like the rest of the series, Jack Sparrow would never again be as good as he was in this movie. The three heroes line up nicely with the Star Wars set up, with Sparrow as Han and Will and Elizabeth as Luke and Leia. That is a perfectly good trio of heroes, but they don’t work without a villain and fortunately this movie has Geoffrey Rush as Hector Barbossa. He gets softened when he returns in later movies, but here he is as effective of a villain as I’ve seen in some time. Every part of this movie just works.
Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End are two parts of a whole. They do function as individual movies, but they are very dependent on each other in some ways. While the Jack show starts taking over, these movies also give enough time to both Will and Elizabeth. Those two characters go on their individual journeys and there is real tension that by the time they are back together physically they will have moved apart emotionally. Jack, meanwhile, is stuck playing the wild card. His goals seem to generally be removed from the goals of everyone else. In Dead Man’s Chest, the deals he’s made to become Captain Jack Sparrow come due and he does all he can to avoid paying. That movie also features Will’s education in being a pirate, realizing that his straightforward pursuit of his goals makes him easy to manipulate, while Elizabeth forces her way into the action. To replace Barbossa, the movie introduces two new villains in the fish faced Davy Jones and the perfectly banal head of the EIC. Dead Man’s Chest is not as tight a movie as Curse of the Black Pearl, but it is more ambitious, even if it can’t always realize its ambitions. Keeping the Kraken off the screen was a smart move from a dramatic standpoint, but also likely from an effects standpoint as well.
At World’s End is even more ambitious than Dead Man’s Chest, and the movie starts to collapse under its own beautiful weight before too long. It returns Barbossa to the series, which is great, and expands and fills in the pirates’ world. That is both good and bad. It really does expand the world, bringing in Asian pirates in Singapore before hitting the rest of the pirate stereotypes at the big meeting. However, in filling in those gaps, it also limits the possibilities going forward. It gives it a sense of including everything, but that is everything, you’ve seen all it has to offer. The movie ends up going too big and doing too much, leaving little time for anyone new to leave an impression. It also wraps up the story of quite a few side characters. At World’s End is, for all intents and purposes, an ending for the series.
I think that is why the series dropped so far off my radar after that third movie. It wasn’t that I didn’t like any part of the trilogy, but it felt like a complete story. It is the end of Will and Elizabeth’s story, an ending I never liked. It ends like a romantic tragedy, but that wasn’t the story I believe I was watching. That moment felt false. The thing is, though, that no matter how entertaining Jack Sparrow may be he is not the protagonist of the story. His shtick requires not quite knowing what he is up to, which makes it hard to build a story with him at the center. While At World’s End does end with an obvious set up for more adventures, it really felt like the end of the series in most respects.
That problem of building around Jack is very apparent in On Stranger Tides, which I finally watched. It is a perfectly okay movie, though one that Jack and Barbossa have clearly been grafted on to. It is a movie with no center. Or more accurately, it is a movie with several possible centers that sticks to the one character least able to fulfill that position. Jack is the character with the least going on in the movie, and knowing his motives all the way through robs him of a lot of his charm. Especially when there are at least three other characters that could take the protagonist role and things would work more smoothly. That is Penelope Cruz’s Angelica, and it could be a story about her quest to connect with her unfeeling, villainous father. Or it have twisted it around and made Barbossa the lead, focusing on his quest for revenge on Blackbeard. Or maybe on Sam Claflin’s Philip and his love story with the mermaid. Any one of those-I personally favor the Barbossa one-with Jack playing the spoiler, would have been a better movie. Instead the most focuses almost exclusively on Jack, to the detriment of everything. It also helps explain how the fifth movie starts the way it does. On Stranger Tides could have been a reorienting of the series, but it feels like a one off side-story. If they were going to continue this series, On Stranger Tides needed to introduce characters to replace all of the ones whose stories ended in At World’s End and it just didn’t. It ends right where it started.
After watching all four of these movies one after the other, it was made very clear to me that this series ended with the third movie. It was all resolved at that point, all that was left for the fourth movie to go on was a character that was already feeling tired by the end of the third movie. The fifth movie made the only move possible by bringing back Will and Elizabeth. It not only gives viewers the happy ending denied them at the end of the third movie, but it brings back the heart of the franchise, making its possible future (with $605 million and counting worldwide at the box office, I suspect the series has a future) brighter than it’s been since 2007.
Each of these four movies has its charms. Maybe they just tickle me because I am a fan of fencing and swashbuckling in general. While Jack Sparrow may be the flagship character, Barbossa is the character that kept me coming back.