What Cursed the Pirates Franchise?

Pirates have been a natural spectacle for films as far back as the earliest days of cinema. Extravagant costumes, gorgeous locales, fight choreography, self-writing villains, simple goals…a story about pirates is easier to write than a sentiment on a bouquet. And for a long time, pirate tales and stories proved reliable and engaging for audiences. Then the genre died in the nineties. Its killer? Cutthroat Island!

Okay, that’s a lie. Cutthroat Island is about as liable for killing an entire genre as a car is to blame for destroying the Oscar ceremonies forever by crashing into the Kodak Theater. Someone made the car do that, not the car itself, and if only one horrifying incident is enough to ruin it forever, that’s kind of on you.

By the end of Eisner’s “Disney Decade”, Disney was in a precarious situation. While the nineties were a time of unprecedented success for Disney, the tide turned about halfway through. Like a junkie jonesing for his next fix to keep the buzz going, Eisner scrambled to keep the high by trying to replicate earlier successes. Trying to appeal to as many demographics as possible. Have the marketing department have carte blanche. Synergize everything. In the end, all the Disney was all up in your face about it and the public, who once paid through the nose for anything Disney-related, now groaned seeing Mickey selling Minute Maid juice, Atlantis promoting McDonald’s, and a Disney World Attraction about hillbilly bears yodeling cornpone bluegrass…get turned into the flaming wreckage that was 2002’s The Country Bears.

Eisner wasn’t exactly panicked, per se, but the reality of the situation was daunting. And like most CEOs, Eisner realized that it might be best to stick to safer bets. I mean, why build WestCot when you could build California Adventure? Risky, expensive investments are fine and all, but they’re…you know, risky. And expensive. And if you’re not up to the challenge, best play it safe, right?

So when Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, the same writers who wrote the screenplays for Shrek and Aladdin, approached Michael Eisner and asked to make a big-budget pirate movie that would be loaded with pirate lore and intrigue, all of which based on a theme park ride from the sixties, I imagine Eisner’s reaction was something along the lines of…

What changed his mind? Probably since game show writer Jay Wolpert and Collateral writer Stuart Beattie were trying to push the script through for a few years. Maybe it was studio head Dick Cook’s unwavering faith in the idea. Maybe it was attracting Armageddon’s Jerry Bruckheimer. Maybe it was Ted and Terry’s push to incorporate supernatural elements the script. Or maybe it was Eisner’s overwhelming urge to synergize everything. Who knows? In any case, Eisner reluctantly agreed, and Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl set sail.

So…smoothing sailing, right? One inspired idea after another? Destined as a Disney classic?

Eisner was super paranoid throughout production. He stressed over the budget. He stressed when Country Bears tanked. And when Johnny Depp – a man whose name was very, very far down the list of bankable stars to portray a swashbuckling Burt Lancaster type – started doing his now-infamous affectations, Eisner lost his mind.

See, Keith Richards and Paul McCartney doing cameos in the movies wasn’t publicity stunt. Depp likened pirates to rock stars: lives of infamy, debauchery, and rebellion that ruffled the feathers of literal pearl-clutchers back in the day. Given that Depp was known for being a little nutty (he once wanted his 21 Jump Street character to have a disturbing peanut butter obsession), he even suggested Sparrow have a blue nose to indicate that it had been chopped off and sewn back on…and he had a deep-seated fear of the common cold. So yeah. Depp made quite the impression on Eisner, considering his faith in the film was on such thin ice. An anecdote goes that Eisner ran around on set crying out, “What’s he doing? Is he drunk? Is he gay? He’s ruining the film!”

Oh, to be a fly on the wall that day on set. I don’t know if they gave him a Tanquilizer or a Valium or just a paper bag, but in any case, production continued, and Eisner didn’t seem to implement any restrictions.

Well, you know the rest of the story: Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl opened in theaters July ninth, 2003 and became a runaway smash hit. The sword fights, the sets, the costumes, Johnny Depp, the stunts, Johnny Depp, the special effects, and Johnny Depp were touted as the highlights in what was feared as financial ruination. It grossed $654 million at the box office and was nominated for five Academy Awards, including – much to crow-eating Eisner’s surprise, I assume – “Best actor in a leading role” for Johnny Depp. And thus a happy ending, right? What is this, a Disney movie?

Fast forward to 2006, the year that Disney was known for only four things: Cars, High School Musical, Hannah Montana, and the long-awaited sequel, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. (It was a dark time and we are very, very sorry.). But now that Eisner was replaced by Bob Iger, the board was much more confident in a Pirates movie. So…why didn’t it have the same impact the first movie did? Why did the third one do worse? And the fourth one? And the fifth one? And what can be done to fix this?

1. Fatigue

It’s not the audience. It’s tempting to blame moviegoers for not being into the exploits of pirates anymore. We humans like to generalize groups like that. As if you couldn’t tell.

But no. Audiences aren’t to blame. It’s not like superhero movies nowadays with five a year. We’re not tired of them. But you know who is? The cast and crew. It’s been 15 years since the Black Pearl set sail and the fresh-faced actors we barely recognized first graced movie screens, and everyone has just gotten more and more tired. Depp, for example, was in his late thirties filming the first movie. Now he’s in his fifties. And while he’s still getting caught up in all sorts of fracases, the energy seems lackluster. It was even rumored he was fed his lines via earpiece while filming. Both Kevin McNally (Gibbs) and Geoffrey Rush (Barbossa) once hammed up their roles with panache and flair, but by Dead Men Tell No Tales, either their enthusiasm waned or age has caught up with them. And while makeup has done a decent job masking Depp and McNally’s age, Rush has looked far better.

Rush in 2003…

…And Rush in 2017.

At some point, not only is it going to not be fun anymore, but we’ll be too distracted watching old men getting into all sorts of perilous situations without getting seriously injured.

What else is there to say, but I think how Jack made his entrance in Curse of the Black Pearl

…versus his entrance in Dead Men Tell No Tales

…speaks for itself.

2. Deals, bargains, and accords.

Maybe real pirates really did make deals and negotiations like they do in the movies. Or maybe it was supposed to be some wry commentary about making deals with devils. Or maybe a series with so many self-interested characters acting against their natures they needed ways to have them doing what they were doing. Or it was the best way the writers could think of to make the plot interesting. In any case, what we have is every character bargaining with each other, often backstabbing each other, and renegotiating just to make things happen.

In Curse, Jack and Barbossa were often engaged in deals because Jack had nothing to lose yet everything to gain, whereas Barbossa held most all of the cards. Will and Elizabeth had little else at their disposal but their wits and what little leverage they had. After all, their goal was get home safe.

In both Chest and World’s End, it got much, much more muddied. Now that Will and Elizabeth weren’t n00bs anymore, they frequently switched sides because Will’s new goal is to free his father and Elizabeth wants to marry Will but then not really but then to rescue Jack but then to save all piratedom and then to marry Will again. I think. Like I said, clear as mud.

Soon, we see Lord Cutler Beckett, Davy Jones, and Sao Feng all making deals with each other. Mortal enemies of mortal enemies of mortal enemies all conversing and finagling to get a leg up on each other, while sometimes funny, sometimes dramatic, usually leaves our heads spinning.

Hey Bruckheimer! Here’s a deal for you: make a good pirate movie and I’ll finally buy a ticket to go see Pirates 6!

3. Pirates 2 was a retcon

Curse of the Black Pearl works as a stand-alone film. That’s because the film begins with a good setup and concludes nicely without a lot of dangling plot threads. Among the many reasons why? The titular curse stands as a single fantastic happenstance in an otherwise straightlaced world. Barbossa being deader than a George R. R. Martin creation. Will and Elizabeth having a traditionally Disney, yet serviceable, romance. Jack flying solo and struggling to maintain his larger-than-life persona even after being ousted as captain of the Black Pearl, only to regain the status among pirates who respect him.

But then…LOLZ nope!

The curse of the Aztec gold is just one of many, many, many supernatural elements in the films, from Davy Jones to his locker, the Flying Dutchman to Jack’s magic compass, mermaids to the Fountain of Youth, Sea Goddesses disguised as voodoo ladies to Poseidon’s trident, all curses, myths, lore, and hocus pocusery are seemingly equally valid. It stretches our suspense of disbelief (more on that in a bit) and constantly puts the focus on the stories and lore, and less on the characters we pay to see.

Barbossa literally rose from the dead, courtesy of Tia Dalma, just to provide further conflict among the crew as they go to rescue Jack, and continue to be Jack’s foil in movies four and five.

You must remember this: a kiss is just a…deception to kill Jack while you slip away unharmed as the Kraken comes after you.

After Beckett interrupts Will and Elizabeth’s wedding, their relationship is tested when Will thinks his fiancée has the hots for Jack and go through a pseudo-breakup before they get married and then Will is made captain of the Dutchman…and while they get dropped from the fourth movie, they pop up in movie five. Heck, they don’t even reunite until the last three minutes of the film, and Elizabeth doesn’t even get a line.

Then there’s the Brethren Court. Clearly a stab at what some writers call “world building”, the writers decided it wasn’t enough to have Jack be an outcasted, yet infamous former pirate captain. Curse implied getting usurped was a recent issue, what with Jack so hellbound to reclaim his ship, but World’s End implies that in between getting ousted and landing in Port Royal, Jack was crowned a pirate lord. Succeeding whom? No clue. Apparently just being a solo, renegade act isn’t enough, he had to be designated the best pirate – pirate captain, mind you – to represent the Caribbean after Barbossa, pirate lord of…the Caspian Sea?…

Look, guys, if Jack just wants to go hunting for treasure or spar with vikings or something, I’m all for it. But because you went and tied strings to so many elements of the first movie, it’s become a web of plot details that can’t be undone.

4. Suspension of disbelief

So in 2003, we saw skeleton pirates afflicted by the cursed treasure. They become skeletons in the moonlight and long to be living again. There was also some slightly goofy, yet credible fight choreography. Got it.

In 2006, we watched a bunch of screaming men rolling around a human bone cage to outrun cannibals. A squid-man who corrals the haunted dead souls of the sea, and his half-human, half-fish crew. And he controls a monstrous cephalopod that eats ships. Also there’s fight in a runaway water wheel. Okay, sure.

In 2007, we got a surreal trip in a desert where things got super weird, a peek into Jack Sparrow’s twisted psyche, and a vengeful, crab-dissolving goddess who creates a massive whirlpool to keep two ships fighting between fish people, and army of British merchants, and a few pirates. Wait…

2011 gave us a magic ship controlled by a sword from the most infamous real-life pirate ever to exist where the ropes come alive and attack you, voodoo dolls, a woman dresses as Jack and is revealed to be Blackbeard’s daughter, maybe, plus there’s also some poor priest guy and bloodthirsty mermaids and these chalices that make the Fountain of Youth curse work one way by granting life but the other takes it away. Oh, and ships can be captured in bottles now. Hold on a second…

In 2017, there are zombie sharks, a shotgun wedding, Galileo’s secret journal, a bank being dragged through a city, Poseidon’s trident that undoes all curses ever, and zombies trapped in the Devil’s Triangle. And Barbossa has a daughter, too. Okay, enough! You flew too close to the sun! I’m calling you on this!

Suspension of disbelief has to have some basis in reality. It has to make whatever is fantastic seem grounded enough to feel like it could happen in our reality. Talking animals, magic, superpowered beings, mythical creatures, and bizarre physics all have to adhere to some real world logic or precedence or we, the audience, break out of our trances and stop buying what we’re being shown. Originally the movies were just loony enough to let us accept Jack swinging on a yardarm to avoid British gunfire or have a sword fight in rafters. And that cursed Aztec gold was weird and bizarre enough to warrant fascination, or as Elizabeth regards it, “Ghost stories”.

Now, curses and myths are as common as fidget spinners, but they keep implying that each and every one is just that, a myth. Physics got a massive middle finger when a team of horses dragged a building through a town and a fifty-year-old man is dragged, flung, swung, catapulted, and tossed without injury. It’s kind of insulting to think they believe we’d buy all that without question.

5. No clear end goal

Supposedly, we’re getting a sixth POTC movie. While the franchise has made more money than most GDP’s of some countries, it hasn’t been doing well critically. Pirates 5, while financially successful, was a dud with critics, as many of the other films were. And despite the decent box office reports, it’s obvious not nearly as many people are buying the plastic cutlasses, t-shirts, and faux gold Aztec coins they used to a decade ago.

It was clear the series was set to end after Curse. But like Lord of the Rings: the Two Towers, entry 2 ended on a cliffhanger to allow us to join them for a third outing with yet another movie that hopefully ends with a solid, if exhausting, conclusion.

Until it isn’t, and Stranger Tides comes out, does even more stuff, and ends with Jack and Gibbs out to find a way to save the Pearl, Barbossa owning Blackbeard’s sword and ship, and a post-credits scene where Angelica finds a voodoo doll of Jack.

And now, where do we stand? Jack has the Pearl and his crew back (again), Will and Elizabeth might be coming back with real roles this time, Davy Jones is alive again because reasons, Barbossa is dead (but it’s not like that’s stopped him before), and all curses of the sea are gone forever except where they’re not. And all this has me asking…where are they going with all this?

Franchises like Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, The MCU, and Harry Potter have clear endings in mind to establish what the characters want and how they want to accomplish it. This keeps the focus clear and when the last film ends, it intends to leave you satisfied and most, if not all, loose plot threads tied up nicely. The overall story arc is complete. Stick a fork in it, you’re done.

But what about a film series with no clear end goal, like Indiana Jones, Star Trek, and James Bond? These movies are episodic in nature, and are meant to conclude at the end when the credits roll. There are unifying themes and characters that pop up in multiple movies, but they aren’t necessarily tied together, nor are previous movies required viewing.

If the series were to chronicle the escapades if Captain Jack Sparrow, that’d be fine. But we keep switching to movies with bigger, longer narratives and back to one-shots. This could also leave a window of opportunity open for a spinoff series to allow the franchise to expand, like when they use so many different actors to play James Bond.

If they had one single end goal, like, say…Jack’s quest to defeat Satan (Oh what? Like it could be any more implausible at this point!), then have all his adversaries: Barbossa, Davy Jones, Lord Cutler Beckett, Sao Feng, Calypso, Blackbeard, and Salazar all build up to that. Much like the Infinity Stones or Harry Potter’s horcruxes, there has to be some kind of thread guiding all these stories to the ultimate end.

Sadly, though, it’s too late. We’re six movies into the escapades of Captain Jack Sparrow and the gang, long past the point of just shrugging and hoping the franchise will work itself out. BUT…there is something worth noting here. Orlando Bloom, in an interview with IGN, said this in 2014:

“I’m not entirely sure that [I’ll be back] just yet, but there are talks,” he said. “Basically they want to reboot the whole franchise, I think, and do something with me and the relationship with my son.”

That’s right. Bloom claims that since Disney is going in a new direction with the franchise and reusing the same characters, it’s essentially a soft reboot. It makes sense, considering the destruction of the trident at the end of the movie was said to undo all curses everywhere, basically starting everything over. If Davy Jones returns, that means the focus will focus back on Will and, more than likely, Elizabeth. Yes, Kiera Knightly said she wasn’t interested in returning, but that was also before her mute appearance at Dead Men’s finale.

But then there’s the wild card. What about Jack?

See, there’s problems with Jack: I already mentioned he’s getting older and is not nearly as spry. But during Dead Men’s filming, he was repeatedly late to set, often by several hours. IMDB chalks this up to his divorce from his wife at the time, but no matter how you slice it, it’s still unprofessional. Depp has also ceased being a relevant and bankable star for some time, and his public image is tarnished with claims of physical and emotional abuse to his now-ex-wife, his fiscal irresponsibility, and an issue involving Australian customs and their dogs. Depp is a liability, and the man responsible for making the franchise as memorable as it was, is now gone from charming and witty to grating and obnoxious. Not only did Jack appear in his first scene in Dead Men passed out drunk, but he also fell asleep when Henry talked to him in the jail cell, gets arrested while being drunk in public, and the bounty on his head has reduced drastically. No wonder when the PG-13 jokes pop up, they feel less like comedic bantering than misogynistic ravings from pervy old men. Blame the writers all you want, but in the end, it affects our perception of Jack just as much Depp’s assault allegations.

BUT…Jack is still a critical element to making the series work. Imagine how dry and uninspired it would have been had they gotten Matthew McConaughey to play the more straight-laced Burt Lancaster type as originally planned. And worse, imagine how poorly the series might flounder if Jack gets written out of the series. Also…as much as Depp is a risk to the studio…the actor does love the character. He has made repeated visits to the Disney parks in his infamous guise (usually during the Halloween celebrations), in April of 2017, he surprised the heck out of park guests by appearing in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, and even delighting fans in a similar way in a Vancouver children’s hospital in the following August that same year. And since Depp is the one who came up with much of the costume, personality, and even some of the ad-libbed lines, it’s safe to say Depp probably owns the character just as much, if not more, than Wolpert, Beattie, Elliott, and Rossio combined. And replacing him is out of the question. Much like Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins, or Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, the actor is such an integral part of the character that separating the two is nigh inconceivable.

So where does that leave us now? To be honest, I’m far from sure. If Pirates 6 gets cleared for production and if the studio wants it to succeed, it has some serious questions to ask. Among them:

1. If they are actually going to do a reboot, soft or not, and how much they plan on committing to it.

2. Where is the series going? What does everything – Davy Jones, Salazar, Blackbeard, the trident, the Aztec gold curse, Calypso, World’s End, The Fountain of Youth, all of it – essentially mean? One of the worst things that a film can do is make the viewer feel like their time is wasted. If the conclusion makes us feel like it was all for nothing, no matter how good any of the films were on their own, the franchise will leave a bad taste in our mouths.

3. How supernatural they want to get.

4. How complicated they want to make the story, and…

5. What to do with Jack himself.

So there you have it. Godspeed, cast and crew of future POTC installments. And remember these very words:

No fear have ye of evil curses, says you? Arrrgh… Properly warned ye be, says I. Who knows when that evil curse will strike the greedy beholders of this bewitched treasure? Perhaps ye knows too much… ye’ve seen the cursed treasure, you know where it be hidden. Now proceed at your own risk. These be the last ‘friendly’ words ye’ll hear. Ye may not survive to pass this way again…

In memory of Francis Xavier Atencio.

Author: TAP-G

Writer, former podcaster, entertainment enthusiast. Movies and media have the power to shape our world and vice versa. Let’s take a deeper look at them.

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