On The Precipice: Pirates of the Caribbean

Movies are a dime a dozen these days. Some we see, some we don’t. Some are for the ages, most are good, and then there are the stinkers. For the ones that stand the test of time, it will have imitators for years to come. But what about the ones that come close to greatness? The ones that have all the likings of being an all-time favorite, but just fall short for whatever reason? In this series On The Precipice, we examine the movies we feel come close to that greatness but are just shy of the title. First on the line is the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (Curse of the Black Pearl, Dead Man’s Chest, and At World’s End) and Max dives deep. 
Gun to my head the Pirates of the Caribbean movies are one of my favorite series of all time. Top Five? Not a chance. Top Ten? Possibly. But it’s more than likely in my Top Twenty if I’m being honest. And by series, I do mean strictly the first three for a myriad of reasons, the tippy top being simply because At World’s End was and definitive ending for the series. Sure, there was a tease for further misadventures for Jack Sparrow, but for this author it was nothing more than a simple nod that Jack would continue being a pirate and whether or not he was successful was all up to ones imagination. Alas this was not the case and like the titular curses that the characters would contend with, we the audience were cursed with two more sequels to the original trilogy (On Stranger Tides and Dead Men Tell No Tales respectively). The first three are exciting, swashbuckling adventures and while Curse of the Black Pearl tells a somewhat separate story with many of the same characters who would pop up in later entries, they still were held together by director Gore Verbinski, it’s big four leads in the form of Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom, and Keira Knightly, and an overarching story that had a joyful beginning, a dour and much darker middle, and a satisfying and crowd-pleasing finale. And while the first three movies are a rollicking good time, they, like most movies have flaws that keep them from going on into the pantheon of iconography.

I would argue that most stories live and die by their characters. With a character(s) that is unique and fun, you can engage your audience with even the most simplistic story. Otherwise if they fall flat with little to no personality, then what do you have left to interest the audience with if your story also fails to engage? For the Pirates series, the characters exist in some weird nexus where they aren’t really interesting alone, but the strength of other characters somehow makes them tolerable if not likable. In nowhere is this more important than the big four that (mostly) comprise the trilogy. That being Jack Sparrow, Will Turner, Elizabeth Swan, and Captain Barbossa. None would be significantly interesting in their own standalone movie, (Author’s Quick Rant: This is one of the main problems -among many others- with On Stranger Tides and Dead Men Tell No Tales in that Jack Sparrow has no real chemistry or foil to contend with in other characters. He is the main character in these two movies and isn’t nearly as interesting or fun to engage with unless he has an ensemble or moral foil that challenges him.) but together as an ensemble they fit (loosely) together. Take for instance Orlando Bloom as Will Turner and Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Swan. On their own they are a lifeless, humdrum, loving couple stuck on will-they-wont-they mode. They have their arcs, with Elizabeth arguably getting the best one in the third entry. And yet Bloom and Knightly don’t really bring anything to the characters that’s interesting or noteworthy try as they might. And then you pair them with Jack Sparrow. Let’s be clear, much to the future installments detriment, Johnny Depp, and by extension, Captain Jack Sparrow is the MVP of this franchise. Just like for the characters he is both good and bad for the series. And this is because at his core, Jack Sparrow is a trickster character. By that he essentially blurs the line between good and evil, constantly jumping sides to help others or get to them into trouble. You can argue why he does what he does, but eventually Sparrow is on the right side of victory when all is said and done. His chemistry with Turner and Swan is that of their literal titillating dark side. In an almost symbiotic relationship, he gives, they take, and vice versa. In Dead Man’s Chest, he waxes poetic to Swan about being a pirate and falling for him, and while she feigns the latter, she becomes the former when she leaves him to the Kraken (this is almost doubly so in the next entry where she becomes Pirate Queen). For Will, Sparrow urges him to commit multiple acts that would deem him somewhat unsavory, or at the very least not a goody two shoes as he starts out. From lying and breaking Sparrow, free from prison (Twice!), to betraying his friends in the third entry to save his father (I recognize his intent was noble, but it’s still very much edgier behavior than one would expect from one such as himself). They both in turn give way to Jack’s more “heroic” moments. From saving Will from death by keeping a coin of the Cortes treasure, to saving Will’s life again by giving him the heart of Davy Jones, Jack Sparrow has many moments of where he falls on both sides of the coin. They complement each other, but more so than that Jack is allowed to be slightly villainous while Elizabeth Swan and Will Turner are through and through good guys, despite the temptation of their darker tendencies.

And therein lies one of the bigger problems of the series: The lack of a real lead.

Jack Sparrow is a fun character, but he works when paired with others of equal presence. This is in thanks to Depp’s performance as both a drunkenly trickster and the comedy relief. However, this does not work when he is the sole lead meant to carry a film. The same can be said for Swan and Turner as they lack any real charisma, yet they are made interesting because of the drunken vortex that is Jack Sparrow. Had they been the sole leads, I doubt the franchise would have taken off as it did initially. They work when together, but on their own they absolutely flounder (I rest my case yet again on the last two Pirate films). When you think of the Indiana Jones films, the titular character Indiana Jones is the first to come to mind because he’s played to perfection by Harrison Ford (We can argue all day long about his star power prior to, but my point still stands). The character is memorable and he can handle himself as the lead for three (Yes, THREE) films. I want to like all the characters, and I do as an ensemble, but on their own devoid of each other they just don’t have what it takes to make anything special. Now it can be said that Jack Sparrow is undoubtedly the face of the franchise, but that doesn’t make him the reliable face of it. At the end of the day Sparrow is a one trick pony, but when paired with Elizabeth Swan and/or Will Turner then the trick becomes less noticeable and more enjoyable.

Where the heroes only work better together, the villains on the other hand are an absolute blast. Take a look at Geoffrey Rush as Captain Barbossa in Curse of the Black Pearl. No one is having as much fun as he is in the movie. Practically chewing all the scenery he’s in, Rush gives Barbosa a little bit of everything while still just making him just plain ole’ fun. Despite the give and take chemistry of say Will and Sparrow, I couldn’t wait to get back to Barbossa. There is evil, humor, and even creepiness attached to Barbossa, and yet he and the rest of the crew are still allowed the tiniest touch of sympathy in that none of them want to be cursed, that they miss the pleasures of being alive. It’s not enough to redeem them, but it means everything especially in the climax when Jack kills Barbossa and he utters: “I feel…cold”. With this single line, you can see his mouth slightly twitch into a smile as he finally knows what it feels to be alive, in that he’s dead. It’s not a powerful scene, but it speaks to volumes about Barbossa as a character in which he’s not some maniac hellbent on world tyranny or the destruction of others, but that he just simply wants to know what it feels like to live again. We as the audience can understand that, despite his methods on how he goes about said goal. He isn’t layered or meaningful, but he is impactful in that he gives the first entry a very fun villain (If I’m being honest, strictly fun villains that chew scenery feel hard to come by these days). He’s so fun in fact that they brought him back at the end of Dead Man’s Chest and then made him a major supporting player in the third entry At World’s End. And this is all without mentioning that they had GODDAMN GHOST SKELETON PIRATES for a chunk of the movie! How fucking cool is that?! As an 8-year-old watching the crew of the Black Pearl walk the ocean floor to sneak up on British soldiers was like my imagination come to life. It was surreal, and it helps that the CGI hasn’t aged badly either.

Opposite Captain Barbossa is Davy Jones, the cruel supernatural Captain that would take up residency as the main antagonist for the following two sequels.  I personally feel that had these movies stuck with the cultural zeitgeist better, Davy Jones would have ended up in the pantheon of great villains such as Darth Vader, the T-1000, and Hannibal Lecter. Hell, I’d argue he still deserves the spot. He has an instantly iconic look, with his octopus head, beard tentacles, a crustacean claw for a hand, and a goddamn crab peg leg. Davy Jones is seriously awesome looking, and he’s played to absolute perfection by a fearsome Bill Nighy. Like Rush’s Barbossa, Davy Jones is vile, and cruel, yet he misses the fun likability exhibited by Barbossa. And yet Jones is better for it. There is a distinct lack of humanity the moment Davy Jones is introduced the audience, from his goading of the near dead survivors to join his crew, to his casual cold-blooded callousness as he executes one of them when questioned. Davy Jones is unquestioningly the villain for the series, and he works. And yet like Barbossa before him, there is a shred of humanity left that gives him the sympathy. And that is of man who’s had his heart broken. Who doesn’t relate to a broken heart? It allows the audience to be empathetic towards Jones, but it’s not enough to redeem him a la Darth Vader. But it’s in his backstory were cracks start to form more so in the final entry of the initial trilogy than anywhere else. You see its established that both Jones and Calypso loved one another, and that after he came on land for the first time in ten years, he waited for and she didn’t show. It was here where he laid out a trap with the Brethren Court to imprison her in human form, and where he later started to actively kill people on the sea instead of ferrying them to the afterlife. But in At World’s End both Calypso and Jones have a secret meeting where they plot to rid themselves of their captors (Calypso of the Brethren Court, and Jones of Becket and the East India Trading Company). Later when Calypso becomes enraged that upon the truth that Jones helped imprison her, we fail to see any real reaction from her other than the maelstrom she caused once she’s freed. Davy Jones is just as bad, as upon the realization that Calypso caused the maelstrom he yells her name in rage, and then later upon his death he utters her name one last time before his descent into the depths below. Now I understand that not every story is going to have nicely wrapped bow, but this confusion in their feelings for one another towards the climax fails to give any kind satisfactory conclusion to their distraught relationship (To say nothing of the fact that Calypso in human form is Tia Dalma and there is never a mention of her godhood until the third entry, which in of itself seems a bit forced). None of this is takes away from Jones himself, but it does leave one wanting a little bit of a proper explanation (Especially in light of the tease at the end of Dead Men Tell No Tales). Ultimately while it doesn’t set the character of Jones back too much, it still leaves some doors open that were never properly closed, if they should have been opened at all.

Notice that I’ve yet to mention Cutler Beckett or Ian Mercer and that’s not because they are bad characters, both Tom Hollander and David Schofield play their villains well, but they just don’t make a lasting impression as Barbossa or Jones do. Mostly that is to say visually, which is to be expected. Not everyone can command the screen like Rush or Nighy and that’s fine, not everyone has too. Beckett earns respect points for setting forth the events of both sequel films, but beyond that he’s just a cunning British manipulator. Mercer, while essentially a 1700’s version of a Shane Black lead henchman has nothing else going for him. He’s cruel, and deceitful, and when he finally gets what’s coming to him no one cries for him. Again, none of this is to say these are bad villains, but there are two other interesting characters out there who I am much more eager to get to.

Before you go any further, I’d like you to take a moment and hum the theme from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. No really. Go for it. Assuming it just came to you like clockwork, tell me that’s not iconic. Tell me that Klaus Badelt and Hans Zimmer’s theme is not one of the most iconic pieces of music ever written. It has to be, and if it isn’t then there is a real problem. But I doubt it will be a problem. As a kid, I had the tendency to hum the main theme of the movie when I left the theater. Hell, I still do it. Some themes fade away like dreams, others stay with you for years to come, like an aging fine wine. “He’s a Pirate” is superb! It’s heroic, it’s fun, and like all great themes it’s hummable. If you can’t hum it, then you are doing it wrong. The entirety of Jack Sparrow’s introduction in Curse of the Black Pearl is sold with this rousing motif that absolutely knocks my socks off every time I get wind of it. Everything you need to know about Jack Sparrow is sold in this one (almost) wordless scene. It’s all there and it tells you everything you need to know about this movie and the franchise going forward. As the next two sequels came into theaters however, the music improved drastically. With Hans Zimmer taking over completely after the first film, his mark on the franchise became much more apparent. His crowning achievement for the second film (And one of my favorite pieces of music) is “The Kraken”. This is without a doubt Hans Zimmer’s Jaws soundtrack had he’d been given the musical keys to do so. From the opening organ pipe that gives an immediate sense of dread, to the haunting chorus in the background, to the full blown lambast of the guitar as it crashes with the other instruments giving a sense of urgency and chaos to the action. Every time I hear this piece the scene plays beat for beat for me and it works like gangbusters. Beyond Jack’s returning piece which suitably could be argued to double for the main theme for the series, is the fact that certain motifs become somewhat prevalent for certain characters. The best of which is the one that accompanies Davy Jones, where it initially starts out with a somber music box and is gradually transformed into a chilling, yet epic organ pipe. At World’s End has my favorite suites from the entire series as it starts out with the creepy “Hoist the Colours”, which doubles as the first main theme for the movie and represents the pirates and their overall quest for freedom. Later we get the sweeping “At Wit’s End” which is billed as the second main theme of the film and is the “love theme” as well. It sells the rest of the films music, while still being endlessly grandiose. Pair that with the fun, upbeat “Up Is Down”, and you’ve got a recipe for a nice mixture of tracks along with new and returning character suites such as Sao Feng’s and Becketts as well. When you top that off with the bombastic finale suite “Drink Up Me Hearties” which incorporates both Jack’s suite and the “love theme” from the rest of the film, then you have one hell of a somber, yet no less epic send off. The music from these films kills and are arguably the best thing to come from it. No matter your feelings on Hans Zimmer, he delivered one hell of a score, and it should be remembered for ages with the likes of Indiana Jones or Star Wars.

There are a lot of reasons why these films work. But then there are more than enough to justify why they don’t reach the highs they could. One of the biggest problems is how disjointed the first entry is from the other two. And that simply boils down to no one expecting Curse of the Black Pearl to be a hit, and yet it was, and it needed to fit with the next two entries that would be tied back to back. From an armchair screenwriter position, this seems like an easy fix, and maybe it is, but from here I feel they only needed to look at either Star Wars or Indiana Jones on how to continue the franchise. With perspective, it can be argued that each adventure could have been self-contained, yet kept either the same cast or switched it up every entry. Or they could have stuck to the format they went on ahead with, but tied it together better than what they did. A New Hope could have been the only Star Wars film we ever got, and yet it tied together nicely, ending with a nice bow on top much like Black Pearl did decades later. Ultimately, we got what we got and much to the harm of the franchise, it continued way past At World’s End and so far, it hasn’t hit the highs it once did. In another life, this franchise would be praised and remembered as well as those that paved the way for it, and yet with its increasing continuity errors, lack of engaging cast, and haphazard stories, this franchise best days may very yet be behind it (Despite what I think of Dead Men Tell No Tales I am somewhat intrigued at those ridiculous implications in the finale and how the hell it would work going forward). But as it stands I love the first three entries and they fulfill a void that many contemporary films just don’t execute today in terms of a straightforward, exciting, swashbuckling adventure. And for that these films will for the time being, remain on the precipice of greatness.

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