It’s unfortunate that Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, despite its box office success, is considered to be tepid at best and downright awful at worst. With a Rotten Tomatoes score of 29%, it’s a far cry from the 79% that the 2003 franchise starting Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl earned. Johnny Depp’s functional-yet-brilliant alcoholic Captain Jack Sparrow, a role that earned him an Oscar nomination at the 76th Academy Awards, is now considered to be washed-up, overplayed, and thoroughly dull.
The Curse of the Black Pearl did what many thought was impossible: turn a premise based off a theme park ride and from a dead genre into an adventurous , swashbuckling, fun, and excellent movie. It made pirates cool again, no small feat considering the genre’s heyday ended with the “Golden Age of Hollywood.” It rocketed Johnny Depp to superstar status and turned Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley into leading actors. Furthermore, it managed to keep pace with Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, the third film in a series based off a beloved series of novels, earning about half as much in the box office as LotR. Not bad for a film everyone expected to be a huge flop.
Unfortunately, like most franchises, the subsequent films in the series were met with diminishing critical returns (although with increased profitability. People like familiar things, I suppose). Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End introduced convoluted and hard-to-follow plot elements while trying to increase the scope and stakes as well as opting for a darker tone. Many critics felt that the plots were bloated and less fun and adventure-filled as the first one. On Stranger Tides tried to return things to form, focusing on a one-off adventure story in the vein of The Curse of the Black Pearl; however, at this point critics had fallen out of love with the series and found it to be stale and boring, having many of the same grievances that they also had for Dead Men Tell No Tales.
I find the critical flop of On Stranger Tides to be disheartening because I actually enjoyed that film. I appreciated their attempt to tell another, relatively “simple” adventure story and I thought the introduction of Penelope Cruz’s Angelica was a nice touch since it provided Captain Jack Sparrow with someone that was his equal in many ways: clever, conniving, a hidden soft spot for those she cares about, excellent sword duelist. It gave Jack a worthy adversary who would give him a run for his money as well as someone to play off of. The fact they had, in the best possible way, a complicated past added more flavor to their interactions. I also enjoyed Blackbeard as the antagonist because he grounded the series in eighteenth-century and added to the lore surrounding the infamous pirate. Historical fantasy gives the writer creative license to play around with real-life figures and I’m glad they (finally!) chose to do so.
However, the film isn’t without its problems. First, it came at a time when the franchise was waning. If it had been released as the second film in the series, it most likely would have been better received. Second, it spends way too much time focusing on Captain Jack Sparrow, a character that works best as a supporting character rather than the leading man. He adds flavor and texture to the film, an unpredictability and self-serving nature that main characters usually don’t have. He is not a hero and the film suffers for it: anything that he does that isn’t strictly for his own benefit is confusing and out of character, especially when his motive is as weak as an old flame, quite literally. Yes, I know I said I liked Angelica as a character, but she wasn’t strong enough for Jack to change his ways. It’s not to say Captain Jack Sparrow can’t be a leading man, but it would require a powerful motive for him to awaken from his rum-fueled piratical ways.
So, how does one “fix” the Pirates of the Caribbean movies so they could potentially stay as critical darlings?
What’s in a name?
In case it wasn’t obvious, I believe On Stranger Tides is the best template to start working with. It’s adventure is relatively simple with some interesting elements introduced revolving around Jack’s past that provide some motivation for our pirate captain.
But that name! What does it even mean? What are the “stranger tides” and why are they so important? Is it metaphorical? What could tides possibly be a metaphor for?
A bad name, for better or worse, can make or break any work. It is the very first thing anyone notices about your work and if it fails to convey what your book, film, academic paper, fan fiction, or other thing then it will fail to entice anyone to engage with it. It is doubly worse if it misrepresents the subject at hand. The Curse of the Black Pearl is a great name for a film: it’s descriptive enough to tell the moviegoer that this movie about pirates is going to deal with curses, potentially cursed treasures, and all manners of creepy ghosts and ghouls of the high seas but it is also vague enough to entice even the most skeptical of viewers to sit down and watch since everyone loves a good ghost story. The other films do an okay job of conveying their movies. Furthermore, the Harry Potter series, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Lord of the Rings are all textbook case examples on effective use of descriptively vague titles.
On Stranger Tides is just plain vague.
So what would be a better title? We’ll get there, once we have a story established.
Don’t overcook your stakes!
Stakes are an essential part to any story: they are the reason why we become invested in the plot and characters to begin with. What does the protagonist have to gain from their journey and, more importantly, what do they stand to lose if they fail? It provides the essential “why” for the protagonist to leave their normal existence behind and go on a new adventure.
Sequels are difficult to pull off well. With most inaugural stories in any given series, the stakes more often than not revolve around the main characters and their lives. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo comes into possession of the One Ring because Bilbo was the one who had found in during his journey in The Hobbit. By accepting to be the ring bearer, Frodo is sacrificing himself in order to save Middle-Earth; more importantly to him, though, is to save his friends and the Shire from the coming darkness. He saw the Ringwraiths and what they were capable of when he, Sam, Merry, and Pippin were leaving the Shire. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker joins Obi-Wan Kenobi because the Empire took everything away from him: his home, Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, and his father. So when Obi-Wan offers him an opportunity to become like his father and help the Rebellion against Empire’s tyranny, he agrees to join him. It only took him to see first hand what he lost to Empire, spurring him onto further action. In Iron Man, Tony Stark is perfectly happy leading his billionaire playboy lifestyle as an arms dealer until his own weapons are used against him, he sees first hand what his technology has done to others, and then he is forced to make even more devastating weapons for terrorists. That’s when he decides to turn Stark Enterprises away from weapons manufacturing and to do right by the world by taking on the mantle of Iron Man.
In each of these cases, the protagonist is pushed into their journey by something from their own lives, both with them directly and indirectly involved. Saving the world/galaxy/realm is all fine and good, but we have a hard time becoming invested with a character unless the stakes involve them somehow.
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl does a pretty good job with this. The main female lead, Elizabeth Swann, desires a life of adventure that was usually reserved for the men of her era. She is forced into the world of adventure when she is kidnapped by the crew of the Black Pearl and pretends to be a “Turner”, somebody that the pirates need to lift their curse. Will Turner is thrown in when Elizabeth is kidnapped; he is smitten with her and naturally is smitten with her. He also turns out to be the one needed to lift the curse because he is related to “Bootstrap” Bill Turner, former member of the Black Pearl who was killed by the crew when he objected to their treatment of their captain, and without the elder Turner the curse cannot be lifted. Captain Jack Sparrow is roped into the adventure because he knows about the Black Pearl, so Will wants him on his side to lead him to it, and Sparrow has his own reasons to find the ship: he was its former captain and he wants it back. Furthermore, he wants revenge against its current captain, Hector Barbossa, because he was the one who led the mutiny.The pirates of the Black Pearl want the curse lifted because its essentially a living hell.
Each of the parties has their reasons to being involved, all of which are deeply personal. Yes, the safety of the Caribbean is at stake (if you’re a member of the Royal Navy) but that’s not we or the characters are invested.
Sequels by their very nature have a difficult time following up their predecessors because oftentimes we expect something grander than before. Their world has already been changed in the first film, so the next one needs to somehow push them further along their journey. As a result, writers often raise the stakes of the plot to monumental heights without actually raising any personal stakes.
Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End fall into this trap. The fate of the Caribbean and the whole world is at stake! Something needs to be done to stop the nefarious Lord Beckett and the merciless Davy Jones! By why should any of our characters be involved? Will wants to save his father, so that’s something. Elizabeth Swann wants to rescue/help Will, essentially mimicking Will from the first movie. Captain Jack Sparrow doesn’t want to lose his soul or the Black Pearl (again…) to Davy Jones. Okay… but why should we care? Why should we be invested in his story? Because he’s a lovable rogue?
In the first movie, Jack had a whole story of revenge and getting back what he believed was rightfully his. We saw he was a decent person, for a pirate, so we wanted to see him succeed. Furthermore, his success also meant success for the actual protagonists, Will and Elizabeth. In the sequels, everything is disjointed and only tenuously related: Jack wants Davy Jones heart to control him while Will wants it to free his father. Mutually exclusive ends for lukewarm story threads.
On Stranger Tides does a little bit better: Jack is abducted by Angelica to serve on Blackbeard, her father, because he needs men to help him find the Fountain of Youth. Jack’s motivations are to get the Black Pearl back (again…) because Blackbeard trapped it in a bottle (I know, these get weird) and to save Angelica because he has… “stirrings” for her and he knows that Blackbeard is just using her to steal her youth for himself by using the fountain. A little better because it is personal, but the connection between Jack and Angelica is weak and Jack isn’t forced to change much or compromise anything to achieve his goals. If you want to use him as your main protagonist, we’re going to need something more. The stakes need to be raised for Jack, but personally raised. We’ve already had the Black Pearl on the line and Jack caring about one woman is weak, at best, especially since the end of the movie undercuts the whole premise when Jack leaves Angelica stranded. Some transformation…
A good example of a movie raising the personal stakes for a character is Empire Strikes Back. Luke has a bone to pick with Darth Vader: he first killed his father and then Obi-Wan. But he is unable to face him as he is because he is not strong enough as a jedi. He trains with Yoda and progresses, but leaves his training to save his friends from Vader. During their fight, it’s clear he is tempted to give in to the dark side to defeat Vader: he is the first one to swing his lightsaber and he attacks aggressively. But he is still defeated by Vader, losing his hand in the process. Not only that, but Vader reveals something huge: that he is truly Anakin Skywalker, Luke’s father, and he wants Luke to join him in the dark side so they can rule the galaxy together.
Before, Luke saw Darth Vader as a monster who had destroyed all that he loved; his jedi training was all an effort to get stronger so he could defeat Vader and avenge his father and Obi-Wan. He soon learned that he was far from strong enough, even after tapping into the dark side briefly. Furthermore, with Vader’s revelation, he saw what the dark side could do: corrupt a good person and turn them into a monster. Luke’s very soul was now at stake as well as his father’s. Not only does he not want to fall to the dark side but he wants to lead his father back to the light.
It’s a paradox: a sequel makes the story grander by making smaller and more personal. That’s what we need in a good Pirates of the Caribbean sequel.
Bringing it all together
Our essentially components boil down to two factors: 1) a simple adventure story with 2) raised personal stakes for Captain Jack Sparrow.
So, how can we raise those personal stakes in our theoretical/speculative sequel? I think we just need to introduce one new character, one who comes from some of Jack’s more intimate moments in the past. Quite simply, Jack needs to have a daughter unexpectedly and disruptively introduced into his life.It’s not implausible that Jack would have at least one child somewhere in the Caribbean given his proclivities and the lack of effective contraceptive in the 18th century.
So, let us begin:
Our story opens with the Black Pearl on the open seas: the waters are calm and the sun is bright. Captain Jack Sparrow and his crew, which includes Mr. Gibbs and the crew from the first movie, have been experiencing a string of success, winning enough plunder to last several lifetimes. They naturally stop in Tortuga to blow it all away on food, drink, and women. It’s here that Jack overhears conversation concerning the Fountain of Youth: one of the men claims to have found it somewhere in Florida but he was unable to reach it because he became lost each and every time, his compass failing somehow. His friend doesn’t believe him, but Jack is intrigued. He had heard word of the Fountain before, but no one had ever gotten so close. He knows his compass would help, too, because it points its user in the direction of their heart’s desire. If he wants to Fountain, it will lead him there. He informs Mr. Gibbs of their plans for the morning.
They are interrupted by a young woman, no older than twenty, wide-eyed but dressed like a man. She is clearly Spanish, indicated by her choice of clothing, complexion, and accent. She asks Jack if he is Captain Sparrow. Jack, never one to pass on a lovely lady, graciously informs her that yes indeed, he is Captain Jack Sparrow. She introduces herself as Isla Gorrion and requests him to be able to serve as his apprentice. She had heard so many stories about the famed pirate that she searched far and wide for him so she could learn from the best. Jack obviously refuses, never wanting to have an apprentice on his ship that he would have to look after. He’s a pirate, after all, not a babysitter. Dejected, she leaves.
The festivities of Tortgua are interrupted by the Royal Navy under Commodore Norrington, determined to stamp out piracy and starting with Tortuga. The bar is pandemonium, with all the cutthroats desperate to escape. Jack, Mr. Gibbs, and the most recognizable of Jack’s crew are trapped in the back when Isla returns through a backway. She beckons them to come with since she knows a secret passage back to the harbor. Without much choice, they follow. They run in with some redcoats, Isla proves herself in a fight, and they make it back to the ship. The Black Pearl, with its black sails and legendary speed, is able to quickly disappear into the night.Norrington reaches the docks just in time to see the Black Pearl depart.
Jack, thoroughly impressed, asks her where she learned all that. She responds that she learned it all on her own growing up in the streets of St. Augustine, Florida. She gives no further backstory. He asks her what else she knows, which she replies with:
“I know you’re after the Fountain of Youth.”
Straight-faced, he asks, “What led you to think that?”
“I saw you back at the tavern. You aren’t exactly a subtle eavesdropper.”
“When you’re surrounded by drunkards, one doesn’t need subtlety?”
“I can help you with that, you know. Find the Fountain.”
“I appreciate the offer, but I’m Captain Jack Sparrow. There’s no treasure in the Caribbean I cannot get my grubby little mitts on, savvy?”
He confidently pulls out his compass and opens it, only to find that the needle turning in every which way except Florida. It finally settles pointing directly in front of him, towards Isla. No matter where we walks, it’s always pointing toward her. He asks, “How’re you doing that?”
“Doing what?” she asks innocently.
“Never mind… So, about the Fountain of Youth. You said you could find it?”
“Of course,” she smirks.
“Looks like you’ll get your first lesson: how to take the helm.”
Back to Tortuga, Commodore Norrington is setting up a headquarters. Now that the pirates of Tortuga have been rounded up, he needs to interrogate them to find where the rest are. He wants to start with Captain Jack Sparrow. He enjoyed their rivalry for a while, but he grows tired of it and wishes to end it once and for all. An old Spaniard, late fifties to early sixties, tells him, “If’n it’s Jack Sparrow you’re looking for, I might know where to find him.”
“Pray tell, where would that might be?”
“Oh, no, I’m not going to tell you that easily.” He indicates to a chest near Norrington’s desk. “Got any fancy letters of Marque in there?”
“Good. It’ll take one of those. That, and a nice ship.”
I’m going to have to stop there. This is taking me a little longer than anticipated, but I plan to finish this hypothetical Pirates of the Caribbean sequel next week. I hope you enjoyed this week’s installment of Film Friday and that you stick around for the swashbuckling conclusion!
Until next time…