The events of 2003's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl are fueled by actions that took place years before the main story of the film. Chief among them is the tale of Jack Sparrow, who was captain of the infamous Black Pearl, only to be the victim of a mutiny by Barbossa and the rest of the crew, left for dead on a deserted island. Jack escaped this fate and returned to take back control of the Black Pearl, and eventually save the world alongside Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann. That literal desert island was no match for the savvy Captain Jack. However, after five feature films and nearly two decades, it's time for Disney to strand the pirate on a more figurative desert island; one that can't be escaped.
Pirates of the Caribbean has been a massive success for Disney, with all five movies making more than $650 million at the global box office, but they have been delivering lesser critical returns in recent outings and interest in the franchise is lower than ever. See, the series put all of its eggs in Jack Sparrow's basket and that was a really bad idea. For Pirates of the Caribbean to continue successfully, it needs to leave Johnny Depp and Jack Sparrow behind.
Don't get me wrong, Depp's turn as Sparrow is transformative, perhaps one of the best blockbuster performances in the last 30 years. He helped Pirates of the Caribbean become a hit. For three movies, from 2003 to 2007, Depp ruled the open seas as the whimsical Captain Jack. But that iconic pirate no longer exists.
There are a lot of issues with Depp's personal life that people bring up when it comes to his career and what roles he should or shouldn't get. That's another discussion for another time and I'm not going to get into it here. His performance as Jack Sparrow over the final two films is more than enough to boot him off the ship. After At World's End, the third film in the Pirates franchise, Depp began phoning it in, and it's insanely noticeable. That twinkle in the eye of Jack Sparrow was totally absent, replaced by a worrisome haze as the pirate fast-talks his way through a scene. Depp was on the set to make those films, and he spoke the lines in front of the camera while swaying around with his signature Jack Sparrow clumsiness, but none of it ever felt like acting. Much like his villainous turn in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, Depp just was just going through the motions.
Jack Sparrow is a character born out of pizzazz and and bold improvisation. It took a special kind of performance from Depp to make it work the first time around, and he was rightfully nominated for an Oscar for his hard work. But when the swashbuckling swagger of Jack Sparrow is gone, the character is empty and meaningless.
Now, I'll admit, it's not only Depp's fault that Jack Sparrow lost his luster. When heading into Pirates of the Caribbean 4, Disney clearly had no idea what made Gore Verbinski's trilogy work so well. Because Jack Sparrow sold the toys and got the Oscar buzz, he was treated as the focal point of the entire Pirates franchise. On Stranger Tides was then made to be all about Jack, and that was a terrible decision.
Jack works so well in the first three Pirates films because, while he may be the character at the center of the action most of the time, those movies don't tell his story. Since he's such an unreliable narrator and serial double-crosser, his story is often meaningless. Jack just wants to get himself out of trouble.
While Jack played a crucial role in the initial trilogy, the Pirates story revolved around Will and Elizabeth, and to some extent, Barbossa. Jack just happened to be caught in the middle. When that central story was removed in the fourth film, and Jack was made to be the focal point, everything fell apart. He's a great, but ultimately flimsy character, incapable of anchoring a movie on his own. Disney's reliance on Jack Sparrow as a ticket-seller torpedoed the narrative and magic of the series.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, the fifth installment in the series, tries to remedy that situation a bit. The film brings Will Turner back into the fold and focuses on the tale of his son. And it worked, for the most part. Jack is still front-and-center for the entire film, with Depp delivering his worst performance of the series. I said this when the movie came out and I'll stick by it now: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a fantastic Pirates film if Jack Sparrow is removed from the equation. Anytime things really get interesting, the action cuts to some slapstick Jack Sparrow bit and ruins any momentum. It's incredibly frustrating when you can see the bones of something really great under the surface.
There are all kinds of rumors and reports that the Pirates franchise will continue without Depp, potentially focusing on Redd (the new character in the ride) as the star. That would be fantastic. The new films could follow the Dead Men Tell No Tales post-credits scene and see Will Turner going toe-to-toe with Davy Jones. That would be awesome, too. There are so many possibilities for Pirates of the Caribbean going forward and fans deserve to see those stories told.
This franchise is a beautiful ship caught in a monstrous storm. There's a clear path to the other side, the entire crew can see the sunlight in the distance, well within their reach. But the ship is too heavy, weighed down by relics of the past that present no real value, only memories of the glory days. By letting go of the past, the ship and its crew have a shot at a bright future, lest they perish alongside what once was.
Jack Sparrow is holding Pirates of the Caribbean back. It's time to cut him loose.
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