Disney has been cranking out movies in its theme-park-ride-inspired film franchise Pirates of the Caribbean every few years, with five since 2003. These movies have been of… how shall we say… diminishing quality. The first, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl from 2003 is a delightful and hilarious pirate-fantasy-adventure that remains one of Disney’s best movies from the early 2000’s. The most recent, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, is a pretty-funny Paul McCartney cameo sandwiched by two hours of subpar schlock. Clearly, the series has been in a bit of a rut. Frankly, I don’t think the world needs a sixth Pirates movie, much in the way I didn’t think it needed a fifth. But since it is probably bound to happen – after all, this is Hollywood, and things that make money get sequels – in this post, I want to make a few suggestions that I think would greatly improve the next Pirates of the Caribbean movie.
Why So Serious? Lighten the Tone
The main issue with these movies is that everything is so intensely life-and-death. It becomes fatiguing when the main characters are going up against another group of undead-bad-guy-pirates, and we’re supposed to believe that the fate of the world hinges on their conflict? Tough sell. It’s all too serious.
Compare this to the Thor movies. The original Thor is fine movie that’s a little serious and tries to hinge its cinematic weight on emotion that isn’t entirely there. Thor: The Dark World is more or less the same, if maybe not as good. Neither movie is bad, but it’s never mentioned in the same conversation as other Marvel’s other great standalone movies like Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther, or Captain America: Winter Soldier.
But the third brought a very clear tonal shift. In Thor: Ragnarok, the title character doesn’t take himself so seriously and there’s a humorous pile of rocks and wacky Jeff Goldblum. It’s a wild ride. But here’s the thing; the funny moments don’t diminish the serious moments. Ragnarok still manages to be a heartfelt story about finding your way home and reconciling your family, and it has a fittingly moving ending. Ragnarok proves that a lighter tone can still yield a heavy emotional pay off.
When I say that “The tone should be lighter,” it’s easy to reach the same – wrong – conclusion that Warner Bros. reached when it was said that their DCEU movies were too edgy and serious. When people said that about Batman V. Superman, their response was just to add jokes to Justice League. That’s not necessarily what makes for a lighter tone. Lighter tone comes from stuff like lower stakes, the protagonists having simple goals, fun action sequences, and….
No More Undead Pirates
Let’s briefly examine the villains from the pirates of the Caribbean movies:
Curse of the Black Pearl: Cursed, undead pirates, seeking to be cured of their curse.
Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End: Undead pirates and the British East India Company.
On Stranger Tides: Blackbeard, looking for immortality, backed up by undead pirates.
Dead Men Tell No Tales: Cursed, undead pirates, seeking to be cured of their curse. But like, they look different this time.
In Curse of the Black Pearl, the supernatural twist only served to enrich Jack’s revenge story by adding a macguffin for the characters as well as providing the villains with a tragic element. (That and many other strengths of the first movie are talked about at length in this length video essay by Reality Punch Studios.) As time goes on, the supernatural elements seem to add less, make the plot more contrived, and are just generally more stale.
Barbosa’s undead crew in Black Pearl have a human element because they simply want to break their curse. Their immortality prevents them from feeling with their five senses, and they simply want to be normal humans again. It’s easy to forget how sad that is. But compare that with the Davy Jones’ crew from Dead Man’s Chest – there’s no uniting tragic element with them, they just owe their lives in service to Jones. None of them have any kind of nuance or seem upset to be cursed in the way that they are. (The closest thing we get with that is Bootstrap Bill’s story.) On Stranger Tides gets a little more interesting, with Blackbeard and his crew, but the interesting things about that crew pretty much start and end with Ian McShane as Blackbeard. The crew from Dead Men Tell No Tales is so unremarkable it made Javier Bardem boring. They were a spookier-looking but less thematically important version of the crew from Black Pearl. It’s honestly startling to watch a franchise regress so steadily in 14 years.
And another thing that grows tiresome is the theme of immortality. Jack uses immortality to fight the immortal undead pirates in Black Pearl; all right, that’s fine, again, it’s a supernatural element that just works to add a twist to Jack’s revenge story. In Chest and World’s End, Jack dies, comes back to life, and tries to become immortal. Not to mention, the Fountain of Youth is the entire focal point of On Stranger Tides. And when the characters are always desperately searching for a way to become immortal, all these movies start to feel the same, and drop in quality.
So here’s my suggestion: the next Pirates movie shouldn’t have cursed treasure or zombie pirates or anyone searching for immortality. There’s nothing wrong with minor fantastical elements, such as a magical compass, but when the story is rampant with these supernatural elements, the filmmakers lose sight of what people love about these movies: the pirates.
I don’t want to sit through another movie of Jack Sparrow searching for a way to make himself live forever, or settling scores with zombies. The Pirates franchise doesn’t need to be so excessively high-concept. For once, just give us a fun and exciting period-piece-heist.
Don’t get rid of Jack Sparrow – just Johnny Depp
On Stranger Tides and Dead Men Tell No Tales both tried to introduce new, young actors – one male and one female lead – into the franchise, and its clear that they’re trying to breathe some new life into the series. With the Studio being open to new actors, I have a bit of a radical suggestion: let’s let go of Johnny Depp and recast Jack Sparrow, face of the franchise.
Earlier this year, Stephen Rodrick published in article in Rolling Stone titled “Inside the Trials of Johnny Depp,” which does its best to make Depp sympathetic, but mostly addresses the many negative aspects of Depp’s life. One of the more benign indictments against Depp in this article is the fact that Depp (allegedly) couldn’t remember his lines on Dead Men Tell No Tales and had to pay a sound engineer to feed them to him through an earpiece.
Depp’s casting in the Fantastic Beasts series was met with a lot of backlash, because of the allegations of domestic abuse against him. Additionally, Depp’s appearance at San Diego Comic Con to promote Crimes of Grindelwald this summer left many fans upset, as his ex-wife and alleged abuse victim, Amber Heard, were on the same stage in a relatively short time.
By mentioning the public opinions on Depp, what I mean to posit is this: in just about any industry, for any kind of entertainer, performer, athlete, or individual, that is part of a larger production, team, etc., will only be kept around if their performance is worth more than the trouble they bring to the production. For example, if you have an athlete who maybe says a lot of controversial things and brings a lot of negative media attention, but is a great player nonetheless, then you’ll probably keep him around. Or, alternately, if you have a movie franchise with an alcoholic domestic-abuser who can’t remember his lines and isn’t performing in the same way he was 15 years ago, then maybe you’d consider getting rid of him.
If you’re a Disney executive, I think that at some point you have to start asking yourself: if we’re going to continue milking Pirates of the Caribbean, should we really keep a media circus like Johnny Depp around? The answer is pretty clearly no. The time to recast Jack Sparrow is
now seven years ago.
The idea of recasting might be unthinkable to some. Jack Sparrow is an iconic character, brought to life by Johnny Depp’s love for Keith Richards and rock stars. A lot of people have conceptions of a character that they don’t want broken when it comes time to recast them. I’m not a huge fan of the X-Men film franchise and I already fear the day when they try to find another actor to play Wolverine. But for every one of those, there’s a great recasting. Thing about Rooster Cogburn from True Grit – one of John Wayne’s most iconic roles – but when Jeff Bridges played the character in the 2010 Coen Brothers remake, he brought his own spin to the role and was well-received. Perhaps the best example is the Joker – people loved Jack Nicholson’s performance and scoffed at the casting of Heath Ledger in 2008’s The Dark Knight, only to find that he gave one of the best acting performances in living memory. Recasting is not always such a bad thing.
Who should be the next actor to play Jack Sparrow? Well, how about an actor who can balance humor with genuine emotion. If I’m suggesting that Taika Watiti’s Thor: Ragnarok is the model to follow for rebooting the series, then I’m inclined to recommend one of Watiti’s most frequent collaborators.
Picture this: Jermaine Clement as Jack Sparrow.
Jemaine Clement is a comedy actor, best known for his role on the musical-comedy HBO show Flight of the Conchords and the vampire mockumentry What We Do In the Shadows, which he co-wrote, co-starred in, and co-directed with Taika Watiti. You might have heard his voice in Moana, in which he played Tamatoa the crab, giving him one of the best Disney villain songs in recent memory.
The one thing that I think shows that Clement would be a great choice is the way he does comedy. Watch this music video from Flight of the Conchords or any scene from What We Do in the Shadows. Clement clearly plays as a great comedic straight-man. In these scenes, everything he does is a joke, but he acts as though it’s entirely serious. And I think that kind of energy would be great for a series like Pirates of the Caribbean. If Clement ever decided that he could take on an action movie, this role would be perfect for him.
One concern is that this doesn’t line up with the franchise’s current vision of finding younger and younger actors to take over the franchise for the future. Jemaine Clement is 44 years old. But that’s still 11 years younger than Depp, who is currently 55.
I doubt Disney would every consider recasting the part this far into the franchise but with Depp’s version of the Jack Sparrow character growing more and more tedious with every appearance, and Depp’s public image at an all-time low, I don’t seem how keeping him in lead is a profitable or advisable move. Is there any fraction of the moviegoing population who will only see the next movie if Depp is in it?
For a little while as I was growing up, Curse of the Black Pearl was my absolute favorite movie. I loved the sense of adventure it produced, the thrills of revenge, and exciting action sequences. And all I really want is a movie as good as that one. I want to walk into the movie theater to watch pirates partake in sea battles and find buried treasure, with an actor who does well with action and comedy but doesn’t beat his wife. Is that too much to ask for?
I’m interested to hear from you folks; would you be open to another Pirates movie if they made some changes, or is it perfect the way it is? Do they have a tone problem, or is it perfect? Who would you like to see take over the role of Jack Sparrow?
As always, thanks for reading!