Pirates of the Caribbean: A Franchise Autopsy

Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios, https://insidethemagic.net/2020/07/ranking-pirates-of-the-caribbean-movies-ne1/

On June 26th 2020, The Hollywood Reporter announced that Margot Robbie was set to star in a new installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, a movie that would exist separately from an already announced reboot of the long-standing film series. My reaction to this report seemed to mirror the broader internet consensus: the casting serves as an interesting choice, Robbie a charismatic actress that might create a unique character in a franchise with many memorable ones (and she might get to use her normal Australian voice for once rather than the Harley Quinn/Wolf of Wall Street Brooklyn dialect she’s been using for years), but the production of a new Pirates film seems rather unnecessary.

The franchise began with Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, the critical (and commercial) success of which launched a trilogy of films, the first entry followed by Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. The continued box office success (despite dwindling appreciation from critics) resulted in a fourth movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, and finally a fifth installment, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, the latter of which only existing because the series manages to be lucrative in foreign markets, making almost as much money in China as it did in the United States.

(By the way, that’s why we keep getting Fast and Furious movies long after anyone really asked for them, the eighth film made $1 billion outside of the United States despite a paltry haul domestically).

While Curse of the Black Pearl was a breath of fresh air, a well paced action and adventure story with interesting characters and a fun setting, critics and the internet film intelligentsia increasingly turned against the franchise, praising the action set pieces but lambasting the convoluted plot in Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End before turning their ire on once beloved character Jack Sparrow (er, Captain, Captain Jack Sparrow), his antics and mannerisms predictable rather than spontaneous by films four and five.

The continuation of the Pirates franchise despite dwindling demand for it in the United States spawned numerous “what went wrong” videos, with critics and creators questioning how a franchise made up of solid entries in the past deteriorated into tedium. Some took a film by film approach, arguing that the entries following the original trilogy serve as impostors to the first three movies. Another common argument is that the franchise grew progressively worse when Jack Sparrow became the central character rather than Will Turner. Others criticized the series for making the characters and the world itself less interesting over time (in internet friendly numbered list form), with another critic complaining that the movies “disappeared up the asshole of their own mythology” in films two and three with failed attempts at simplification in On Stranger Tides and Dead Men Tell No Tales.

As someone who loves the original trilogy (for all the flak At World’s End gets, it is still my favorite in the series, but I’m also the person that enjoyed mythology in school so that influences my appreciation for piratey lore) and also writes about movies from time to time, I’ve likewise devoted mental energy toward answering “what went wrong” with Pirates of the Caribbean. And the common criticisms are common for a reason, they contain truths about the franchise. Jack Sparrow did become more predictable and less interesting over time, the plot was way too convoluted in Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End, and movie plots seem recycled rather than compelling and original in On Stranger Tides and Dead Men Tell No Tales (find magic thingy to stop cursed bad guys from running amuck).

But, I find that those analyzing and criticizing the franchise focus to narrowly, looking at the five Pirates films as the only texts to study rather than assessing broader trends in the film industry since 2003. The aforementioned internal problems certainly exist and helped to weaken the franchise over time, but external factors as well contributed to “what went wrong” or “what changed” with Pirates of the Caribbean. And, because of these external factors, I don’t think it’s possible to recapture the energy (“magic” if you will) and goodwill garnered from the original trilogy.

Curse of the Film Landscape

The first Pirates of the Caribbean was a surprise hit for Walt Disney Studios, both critically and commercially. Although then CEO Michael Eisner and other company officials thought that the character and performance of Jack Sparrow simply didn’t work, questioning whether the character was drunk or gay or even claiming that Johnny Depp was ruining the movie, the character was well received, with Depp even earning an Oscar nomination for his first turn as Captain Jack. Critics and fans also lauded the other characters in the film, the world building, pacing, the action sequences, the story itself, and the references to the popular theme park ride the film series is based off of. Moreover, the film went on to make $654.3 million at the box office, a pleasant surprise for the studio that produced other films based on attractions that completely tanked.

So, when a film proves financially successful, especially when it comes as a surprise to the studio, sequels enter production to extend the story (and more importantly the revenue stream). Pirates of the Caribbean became a film franchise, with two sequels greenlit and shot back to back to create a trilogy. But, the question arises, “how do we extend a narrative that was designed to be self-contained?” Pirates had good characters and an interesting world to explore, but crafting a new story posed a challenge, leading writers Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and director Gore Verbinksi to look to external sources, a decision no doubt influenced by the studio executive demands.

5521af6d57f84.0
Image Credit: New Line Cinema, https://www.theverge.com/2019/7/3/20681135/jurassic-world-fallen-kingdoms-j-a-bayona-director-amazon-prime-video-lord-of-the-rings-show

While today we live in a world where the Disney controlled Marvel Cinematic Universe is the most popular and stable brand in cinema, the early and mid-2000s were not as kind to the studio. Well out of the Disney Renaissance of the 1990s and reeling from recent flops, Treasure Planet and the aforementioned Haunted Mansion to name a few, Disney was behind the eight ball when it came to films and film franchises. Instead, it was the Lord of the Rings franchise that was both a critical and commercial behemoth at the time, Peter Jackson’s film series praised for respecting its source material and using state of the art technology along with skillful cinematography and production design to create Middle Earth in cinema.

The success of Lord of the Rings as well as the nascent Harry Potter franchise suggested that big, sweeping, epic narratives full of lore and mythology would lead to healthy box office hauls. Thus, to keep the franchise going (and to ensure that the Mouse kept getting his cut), the character based story of Curse of the Black Pearl morphed into an epic on the sea with Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End. Now, I and fans of the franchise largely like these films, and they are superior to Curse of the Black Pearl when it comes to action set pieces and production value. But the plot is more complex and more convoluted, with characters betraying one another and motivations changing from scene to scene in a sprawling story that drags in a way that Curse of the Black Pearl managed to avoid.

In trying to be like Lord of the RingsPirates lost the pacing and character driven plot of the first film, leading to critical ire despite commercial success for both Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End. The subsequent writers and directors responded to this criticism and attempted to recapture the magic of Curse of the Black Pearl, telling a self-contained character driven adventure story in On Stranger Tides. But, by that film, the love of Jack Sparrow and Johnny Depp declined significantly, the result of over exposure within and outside of the Pirates franchise.

Dead Man’s Casting

The biggest complaint levied at the Pirates franchise along with the most common explanation as to why the franchise declined largely is that Jack Sparrow became less interesting and more predictable over time, and this is certainly has its merits. Initially lambasted by the studio, Depp created a unique character beloved by fans and appreciated by critics, with Roger Ebert noting, “There has never been a pirate, or for that matter a human being, like this in any other movie.”

While there had been films about pirates in the past, movies centered on treasure hunting and the freedom of sailing the seas, there had never been a pirate movie quite like Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl nor a pirate quite like Jack Sparrow. It’s an unconventional choice to decide that a character from the eighteenth century should act like Keith Richards, but it is one that worked throughout the original trilogy. Jack Sparrow was always a step ahead of both his allies and adversaries in the first film, and this extends into Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End, with fans getting more catchphrases, more silly antics, more escapes, ultimately more Captain Jack.

However, what made this work particularly well in the first film is that Jack Sparrow was not the central focus but ultimately a fun supporting character for Will Turner and Captain Barbossa to get annoyed at. By the fourth film, most of the characters from the original trilogy were gone, with Jack Sparrow as the sole focus in a quest to find the fabled Fountain of Youth. Jack Sparrow’s ability to always be one step ahead of everyone else a la Bugs Bunny doesn’t work when he is the central rather than supporting character. Moreover, by four films, Jack’s mannerisms and “unpredictability” are completely predictable, lessening the enjoyment and experience of On Stranger Tides and Dead Men Tell No Tales. Rather than a brief sense of excitement when hearing news about a pirates adventure with Jack Sparrow, people of the internet roll their eyes, sigh, and question why the franchise seems to keep going despite declining interest.

But, it can’t just be that critics and fans are sick of a character after four or five movies due to overuse of the same mannerism. After all, Robert Downey Jr. was Iron Man in nine films over the course of ten years (not including a post-credits cameo in Incredible Hulk) with similar mannerisms throughout, yet the majority of the internet did not turn against that character. The characters from Toy Story are beloved after twenty-five years, and Batman is largely the same performance (except when it isn’t) and people on the internet seem to only get mad when the role is cast or when the Batsuit has nipples. So, there’s no hard and fast formula as to when a character is overexposed or no longer interesting, but it certainly did happen with Jack Sparrow.

This, again, is where one needs to look at the external context surrounding the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise rather than solely the texts themselves. Fans might have gotten sick of Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow, but not solely because the character was in an increasing amount of movies. Instead, after the release and success of the first Pirates film, directors and studios were eager to cast Depp in various other eccentric roles, looking to cash in on the mystique that worked for Curse of the Black Pearl.

 

 

 

After the first Pirates movie, Depp donned various “funny looks and funny hats” in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate FactorySweeney ToddPublic EnemiesAlice in Wonderland its sequel Through the Looking GlassThe Tourist (a movie that was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Comedy despite the fact that the film was not a comedy), Dark ShadowsThe Lone RangerTrancendenceMortdecaiBlack Mass, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I’m certainly not going to fault an actor for working and taking opportunities, especially one that built a reputation on good character performances throughout the 1990s. But, Depp’s choices after the Pirates trilogy became increasingly predictable, the actor seemingly taking all “eccentric” and “interesting” roles molded after his performance as Jack Sparrow.

“Johnny Depp in a funny hat” increasingly became a genre in and of itself, one that fans and critics grew tired of. Roles created to be “interesting” were instead looking to profit from Depp’s cachet from the Pirates franchise. Any new entries in the Pirates franchise increasingly feel like more of the same, Depp doing the same material and performance from the first films in the franchise as well as films like Dark Shadows and Lone Ranger. The incarnation of Jack Sparrow from the original trilogy was lighting in a bottle, the magic couldn’t be captured once again. Instead, various “interesting roles” became tedious and Depp’s reputation suffered, both because of his roles after Pirates as well as personal issues outside of filmmaking.

(Note: I’m not trying to make light of abuse allegations made by either Amber Heard or Johnny Depp during and after their marriage. There have been accusations of abuse by both Heard against Depp and Depp against Heard and the case is still in the process of litigation. It is difficult to take sides or know which side is right (or if any side is right) at the time of writing, so leaving it as “personal issues” while we are still in the legal process seems like the best course of action).

On Stranger Times

Despite dwindling domestic interest and critical appreciation for the Pirates franchise, Disney seems hellbent on creating new entries to appease foreign markets. And, just as the studio, writers, and directors took heed of criticism levied at convoluted and complicated plot lines and produced simpler (if predictable and less interesting) stories for On Stranger Tides and Dead Men Tell No Tales, the House of Mouse looks to go in another direction with future Pirates movies, replacing Johnny Depp with Margot Robbie to tell new pirate adventures within the same universe. Disney hopes that a new cast and the promise of something new rather than rehashing old plots (along with nearly a twenty year gap from Curse of the Black Pearl, the twenty year nostalgia cycle proving to be quite profitable recently).

But, the ultimate fact of the matter is that the cinematic landscape has changed dramatically since the first Pirates of the Caribbean film. In 2003, Curse of the Black Pearl was a breath of fresh air compared to other tentpole action films. Rather than super serious, devoid of any sense of fun (or colors other than black), Pirates of the Caribbean was a fully realized, colorful, lived in world with interesting characters swept up in a well-paced and well-crafted story. Curse of the Black Pearl was an antidote to the doldrums of the dark, dreary, and edgy aesthetic that plagued pop culture in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Moreover, Curse of the Black Pearl offered an escapist thrill ride rather than taking itself too seriously, something that clearly many people were searching for and ultimately enjoyed in the years immediately following 9/11. Upon release, Pirates was a different cinematic experience from other summer blockbusters, a unique alchemy that made Curse of the Black Pearl (and to a lesser degree Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End) a beloved series from the 2000s.

However, as we move out of the 2010s and into the 2020s, movies changed in tone and aesthetic. Comic book movies in particular are embracing their colorful art design and original stories rather than looking to distance themselves from them as they did in the past, and the most successful films at the box office in the past few years (the MCU but also movies like Jurassic World (the first one at least), Wonder Woman, Furious 7Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) are increasingly looking to tell “fun” rather than serious stories. Because of this, the tone, style, and scope of Pirates of the Caribbean feels like just another series rather than something unique, with its setting, lore, and Jack Sparrow as its only point of differentiation. More than simply “franchise fatigue,” Pirates feels like more of the same, both with regard to its recycled plots and when compared to other popular films and franchises today, the series no doubt influencing the cinematic landscape we have today but not doing enough to separate itself from others within it.

At Franchise End?

At the time of writing, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has exhausted any interest and goodwill in the domestic market, with Disney increasingly looking to milk it for all it is worth at the foreign box office. Fans and critics have increasingly turned against predictable plots and the same antics from Jack Sparrow, and Pirates of the Caribbean simply isn’t different enough from other films and franchises in the marketplace. The social and cultural context as well as the demands and interests of fans have changed significantly since the release of Curse of the Black Pearl in 2003. Though the studio aims to reboot the franchise with new casting and capitalize on the twenty-year nostalgia cycle, it is impossible to recapture the specific factors that made the original trilogy so memorable and so special in the early 2000s. 

Though the declining haul at the box office and decreasing fan interest seems to spell doom for further entries in the Pirates franchise, prognostications and predictions are solely based on what we know and what has happened. It doesn’t appear that the Pirates franchise has legs, but a well-made film and well-told story could certainly prove me wrong in the future. Good stories with interesting characters make for good movies, which in turn transform one-off films into franchises. The MCU along with recent successful franchises like the John Wick films succeed not because of a grand master plan, but because the individual films are well-made and generate interest for further sequels. Perhaps a new Pirates entry can echo Curse of the Black Pearl and the original trilogy and remember what worked in the past rather yet avoid predictability and becoming overly complicated. After all, films about pirates more generally witnessed ebbs and flows, the pirate genre proving popular in the 1940s and 1950s before declining until the release of the first Pirates of the Caribbean. The specific factors, both within and surrounding the original trilogy and made it so special cannot be recaptured, but an interesting adventure story with well-written characters offers a chance at putting winds in the sails of the Pirates franchise.

In Praise of Michael Bay?!? Revisiting Pain and Gain

(Image Credit: Paramount Pictures)

It was April of 2013 and I had just finished my junior year of college, facing the crossroads between the lackadaisical summer breaks of my previous school years and the impending pressure and responsibilities of potential internships, jobs, future schooling, and adulthood. After the end of the semester, I decided to stick around my off-campus housing for a bit, enjoying everything about my neighborhood and the surrounding area without the worries of class and exams. One afternoon, one of my roommates suggested/demanded that we see the film Pain and Gain, at the time the most recent directorial effort by Michael Bay. Yes, that Michael Bay, one of the most hated directors among critics and the broader internet film intelligentsia. In 2013, Bay was still at the helm of the Transformers franchise, with Pain and Gain being released after the terrible one set in Chicago but before the one with (10 minutes) of dinobots.

(Side note: Transformers: Age of Extinction is really, really, really, like, really bad. The movie has more interest explaining the “Romeo and Juliet laws” to justify the relationship between two young characters than having a coherent plot).

Thus, as a person interested in and keeping up with the broader internet film discourse, I was NOT looking forward to sitting through Pain and Gain. The fact that I was inundated with ads for the film over the previous month (as a male in my early 20s at the time, ads for Pain and Gain were quite common on the TV channels I watched) didn’t help matters much. Pain and Gain looked like a dumb movie about bodybuilders loaded with an excess of the Michael Bay aesthetic.

Nevertheless, I was wrong. I liked Pain and Gain. Actually, I really liked Pain and Gain. It was still a movie about bodybuilders loaded with an excess of Bay-isms, hyperfixation on action scenes and explosions, scantily clad women presented on film through “the male gaze,” and mid-level shots panning upward at the people in similar fashion to a Victoria’s Secret commercial. But, rather than a dumb movie, Pain and Gain was a well-acted and well-made dark comedy about true crimes in mid-1990s Miami.

I recently rewatched the film as part of a marathon of movies featuring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson leading up to the television premiere of Rampage, a brief window of escapism amid a lingering global pandemic along with  racial strife due to systemic racism and continued police brutality in the United States. Not only do I still like the film and think it holds up, but I believe that Pain and Gain as it exists could only have been made by Michael Bay with his particular aesthetic and sensibilities.

This should not be taken as a celebration of all of Michael Bay’s films. ArmageddonPearl Harbor, and the Bay Transformers films are still really bad movies. I never really got into the Bad Boys franchise. His films are still loaded with racist and homophobic characterizations that are uncomfortable to watch. Explosions, action, and special effects alone to not make a good movie. But, in this particular instance, with this particular film, Bay produced a movie that no one else could make.

The movie centers on the real life Sun Gym gang, with members Daniel Lugo, Adrian Doorbal, and Paul Doyle (a composite character based on Carl Weekes, Stevenson Pierre, and Jorge Delgado) played by Mark Wahlberg, the underrated Anthony Mackie (he’s really good in everything he’s in), and the aforementioned Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (he’s actually underrated too, he’s the biggest action star we’ve got and people still overlook that the guy can actually act). The three bodybuilders, frustrated with mounting bills, monotony, sexual impotence in the case of Doorbal, and the sense that they are missing out on “the American Dream,” resolve to kidnap self-made millionaire Victor Kershaw (name changed in the film to protect the survivor) played by Tony Shalhoub and make him sign away his home, his businesses, and all of his assets. The bodybuilders are woefully incompetent in their criminal activity but nevertheless manage to steal Kershaw’s money. They attempt but ultimately fail to kill their mark and tie up loose ends, but the bodybuilders manage to get away with their crimes due to the fact that the Miami police find Kershaw so unbelievable (and wildly unlikeable) that they do not investigate the crime.

The criminals revel in their success, with Doorball buying a new house and marrying his girlfriend, Lugo literally moving into Kershaw’s home in an upper class neighborhood, and Doyle slipping back into cocaine addiction and spending all of his money on shopping excursions with his girlfriend, a Romanian stripper eager for her own taste of the American dream. After a few months, the men have run out of money and decide to run a similar scheme on millionaire phone sex operator Frank Griga. This goes even worse than the first plan, as the criminals end up killing Griga and his girlfriend, and their subsequent attempts to cover up the crime and dispose of the bodies results in an escalating comedy of errors that ultimately leads to their arrest.

The film is about crimes ranging from kidnapping to grisly murder, hardly a funny subject on its face. Yet, the film frames the events and encourages the audience to laugh at the escalating ridiculousness as well as the stupidity and despicable nature of the Sun Gym gang. When Lugo tells the audience through voice-over that “he always grew up wanting to see Paris and France,” expresses his love for self-help infomercial speak, and doesn’t want people to think that a urine-soaked Kershaw is “intercontinental” (rather than incontinent), you recognize that “the brains of the operation” isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed.

As things continue to build and crescendo into the third act, with Griga killed by an errant weight slipping off of a bar or when Doyle attempts to burn off his fingerprints by literally cooking his hands on a grill, you laugh at specifically how uncomfortable and grisly the situation is. When Lugo criticizes Doorbal for buying “a piece of China crap” chainsaw rather than a gas-powered American model in order to dispose of the corpses, you chuckle but are also made uneasy; you probably know someone like this or can imagine someone acting like this in real-life, even within the context of getting rid of a dead body. Simply put, Pain and Gain is an extended episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, quite literally, on steroids.

This is not to say that no one in Hollywood past or present could make a dark comedy. Hell, Martin Scorsese directed and released his own dark comedy about despicable people getting rich just eight months later. However, the specific alchemy of sleazy debauchery that is Pain and Gain could only have been made by Michael Bay. Sure, films like Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street among others focus on people (men) doing nefarious things to become rich and successful, and these movies are well-regarded by critics and audiences alike and don’t require a lengthy blog post to defend their merits.

But it is the aesthetic style, the specific technical and artistic vision of Michael Bay, is what truly separates Pain and Gain from other films like it. The Sun Gym gang consider themselves shrines to physical human perfection, and Bay’s direction manages to both fetishize their physique while rightly demonizing the men as reprehensible human beings. The “male gaze” is a common theme within Michael Bay’s filmography, usually to objectify women to a young male viewing audience, but in this case it is projected onto the Sun Gym gang, contrasting their obsession with physical perfection with moral bankruptcy through cinematography and the language of film. While Scorsese dark comedies are hyper-stylized films about bad people getting what is coming to them, Pain and Gain leans even harder into excess and bad taste, reserving no ounce of sympathy and humanity for anyone involved.

These aren’t people to feel bad for, look up to, or even think about trying to be like, they are terrible people doing terrible things that you laugh at because you know what’s coming to them and that they deserve it. The grisly, grimy, sleazy ephemora of Pain and Gain highlights how rotten its central characters are, with the over-the top excess of the art direction and cinematography complementing the depiction of crimes ranging from illegal to horrific. Though various Michael Bay-isms have led to numerous films of poor quality, they work together in Pain and Gain to produce a perfect dark comedy.