On the eve of the fifth installment of the franchise, it is clear in hindsight that Gore Verbinski’s three Pirates of the Caribbean films are some of the best summer blockbusters of all time. I would put these films alongside Christopher Nolan’s Batman efforts and Michael Bay’s Transformers films as examples of auteur directors being handed the reigns and allowed to create their own cinematic universes.
Verbinski’s success is even more impressive because Pirates of the Caribbean wasn’t even a franchise film when it was produced and the only other successful pirate movies of the previous 20 years was Hook. Remember Cuthroat Island? Made for $100 million and only earned back ten. Pirates were not a sure bet at the box office, but the first film was a massive hit. And so of course Disney wanted a sequel.
But while the consensus around the first film, The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl remains as positive as ever, it is time to reevaluate the other two thirds of the trilogy. Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End were both produced at the same time, and were released in back to back summers. Both films were less warmly received by critics, though they still made huge amounts of money. It’s also easy to forget that the trilogy ended the summer before Iron Man and The Dark Knight would allow the superhero genre to dominate with multiple releases per summer.
The one choice that determined the fate of the franchise was in retroactively making the first installment the first part of a trilogy rather than a standalone adventure. Because honestly, taking the breakout success of Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow and turning him into the franchise star would have been the easier, safer choice from some perspectives. Give him a whole new adventure and let him run amok. However, Jack Sparrow is a pirate, and the first film shows a lot of restraint in keeping his character as a self-serving scoundrel rather than allow him to become a hero. So writers Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio foregrounded Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), using their romance as the main character framework for their trilogy.
For better or worse, the two films basically function as one narrative over their over 5.25 hour runtime. Where the first film had a simple mythology mostly revolving around parley and a pile of cursed gold McGuffin, these new films add Davy Jones and his magical ship, The Flying Dutchman, Will’s father, a goddess, the Kraken, the Pirate Lords, Singapore pirates, and the East India Trading Company. It is a lot to take in, and the continued double-cross and deal making that are a calling card of the series make the story feel more convoluted than it actually is. The main plot of the two films is about control of the sea (something that shows up again in the new film), mostly because nothing else is big enough to warrant a conflict between our heroes, a goddess, a cursed octopus man, and a trade monopoly. There’s enough ideas across these two films that it could have easily been four or five films, but the sheer audacity of cramming it into two is admirable.
But what I appreciate about this direction is how bizarre it can be. Of course there were zombie pirates in the first film, but the choice to make Davy Jones a squidface and his entire crew people mutated into sea creatures who also are a literal part of the ship is inspired to say the least. And looking back, it is easy to underappreciate the technical work on display here. At the time, Bill Nighy as Jones was the first motion capture performance I remember using a high profile actor, and taking the work that WETA had done on Gollum one step further. And combining pirate legends with Greek mythology in a historical fantasy setting still feels like a unique balance of ideas. And how nuts is it that they scale the Kraken so big that we never actually see the whole thing? Just some tentacles, or an eye, or its mouth. That’s such a cool, weird choice.
The scale of these films is also that of an epic, with real sailing ships built for production, and mostly filming on location as well as elaborate sets. Everything in them looks like a real place, even moreso than the Marvel and DC films that use Cleveland and Atlanta to stand in for New York. Along with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, it just feels like we already don’t make movies this way anymore. While these films make extensive use of CGI, the amount of actors and actual locations make them feel so much bigger. It was a brief moment in time where computers were still used to enhance filmed reality rather than being able to create it whole cloth. Even subsequent films in this series are a bit scaled down in this regard when compared to Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End.
Verbinski is also a master of action, and combined with his quirky sensibilities, delivers setpieces that never fail to be engaging and surprising. Each one of them is basically a Rube Goldberg machine, from a farcical chase involving cannibals, a three-way swordfight, to a wedding during a battle inside a gigantic maelstrom. Literally nothing that has ever been captured on the screen before, possible because of the free reign Verbinski was allowed by Disney. The logical end point to this doesn’t come until the extended Buster Keaton tribute in 2013’s The Lone Ranger (also underrated), but the sheer spectacle on display is entrancing.
And these films make great use of the best character in the franchise: Kiera Knightley’s Elizabeth Swann. Even in the first film (despite her introduction as a literal fainting damsel), she is a fully realized character, strong-willed, smart, and a bit manipulative. She plays an even larger role in Dead Man’s Chest, even betraying Jack to the Kraken so everyone else may escape. And her re-introduction in At World’s End reveals her to be a full-on pirate badass, giving orders and developing nefarious plots of her own, later becoming the Pirate King.
Not only do I have a ton of affection for these films, but though they are probably too long, there is a lot in here that is lacking in our current stable of superhero franchise dominance. I miss swashbuckling and fantasy elements, so I’m more than happy to sail on the Black Pearl one more time. Oh, and before I forget, On Stranger Tides is fine.
Author: Ryan Silberstein
Ryan has been writing thoughtful film reviews and pop culture commentary on and off for over a decade. He spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area. His other interests include comic books, coffee, experimental beer, discovering new music, and books.