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There is no more peculiar Hollywood property persisting into the present day than the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. The series was one of the few standout blockbusters of the 2000s, making a ton of money with its initial trilogy and actually turning out three decent films. However, it’s been nine years since World’s End, nine long years of bad Jack Sparrow impressions, terrible Johnny Depp flops, and an evolving blockbuster landscape that has quickly left the Pirates movies in the past.
Their single attempt to keep up with the times was Stranger Tides in 2011, which turned out to be the worst film of the series and did nothing to delay the series slide into irrelevancy. Now, Disney aims to bring the series, and Johnny Depp’s viability as a blockbuster draw, back from the dead with Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.
While this trailer doesn’t tell us much, I will admit that I thoroughly like the tone it’s taking. One of the significant problems with Stranger Tides was that it tried too much to recreate the comedy elements of the original trilogy while passing up on the creepy mysticism and horror elements that made the films such a unique entity. Those parts have seriously returned in this trailer, with a beautifully orchestral soundtrack that’s deeply reminiscent of the Davy Jones theme and a visual style that’s most similar to John Carpenter’s The Fog.
Even though a lot of elements of this set-up are well-worn clichés of the Pirates films I can’t deny they look spectacular. That’s something that’s always been a secret weapon for these movies; their design and FX departments are top notch, and even the rehashed elements always manage to look unique and engaging. For instance, the freaky ghost crew of the new villain Captain Salazar is basically just the bastard children of Black Beard’s voodoo zombies and Barbossa’s skeleton pirates, but the design is so creepy I don’t even care.
I really love the way we see so little of them, just hands reaching through the darkness; it’s thoroughly horrific in a very classical sense. Captain Salazar himself, played by Javier Bardem, is a real standout of design as well. The idea of his body moving on physics as if he’s underwater is a nice touch and a way to subtly imply the idea that this is a ghost of someone drowned.
That’s what I liked about the trailer but, be sure; there are a lot of problems with this idea- going right down to the premise. According to the synopsis, Captain Salazar is a ghost escaped from the ‘Devil’s Triangle’ bent on killing all the pirates of the Caribbean but Jack especially.
This forces Sparrow to form an alliance with new characters Carina Smyth, an astronomer, and Henry, a Royal Navy sailor, to find the fabled Poseidon’s Trident and stop Salazar before it’s too late. Pretty much everything about that synopsis is disheartening from where I stand, not the least of which for how much it forces Sparrow back into the main character role he was so ill-suited for in Stranger Tides.
Whatever you may think of Johnny Depp’s volume of work there’s no denying that his long string of recent mega-duds have seriously devalued his cache as a box office draw. I mean, after Alice in Wonderland, Lone Ranger, Stranger Tides, Through the Looking Glass, Mortdecai, and Dark Shadows you’re inclined to stop giving him chances.
It also doesn’t help that this year was marked by the very public dissolution of Depp’s marriage and the revelation of his history with domestic abuse. That’s a hard thing to get over and just look the other way on as he bounces around doing the same shtick he’s done for nearly a decade.
Putting aside the issues with Depp, it just seems like Pirates is trying to fall back to what worked in 2003 rather than seeking to adapt to what’s working in 2016. For better or worse blockbusters in the now are still the house that Marvel built and just trying to ignore that fact isn’t the way to make this series relevant or viable again.
What’s more, it’s not as if the Pirates films are that far off from the Marvel mold nor is it the case that the Marvel mold can’t be applied to non-superhero properties. Magnificent Seven was one of the year’s best action films and it basically just compressed the MCU’s structure to create its mythos and universe through just a single film. Pirates of the Caribbean has had tons of mythos and even did the “multi-film story” stuff that punctuated Marvel’s Phase 1 back in the 2000s.
The biggest problem holding the Pirates films back from being ready to adapt to the modern era is their curiously limited approach to their mythos elements and the way they’ve doubled down on adding more and more mythic elements without any persistence. For instance, the fact that Dead Man Tell No Tales will feature three different mystic elements- the ghost pirates, the devil’s triangle, and the trident of Poseidon strikes me as a huge mistake.
It’s front loading with stuff that all need their own explanations and, presumably, will just be wiped out of existence once the story is over. It’d be like if, at the end of Avengers, the Tesseract, the Helicarrier, stark industries, and Asgard were all just wiped from continuity. This has been a problem since World’s End, which featured stuff like the Pirate Court, the town of Shipwreck, Davy Jone’s Locker, and the sea goddess Calypso without any of that persisting into future films.
That, however, may change. Even though he’s not featured in this trailer, it has been confirmed that Orlando Bloom will be returning to his role as Will Turner for this film, presumably with the character still in the role of ferryman of the dead that he had at the end of World’s End. That position actually makes a lot of sense structurally and is exactly the kind of persistent mythos the series needs.
See, if Salazar is the ghost of someone lost at sea, it’d follow that he’d have to have encountered Will Turner upon his death yet somehow threw off Will’s attempts to ferry him to the other side. So bringing back Will Turner to explain this new villain’s threat rather than introducing some completely new and underutilized plot element to do it is a smart use of persistent mythos and world building.
Overall, I’m not sure Pirates of the Caribbean is a franchise that’s worth the effort to preserve. I still maintain the fantasy Caribbean setting has potential but the franchise has become so intertwined with Johnny Depp and Jack Sparrow that it seems impossible to escape those elements while they simultaneously drag the entire enterprise downward like an anchor. I mean, there’s a reason the premiere trailer for this film didn’t even feature Johnny Depp in any capacity.
Maybe Disney should just scrap the whole enterprise and create some new fantasy pirate series with a different brand, free from singular actor definition. As for Dead Men Tell No Tales, I can’t shake the feeling for we’re headed for another Stranger Tides situation- great visuals, interesting ideas, all dragged down by a tired performance and a series straining to recapture its glory days.
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