If you haven’t seen it in a while, the cold open of 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl doesn’t feature any of the characters you might expect. Not Jack Sparrow; we don’t meet him till a few scenes into the first act. Not even Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner; he arrives later in the scene, adrift in the water, and we don’t really meet him till he’s an adult. No, the first character we meet is Elizabeth Swann, and for the next seven minutes or so the first Pirates feels very much her movie.
Elizabeth is our introduction to the Pirates world, whose fifth film installment was released on Blu-Ray on October 3rd. She’s the throughline character that takes us to the present day, awakening from her dream of the day she first met Will. We follow her closely as she pulls the pirate coin necklace out of a drawer and tries it on, her secret escape into an imaginary life as a pirate herself. She’s immediately taken from this fantasy by the arrival of her father who introduces a solid character conflict for her, the dichotomy between the expectations on her as the daughter of a British aristocrat and her own overwhelming fascination with pirates and the sea.
Over the course of the first three movies of the franchise, Elizabeth’s journey into her obsession with pirates and her love for Will Turner leads her all the way to the role of “Pirate King” - and yet by the time we get to the fifth film, she has not a single line of dialogue and seems to have no function in the world except that of waiting for her husband to return from his cursed existence at sea. The character that was once the driving force of the franchise is relegated to little more than a glorified cameo.
So what happened? Jack Sparrow.
For me, the Pirates franchise is one of the most fascinating movie properties out there. I love it more than I usually care to admit. I even enjoy the movies that are usually referred to as the bad ones (i.e. all of them except the first). I have gotten vocally defensive about the utterly haunting mermaid attack scene in On Stranger Tides. I even like this franchise so much that I saw Dead Men Tell No Tales. Okay, so it was on a plane and I didn’t pay for it, but still. It played, I watched.
Part of what fascinates me about Pirates of the Caribbean is the utter ludicrousness of the fact that it even exists as a franchise. The filmed adaptation of a theme park ride feels like the exact kind of corporate synergy cash grab that audiences would reject en masse. And yet here we are 14 years later, with five different movies released under those black sails.
That success can almost singlehandedly be attributed to the first film’s surprise runaway stunt casting of Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow. It seems strange given the trajectory of his career since that first Pirates, but at the time Depp was considered a left-field choice for the face of a popcorn film franchise. Much was made of the fact that his Keith Richards-inspired performance as Sparrow had made the executives at Disney very nervous. He was a gamble that paid off.
The great paradox of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is that Depp’s Sparrow was both the best and worst thing that ever happened to it. Because while Sparrow may have been what drew people into the first movie, the truth is that it’s also actually just a legitimately good movie. It’s a fun, well-written movie that is just tongue-in-cheek enough about its source material to be self-aware, but takes itself seriously enough to work as a movie on its own. Curse of the Black Pearl's ensemble cast of characters is solid, including Sparrow, but as much as the sequels owe their very existence to him they also are made exponentially worse by his presence.
There’s so much potential for storytelling within the Pirates films. They function as high-fantasy on the high seas, treating the Colonial seafaring and piracy era the way Arthurian legends treat the Dark Ages or Steampunk treats the Industrial Revolution. Complete with a pantheon of sea-legend gods and monsters, they’re sword-and-sorcery meets swashbuckling, the perfect elevator pitch. But the initial popularity of Captain Jack Sparrow is a one-note, increasingly phoned-in albatross hung around its neck.
Sparrow is a comic-relief supporting character, and while he’s fun as heck in the first movie there’s literally nowhere for him to grow or develop as a lead. Moreover, the story seemingly makes no attempt to do so. He’s so useless as a lead character that even once Bloom and Knightley had left the franchise, replacements for Elizabeth and Will had to be brought in to try to give the later sequels any semblance of a hero’s journey. It’d be like if George Lucas had decided to just chuck Luke and Leia to the backburner after the first Star Wars movie and focus exclusively on Han Solo - a version of Han that goes through none of the character development of Empire or Jedi, and was played by Jar Jar Binks.
While few franchises deserve to continue on endlessly, the rich world building of this series, along with the wealth of ocean-based mythology that could be mined for stories, does feel like it could have had some sea legs. It’s hard not to wonder about the stories that could have been told if the writers hadn’t increasingly had to shift focus to Sparrow. Additionally, Depp's continued presence in the franchise amid his controversial personal life has become more and more alienating for many female fans. As amusing as it once was to see Sparrow continue to get drunk, get slapped and make silly faces, the novelty ran out its welcome within the second movie.
While Sparrow is inarguably the face of the franchise, it’s hard not to imagine what it might be like if instead we were looking forward to the sixth movie following the story of a young woman who, after being told her mere presence on a ship was bad luck upon our first meeting her, went on to unshackle herself from the corseted restrictions of her society and headed off to sea to eventually become the Pirate King. Having seen the one where her hero's journey took a back seat to the comic relief, I now want to live in a world where rather than waiting on a beach for Will Turner to come home, Elizabeth simply turned her ship to meet him there - because she was still out having adventures of her own.