Zombie Franchises is a series of occasional articles in which Ken Lowe examines one of the shambling intellectual properties that plods onward under sheer force of box office money. Be wary of spoilers for movies that have been out for a while.
It’s entirely ordinary for a really popular movie to kick off a wave of low-rent knockoff films that attempt to ride the coattails of a thrilling and original idea (e.g., most “Spaghetti” Westerns not directed by Sergio Leone). It’s far more noteworthy when a successful franchise becomes a low-rent knockoff of itself, and for that reason, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a true cultural curiosity. Rarely has there ever been so much hoopla over such a squandered premise, and with such diminishing creative returns.
Since the tacky entertainment of yesteryear is literally what is destroying all human civilization right now, I think it’s instructive to look at the franchise which will inevitably be memed as Johnny Depp is poised to become governor of Kentucky.
A Surprise Raid on the Box Office
2003 was a fairly strong year for big films despite a few misfires: there wa the triumphant end of The Lord of the Rings; the beginning of the Tarantino renaissance that was the first Kill Bill; Love, Actually; and X-Men 2, which really felt like the first salvo in the current ongoing superhero film glut. In that crowded landscape, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl seemed like a guaranteed flop. A ridiculous movie centered around a Disney theme park ride which is itself a punchline, with a mincing Johnny Depp whose performance reportedly alarmed studio executives, it was truly a surprise when many critics reported it as a fun way to blow $10 of a Friday evening.
Director Gore Verbinski was known for the American remake of The Ring, which kicked off a small J-horror craze at the turn of the century. How anybody could have thought it was a good idea to hand him the intellectual property to a theme park ride is anybody’s guess—how that premise somehow annihilated the box office that summer is less a mystery. Audiences loved Depp’s off-the-wall character, Captain Jack Sparrow, who sails into the movie aboard the prow of a sinking ship. He’s giving the proceedings just exactly as much seriousness as they deserve, saluting the publicly displayed pirate corpses and posing dramatically at the precise instant his ship goes under, with just enough time for him to step onto the pier without even breaking stride.
If Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner and Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Swann are the main characters of the first three films, Depp’s Captain Jack is the secondary character everybody actually came to the movies to see. The first film would set up the formula of the franchise far too well: Though overlong, overstuffed with plot and melodrama, overly fixated on the complicated internal rules of its curse-based nonsense, you can really see how the fifth film in the franchise is a return to basics.
Despite those shortcomings, the movie was fleet-footed and funny, Depp gave audiences a character they’d never quite seen before, and the special effects brought to life the tale of a crew of pirates cursed with un-death.
In the years since, it seems like Disney has tried to light the fuse on other major tent-pole films—movies on which the studio could hang merchandising and tie-ins—but they’ve all pretty much sucked. The Haunted Mansion and Tomorrowland strongly suggest that nobody is chomping at the bit for more adaptations of Disney attractions. Yet, the Pirates sequels kept raking in cash even as their plots became harder and harder to follow.
Raise the Tent-Pole High
It was perhaps inevitable that Disney would go back to the Pirates well, considering the first three movies individually made enough to fill a Spanish galleon to the gunwales with Euros. (It was the mid-aughts, remember.) For anybody who paid attention to Verbinski’s decision to abandon ship, though, another inevitability was that the fourth movie, 2011’s On Stranger Tides, would not be very good.
Drubbed by critics and with a significant drop-off in ticket sales, its Jack Sparrow-centric story fumbled the ball hard and began a major string of failures for Disney that included massive flops like John Carter and The Lone Ranger, seemingly showing the limits of nostalgia. Had Disney not already acquired Marvel Studios (which that year unleashed the first Avengers movie onto the world), it might have been staring down fiscal disaster.
An $800-Million Flop
Dead Men Tell No Tales performed “poorly,” but you must understand that we’re dealing in such absurd levels of money that this can’t really be said to be 100 percent true. It cost $230 million to make and brought in only $172 million in U.S. theaters, and then it brought in another $622 million from overseas. But, if you assume it spent its budget again on marketing—a realistic estimate—that means it cost $460 million to cram down the unwilling throats of the movie-going public and only earned $800 million.
Part of the poor performance for the fifth—yes, fifth—movie in the franchise, Dead Men, probably can’t be entirely laid at the feet of the cast and crew, but they didn’t do themselves many favors. Johnny Depp’s acrimonious public split from wife Amber Heard, during which she accused him of being an abusive drunk, likely turned off a lot of people from the thought of seeing him playing … a womanizing drunk.
But the movie also is terrible in baffling ways. The formula of a Pirates movie is to put attractive young leads in an extreme situation, up against some supernatural baddie played by an actor far too dignified to be in such nonsense, all while navigating the tortuous rules of some magical MacGuffin. Dead Men has all these things; it just manages to check all these boxes in the least interesting and most charmless ways imaginable.
Captain Jack Sparrow is still a shambling drunk with no clear motivations. The new young lovers are no Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley. The movie posits that this is happening a solid 20 years after the first trilogy of films, which set me up for the largest cognitive whiplash of all: I first snorted with derision at the idea we’re supposed to buy that these characters are 20 years older before realizing with horror that they’re actually 14 years older in real life, and that starring in the same tired and pointless franchise or crewing the same pirate ship in a tired and pointless venture across two decades are equally depressing scenarios. A major scene in the film is dedicated toward showing the origin of Jack Sparrow’s fucking costume, as if anybody ever asked for that.
That Dead Men Tell No Tales had the worst opening and the worst worldwide gross of any of its series so far is a karmic rebalancing of the universe, but it’s also a deeply disturbing endpoint to an oppressive trend in Hollywood filmmaking. Nobody wants another Pirates movie any more than you want another Pringle. It’s not there to be enjoyed or discussed or debated, but to be consumed. It has little to show, too much to tell, and nothing to say. The post-credits sequence makes zero sense.
But I’ll give it this: Jack Sparrow is there to separate you from your money in a way that Rey or Captain America aren’t. In that regard, at least, he is well and truly a pirate.
Kenneth Lowe didn’t kiss the gals and his lips have grown all moldy. He works in media relations for state government in Illinois and his work has appeared in Illinois Issues Magazine, Colombia Reports, and the St. Louis Post Dispatch. Unfortunately, you can follow him on Twitter and read more on his blog.