Franchise Retrospective: Pirates of the Caribbean – Star Wars For A New Generation

Like many in the country, and also the world, I am staying inside the house due to recent news. I’m doing my part to help curb the problem, and I hope you are too. This is a serious issue that affects everyone in the world.

Since I can’t leave the house, I have used the time to catch up on movies I’ve missed or haven’t seen (on the first day I watched Steve Jobs, Stargirl, and Jay and Silent Bob Reboot). Yet I also decided to keep my spirits up to use this time to marathon some film franchises. Watch them back to back and see how they flow together and if anything is illuminated. Or even revisit some favorites, ones that remind me of a simpler time and see how much the world has changed since they hit the big screen. Comfort for these weary times. I had recently done the Star Wars trilogy before The Rise of Skywalker and did a Marvel one before Avengers: Endgame. I do the Blade films every Halloween. So I decided to do a film trilogy I maybe hadn’t watched in a while, or maybe one I had seen but never sat down and watched all in a day, one from my childhood.

There were a lot I could have picked, but the one that called to me was Pirates of the Caribbean. Pirates of the Caribbean is fascinating franchise. It was once, alongside Spider-Man, Harry Potter, and Shrek, the biggest movie franchise at the beginning of the 21st century. It was a pop culture sensation, yet now it feels like a relic of a summer blockbuster season long gone. In a post-Marvel Cinematic Universe world, what place is there for Pirates of the Caribbean? They’ve released two films since Iron Man launched the MCU and they sort of came and went. They were not the big blockbuster moments the previous three films were.

Now if you are wondering why I’m only looking at the first three films, there are a number of reasons. The first three films are connected by characters, plot details, and themes. This was a trilogy for a long time, and when On Stranger Tides came out it still felt like a trilogy because the fourth film was more a stand-alone adventure akin to an Indiana Jones sequel (and not a very good one at that). The other reason being: I don’t quite care for the two latest sequels. I never wanted to purchase them on home media and while Dead Men Tell No Tales  is available on Disney+, I saw it once and had no interest to see it again. So for the purpose of this retrospective, we are sticking with the original three.

The Pirates of the Caribbean as a franchise is an adaptation of a theme park ride, so it had no well of source material for the filmmakers to draw from, or for fans to look over to anticipate what would happen next. Each film was eagerly anticipated because nobody quite knew what the story would be or what to expect, and when it came time to wrap it up there was an unexpected nature surrounding the film on exactly HOW it would end. What would be the fate of these characters we had fallen in love with?

Those characters are what made people excited about the franchise. Jack Sparrow is obvious, but audiences did become attached to the love story between Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann. Barbosa went from primary villain to chief ally. The minor supporting characters like Pintel and Ragetti (who were never even named onscreen) became comedic favorites. Same with Gibbs, Mr. Cotton and his parrot, and Tia Dalma. Davy Jones became an iconic movie villain in part due to his rich detailed backstory and a career-best performance from Bill Nighy. Then there is Jack Sparrow.

What more is there to be said about Jack Sparrow that hasn’t been said? The second audiences saw him on the big screen they fell in love with him and Depp’s performance. Everybody the world knows this character. How he acts, how he speaks, and what he will do: in the sense, they never quite know what he will do. Jack Sparrow is the ultimate trickster hero and that is what makes him fun. Yet he isn’t evil, he does seem to have a moral code even if it is often shaded by his own self-interest. He isn’t a character defined by strength or being the most powerful: what makes Jack appealing is his wit. He solves situations by being the most clever person in the room. Instead of punching his way through a situation like many other heroes, Jack is able to talk his way out of harm’s way. He barters, tricks, and double-crosses to get out of dangerous situations. There still hasn’t been a character like Jack Sparrow who continues, after all this time, to remain unique.

Another factor that is immediate when rewatching the trilogy is how many similarities they have to the original Star Wars trilogy, and that might be why it connected with a generation of film-goers. Acting as the Star Wars stand-in for a generation in a way that even Star Wars was failing to do at the times with the prequels.

The similarities are obvious.

  • Curse of the Black Pearl/Star Wars: Both stories are about a young orphan boy protagonist (Will Turner/Luke Skywalker) who encounters a scoundrel with a mysterious past (Jack Sparrow/Han Solo) to save a young woman (Elizabeth Swan/Leia) from the clutches of a sinister villain who knew the protagonist’s father (Barbosa/Darth Vader). Both feature an iconic ship (The Millennium Falcon/The Black Pearl)  and two funny supporting characters that act sort of as an audience chorus (Pintel and Ragetti/C3PO and R2D2).
  • Dead Man’s Chest/Empire Strikes Back: A few years have passed since the previous film, and the young orphan protagonist from the last film (Will/Luke Skywalker) discovers the truth about their father (Bootstrap Bill/Darth Vader). They’re separated from the rest of the group, while the scoundrel and female badass grow closer (Jack and Elizabeth/Han and Leia), and said scoundrel also has a debt hanging over his head he must repay. Both films end on a cliffhanger with the scoundrel character lost/dead to the two other heroes, who decide to go rescue their friend.
  • At World’s End/Return of the Jedi: Begin with the heroes going on a rescue mission to rescue the scoundrel from the clutches of a villain, while the latter half of the film is about the heroic band of rebel heroes (Pirates/Rebel Alliance) fighting a battle with the Imperialistic Power (East India Trading Company/Galactic Empire).

Joseph Campbell’s A Hero With a Thousand Faces tells how myths tend to share a similar structure, across different cultures and religions. This familiarity forms the monomyth, and for an entire generation, Star Wars was THE foundational basis for understanding that concept. It was one everyone knew and could see how it drew from mythic stories of the past. This made Star Wars appeal to people across different races, genders, and religions. Yet when the prequel trilogy came along, instead of a classic heroes’ journey audiences were given to a twist on it: a tragedy of how a hero becomes a villain.

Where was the 21st-century version of the heroes’ journey? The story of a young hero who longs for more and goes off on a classic adventure to strange new lands encountering monsters and searching for mystical items? In a world rocked by the real-world terrors left in the wake of 9/11 people needed a good old fashion adventure. Then in 2003 came Pirates of the Caribbean. A classic story for a world in need of it.

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