The quintessential image of this series.

I will be going to see the unasked for 4th Pirates movie tomorrow. Most people are going into it with trepidation given that it’s an obvious attempt to keep cashing in on what has proved to be one of the three workhorse blockbuster fantasy series of our time (the other two are, obviously, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter). Others are hoping it might recapture some of the more grounded magic of the first film, Curse of the Black Pearl, which is generally considered the best in a trilogy that quickly ran off the rails. I’m not really sure how I feel about it myself but I can tell you it doesn’t really fall into either of those two general categories. And I’ll tell you why.

I am an unabashed apologist for these movies and one of the very few who considers the sequels to be superior to the first in nearly every way.

Right then, so I have an agenda here. My agenda is to defend the trilogy as a whole. Not only as fun movies, which we all know they are, but also as an explosively creative and clever product of intensely unlikely origins (it should be common knowledge by now that these movies are based on a fucking ride). By the mid-way point of Dead Man’s Chest, it should have been clear to everyone that Pirates wasn’t about throwing a few random supernatural elements of seafaring lore into a goofy piratical romp. No indeed. Pirates is a full-blown epic building its own alternaverse based only loosely on the end times of the age of pirates in the central American colonies. It is every bit a self-contained universe, just like Middle Earth or the layered reality Harry Potter takes place in. Does this commitment to world-building and the fantastic make Pirates more legitimate? Absolutely it does. This component is what stands in opposition to the claims that this shit is just a bunch of random nonsense. Any more so than flying on broomsticks or fighting goblins with glowing swords? Not really.

Now this isn’t to say that Pirates is a better series of films than its peers. In most ways trying to compare it to them is a sucker’s game so I won’t be doing that. My job is to convince you that they are better movies than you probably think they are. That starts with legitimizing their context as a trilogy of real fantasy movies. It should already be apparent that they were made, and especially written, with more care than the deluge of B.S. that has come out in  the last 10 years trying to ride Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter‘s coattails. You should note also that Pirates is, as a whole, a much more unique property than any of those. This again doesn’t necessarily have any bearing on your mileage with it as entertainment but hey, we’ll get there.

The best method to mounting a proper defense is to probably break the series down into the elements that make it work while also giving some time to contextualizing each entry. This will give us the chance to think about the faults, such as they are, and why people overstate them. I mean, why do people really not like the sequels? I’ll get into why I think this is.

First off, the most important piece of the puzzle:

Characters

This is the core of what makes Pirates work. The movies are populated with an extensive, ridiculous really, cast of colorful primary, secondary, and yes tertiary characters. The continuity of arcs throughout the trilogy is one of the things that reveals how much attention was paid to planning this out. It also shows how much genuine affection there is for them from their creators. This may seem to lead to some indulgences in the movies themselves but that is a nit-pick in something that must be considered a virtue given what we can usually expect from large scale “blockbusters” even with good casts. And wow, the cast they put together in this series!

Most people will credit Johnny Depp’s creation of the Jack Sparrow character as being the key to the success of these movies but this is completely unfair to the work put in by others. Captain Barbossa is the trilogy’s secret weapon, brought to glorious life by Geoffrey Rush. The work of Bill Nighy in creating Davey Jones also contributed to one of the most nuanced and well-realized villains in recent memory. I’d be hard pressed to think of a better fantasy villain than Davey Jones, actually. He’s just a perfect triple-threat of writing, acting, and supplementary effects. Other characters like Cutler Beckett, Norrington, Mr. Gibbs, Tia Dalma, etc are not to be discounted either. The Napoleonic height and ambitions of Beckett as well as his unseen past with Jack Sparrow give the character a weight that does a lot to balance the villainy of Davey Jones. The comic relief characters are excellent as well, including the two constantly arguing English soldiers as well as the ugly-ass pirate buddies. I’ve mentioned fully 10 characters in this paragraph that have full arcs through three films. They are not even the only ones who do. Even the cameos are interesting, making the Brethren Court scene in At World’s End one of the most entertaining in the series (helped greatly by Sparrow in word and deed).

But what about Elizabeth and Will, Evan? What about the bland casting of Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom, Evan?

Well hey, I’ll agree that they aren’t the most colorful characters in the movies. I’ll agree that their romance is far less interesting than most of the rest of what’s going on. I’ll even agree that these roles aren’t much in the way of showcasing either actor’s talents. They have interesting arcs, though. The direction they take these two’s story is actually one of the most refreshingly ballsy choices they made in terms of the greater storyline of the trilogy. Having Will die and come back as the new captain of the Dutchman is awesome. Having Elizabeth play a central role as the unlikely Pirate Queen is also awesome. In fact, I’d go a step further and argue that Elizabeth shows as much moral ambiguity as a character as anyone else in the movies (and moral ambiguity as fun is one of many oddities that contribute to the flavor and quality of this trilogy). Probably more. Will is almost always a white-hat but Elizabeth demonstrates some true ruthlessness in one of the more interesting twists of the trilogy: her role in Jack Sparrow’s death.

Just think about it for a second. Where else are there this many characters who are not only tons of fun to watch but also demonstrate layers of pathos and morality that are missing from dramas that butter their bread on exactly that?

I consider my case well made without even really bringing Sparrow into it. But since this wouldn’t be a Pirates article without him, let’s take a minute shall we?

Many have said that Jack Sparrow is this series’ Han Solo. I get that. He works very well when his goals and motives are a sidebar to the main undertakings. He’s always out for number one which provides the impetus for many of the twists and double-crosses throughout the trilogy. Sparrow is a guy who wants pretty much one thing: freedom. This evolves over the course of the trilogy to a quest for immortality as he watches the world he loves (a world of mysticism, adventure, and the high seas) disappear under the shadow of colonialism. What could be better for Jack than to keep his pirating mystique alive forever? Anyway. Sparrow is not only a character of complex motives, he’s also the epitome of the colorful and flamboyant sensibility of the trilogy. His distinctive look, body language, and speech patterns are similarly emblematic of the “avoid the generic” philosophy this series runs on.

Jack Sparrow is the heart of the heart of the trilogy. And everybody knows it.

Plot

This is the element that gets Pirates into trouble. By the end of the third movie the relationships, motivations, and goals of this bright collage of characters seem so jumbled up that it’s impossible to untangle. I’m pretty sure they actually handed out placards noting some plot points to remember as audiences went into At World’s End in some theaters. Many talk about what a mess the sequels are. The word mess seems to be an attempt to describe this jungle of characters, arcs, plot points, etc.

To me, this is more a problem with the audience than with the movies. Paying attention to Pirates shouldn’t be too hard but it is not taken as a requirement. People expect “shut your brain off” movies. I love that Gore Verbinski and his peeps decided not to make Pirates that kind of thing. Instead, what we get is complexity but not for its own sake. The complexity is a joke in itself, part of the increasingly ironic sense of humor underlying the trilogy. The characters react to it on a regular basis. The opportunism and moral flexibility of these characters is safetied by the humor with which it is conveyed, making even bloodthirsty pirates into likable and even kid-friendly characters. This is fucking genius and also does a lot to show how smart and crafty some characters are. Especially Jack Sparrow, who is the master manueverer in every situation, even ones where he is categorically outmaneuvered. Watching him outsmart the bigger gears of the plot and many subplots is the source of much fun.

Aside from the effects, action, etc (all great anyway), this is the true draw of the series for adults. The storylines are not stupid, but rather infused with a winking silliness matched by slyness. The only requirement is that you try and pay attention and keep up. For people who can’t, there’s all the other stuff. Those are the same people who think the point of Inception is to figure out whether or not Cobb is dreaming. They’re the ones who “don’t get it”. A lot of people call foul on me for being an elitist and defending stuff on the grounds that it isn’t necessarily “gettable” but too bad. That’s sort of how it is. It’s not necessarily to say those people who don’t pay attention are stupid. It’s just that the “getting” is all about paying attention. To complain that a movie isn’t good if it doesn’t immediately unveil itself to you is the stupid part.

I find the complaints about the complexity of the plots in Pirates to be disingenuous at best. Even the McGuffins are clever here, feeding back into the steadily unfurling pirate lore that backdrops the series (more on this later).

The obvious complaint, though, is that the characters just serve the plot and their motives are, in the moment, what ever the plot requires them to be. That is ridiculous. Patently so. And only because the movies actually spend time giving the characters reasons for what they do. Sao Feng gives his captaincy to Elizabeth because he thinks she’s Calypso, for example, which is something I can’t believe so many people miss.

The plotting of Pirates only seems random because you have to work a bit to follow it. It’s a puzzle only because puzzles are fun. The unpredictability of situations and outcomes is a major strength of this series. Almost nothing works out exactly like you think it will except for some predictions based on motifs of the series (such as that Jack will almost always defer to more aggressive characters or that Will will do whatever he can to save Elizabeth, etc). Even amidst the illusion of chaos these movies flirt with, there is time for heavy foreshadowing and surprises. For example, it was obvious that someone was going to kill Jones and take his place, but far less obvious that it would be Will. To think otherwise is to give yourself too much credit for having decent intuition or making a good guess.

Mythology

Ah, another very contentious element of the series! People often complain about the “bullshit mythology” that is “just thrown in” to the movies. I will agree that the Calypso payoff was weak and underdeveloped (an odd word to use in connection with anything in these movies), but everything else? Come the fuck on.

The name of the game here is scope. The first movie deals with familiar motifs: cursed treasure and undead pirates. We’ve seen that shit before. In fact, a good deal of Watchmen (the book) is given over to a story that could fit right in with the universe the Black Pearl sails in. One of the reasons I generally consider Curse of the Black Pearl to be the weakest in the trilogy is that it’s mythology is so pedestrian compared to the sequels. This is because it has less scope. The majority seem to disagree that this is a good thing and consider the first movie “grounded” and thus better. Sure it is. I’m gonna tell you why this is nonsense as a criticism.

The reason it’s nonsense is that it’s bias. Some people are going to prefer a “more realistic” version of the Pirates universe than a grander, more ridiculously fantastical one. There’s not much anyone can do to dissuade those with either view. It’s completely subjective which makes it a bad criticism. The Pirates movies ended up deciding they were fantasy movies backdropped by a semi-realistic version of the Caribbean piracy setting. If we want to be properly critical, we have to judge them on those terms and not by our personal preferences.

I’ve said stuff like this before and it definitely derives from my personal philosophy of criticism. It’s a perscriptive philosophy, so I’m allowed to tell you it’s how you should look at things. To me, the justification for that is self-evident (objectivity is more communicable than subjectivity, criticism is about communication, etc) so I won’t go into it here. Just wanted to provide some context for my dismissal of this criticism!

Right then. On to the complaint that this is “bullshit mythology”. This seems silly to me on the simple grounds that fish people are awesome. The kraken is awesome. Curses, magic artifacts, and vengeful sea Goddesses? All awesome. The movie even knows this shit is awesome. Why don’t you? It certainly can’t be because there is room for cursed skeleton pirates but not cursed crustacean pirates, can it? That would be a pretty hypocritical position. I mean, complaining about the presence of eldritch creatures in Pirates is as silly as complaining about aliens in Star Wars. It’s, again, not much of a criticism.

Unless you mean the logic behind binding/unbinding Calypso, or the McGuffin shit with Jones’s disembodied heart. I don’t think you can deny that there is a logic behind this stuff, though. The movies go out of their way to explain the story of Calypso and Davey Jones so that its effect on everything else is clear. If you weren’t paying attention, it is definitely disingenuous to say it’s “random bullshit” because you didn’t pay enough attention to understand how it all works.

Ultimately, the mythology isn’t about logic but fun. Yeah, that word, the one word that describes these movies best in terms of their intent and the quality aggregated by all these elements I’m talking about. The mythology is fun. Nine Pieces of Eight? Makes no sense because it’s word-play. Fun word-play. Rock-crabs that take a liking to Sparrow makes about as much sense as that scene where a bunch of Sparrows kill each other over a peanut. But it’s fun and tops the other two “grand entrances” of the character.

The most important thing about the mythology, though, is that it’s there at all. Each piece of the mythos is connected in some way to the others, at least in the sequels. There’s a chronology and certainly some internal logic to it and that is all that is required to legitimize its presence enough to have fun with it.

Action

This should be pretty uncontroversial, though one of the most underrated parts of these movies. The action is great. Inventive, stylish, and stages/choreographed so well that you barely notice just how outstanding it is.

Mostly I’m talking about the swordfights. Each movie has at least one great swordfight that deserves to be on lists of great cinematic swordfights of all time. The centerpiece is definitely the three-way duel between Norrington, Will, and Jack in Dead Man’s Chest. It is probably one of the most inventive fights in movie history, and is the best one in the trilogy.

But even that first fight in Brown’s smithy in Port Royal is excellent. And I think the ship fight where Barbossa marries Will and Liz is probably the best fight in At World’s End. It isn’t even just the choreography and visceral chops of these sequences that makes them work so well. It’s the banter and that these are usually scenes where something else is going on whether it’s a gigantic battle in the middle of a maelstrom or a game of keep-away with fish people.

The Pirates sequels deserve more credit as movies than they get just on the grounds that the action is so great.

Effects

Just to get it said, I don’t just mean visual effects. I’m going to include that in this section along with the other less controversial elements of the series that are still worth mentioning in the plus category.

Dialogue springs to mind first and foremost. The trilogy is filled with memorable speeches, one-liners, and exchanges. The guys who wrote these movies must love their wordplay, too, because each movie has tons of examples of truly great wordplay. For people who like good dialogue, the Pirates trilogy is a masterclass in turning almost any kind of dialogue, from exposition to casual remark, into a clever bit of gemstone any actor would kill to polish. The relish with which many of the cast members in the trilogy bit into their parts probably has a lot to do with the awesome shit they got to say. Examples that spring to mind immediately are Sparrow’s cuttlefish speech in At World’s End, that first bit of argumentative banter between the two funny English soldiers about the Pearl, and pretty much everything Davey Jones says. Really, though, you can pluck almost any line out and I could tell you why it rules.

The music is also signature, from the main themes from Klaus Bedalt who scored Curse of the Black Pearl to the sweeping score of the sequels by Hans Zimmer, the score of Pirates is memorable at worst and often rousing. My personal favorite is At Wit’s End from At World’s End but I’m sure you have yours.

I do have to mention the photography as well. These movies all simply look great. Again, you can pull examples out of any entry left and right. From Jack’s signature grand entrances in each movie to the death of Cutler Becket in At World’s End, you’d be hard pressed to think of a frame of any of them that isn’t visually interesting, colorful, or just plain beautiful. Any movie that reaches a level of visual poetry at any point deserves a heap of praise and the Pirates films pull it off continuously.

Oh and I suppose I should in fact mention the visual effects cuz shit-damn. Davey Jones is still one of the best examples of using CG elements to back performance in the creation of a character. The fish people and other CG elements are top quality and still hold up, which is probably high praise in its own right even 3 years later. The verisimilitude of CG effects keeps reaching plateaus so anything that holds up in 2011 that wasn’t made in 2011 deserves some marks. And Pirates, especially the sequels, holds up. I bet On Stranger Tides will be a nice upgrade, too.

Faults

So now we come to the section where I’ll talk about where a few things went wrong.

I’ve already mentioned that the conclusion of the Calypso subplot in At World’s End was a bit underdeveloped. More might have been said about her after she turns into a maelstrom. I got that they couldn’t really predict what would happen if they unleashed her, except that they might convince her to turn on Jones and therefore the East India Trade Company armada. That she creates a maelstrom is a bit random, let alone dissolving into crabs or whatever. Then she sort of disappears from the movie. Didn’t love that.

The repeated jokes are sort of the counterpoint to the consistency which I consider to be one of the trilogy’s major strengths. I didn’t need to hear a version of the “rum’s gone” joke 3 times, nor the “deserved that” face slapping. Of course, the mileage on this will depend largely on your tolerance for Depp-as-Sparrow. I like to think I have high tolerance but I like the pathos, slipperiness, and clever words of the character more than the cheap jokiness that is sometimes utilized. This, however you cut it, is largely a nitpick anyway!

I’ve often heard that a big problem with the movies is that there are seldom any real stakes. We always know our heroes are going to make it, especially Jack. I would agree about this in the first movie, where I was actually kind of bored by watching people fight unkillable skelepirates over and over again. That the fish people are similarly unkillable in the sequels is offset by the melancholy undertones represented by the threat to magic and wonder posed by the East India Trade Company under Becket as well as the loss of creatures like the kraken and the death of Elizabeth’s father. The fact that both Jack and Will die, even if they do come back, also presents a bit of a challenge to this notion of stakelessness (what a stupid made-up word, that).

There’s a real sorrow present in the sequels, especially the third one. The funny thing about it is that At World’s End is a bit of a Western. I don’t say this because of the use of the Harmonica theme during the parley (one of my favorite scenes, though) but because Westerns are usually about the end of an era which is exactly what Pirates is about. The threads of regret and fatalism present in it are echoes of the same stuff in Westerns.

Oh shit. I kind of turned what should have been a criticism into another check in the plus category. Oops?

Anyfuckingway.

I believe that more or less concludes my defense of the movies. I mean, anything else would just be a list of stuff I liked rather than a cogent argument. I can’t think of many real flaws. I thought that I could when I planned this article but when I got to it, nothing really came to mind. Maybe I’ll find some for On Stranger Tides, especially considering many of the creative people behind it are different than Verbinski’s crew for the first three.

Still, Pirates as a trilogy prior to this 4th one, is incredibly underrated. There’s a general sense of “sequelitis” that suggests people are kind of supposed to dislike the sequels for major franchises that started out strong. The Matrix, Tranformers, etc all have problematic sequels that are continuously dismissed rather than examined. I think this is lazy and stupid. But then, I tend to believe it more meritorious to discuss even a failed project’s virtues, even if few, than just go around dismissing stuff. Even my venomous review of Let Me In demonstrates this tendency.

For my money, Pirates is a unique and awesome group of movies even without analyzing the perils of sequels and such. It helps that I think the sequels are better movies, or two parts of one better movie maybe.

Hopefully I’ve at least encouraged anyone who stuck with me through all 4000 words of this piece that they are worth revisiting and contextualizing a bit differently than what how the common thread has it. Even if I’ve just reminded you that there are parts of the sequels that kick fucking ass, I guess I’ve done some good. I doubt that I was any good at what I stated as my job originally. If you already disliked the sequels, I doubt anything I’ve said has convinced you otherwise.

Or has it?



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