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David Thomson on Films: Who Killed Jack Sparrow?

Our awful enslavement to ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ and other movie franchises.

The other day, I was talking to another film critic about the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. This was in the dawn before the fourth film, On Stranger Tides, had opened. My friend said he had seen the three previous films, but he couldn’t recall a single scene or incident from them. “And yet, when we see the fourth,” I suggested, “everything will seem entirely predictable and familiar from the past.”

Oblivion without surprise: I suppose that’s a definition of both the experience of Alzheimer’s and our relationship with that saucy (if not over-sauced) Jack Sparrow. So franchising in the dark amounts to a denial of what was always primary at the movies: shock, the new, magic, outrage, and wonder. More or less, we have taken it for granted for some time now that the Pirates films have steadily diminished in all those things, including drama and interest. But, in the same resolute spirit, we have gone along with them because we recognize that their function is less to entertain us than to make their money—and we try to be conscientious these days about “their” economy, as witness the bizarre mercy shown to our banks. It is a kind of slavery—where once we fancied the cinema was attempting to liberate or express us in an America that was a great wild park made for freedom.

Franchises have always existed and made the life of the film business easier: The Keystone cops were one, as well as the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, and so on. From early on, we were watching those “boys” run variants on their routine. Nothing like character or development was involved, so there was more action than narrative. There were Western and adventure franchises based on everyone from Hopalong Cassidy to swingalong Tarzan. But these long-running adventures were done with the childlike energy of innocence.

The turning-point franchise was 007, a secret agent figure who only made it on screen (in the early ’60s) when a few people saw how the unpleasant, superior, and rather humorless figure in the Ian Fleming novels could become post-modern, hip, self-mocking, and a succession of double entendre jokes. Bond was a decisive step forward in camp. The sex and violence flowered because no one regarded them as real—least of all Sean Connery, who was far from English or upper-class. From Dr. No onward, Connery looked at us and winked. The cinema changed, and it’s hard now to make a serious film about spies or secret agents—which may allow them to flourish more in life.

We all know Pirates of the Caribbean depends on Johnny Depp. He has so many credentials: the casual charm that matches an indifferent age; the insolent looks; the confidence to go very swish; and the authority that understands Sparrow is singing to the audience, not the other characters—because there are no other characters. It’s a measure of this burden that Depp was paid just $10 million for the first Pirates film (what was it called?) and $35 million for the most recent.

This is modest once you realize his films have grossed more than $6 billion all over the world. He might grumble that a lot of that booty is “theirs,” but we can trust Depp and his people have a better deal than the mere up-front pay-out. There will be revenue participation—as guarded as the map to the treasure—and I’d be disappointed in the Depp entourage if its cut didn’t come out of the gross. There are also many spin-offs: books, comics, board games, video games—for all I know, the sale of red bandanas for boys brings Depp a few cents a dozen.

But something else goes with the money. It’s power. There are already plans for a fifth Pirates. They may hang on the size of the fourth film’s first weekend. But they are most desperate over whether Depp will do it. Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom have moved on. But no Pirates raid can start without Depp. This likely means a better deal next time. Actors have every right to be so insecure about their future that they kill their present. But why doesn’t Depp insist on a script and a director next time? Why doesn’t he take it as seriously as he did Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas?

Johnny Depp (48 this June) is as close as we have to a real movie star. He is popular across the board. And he has been talented. If you recall (and his best fans now likely don’t), he was excellent in Edward Scissorhands (1990), What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), Ed Wood (1994), and Donnie Brasco (1997). Since then, his success and his louche demeanor have been accompanied by worse and worse films: like Public Enemies, the dire Alice in Wonderland (he got $50 million for that), The Tourist, and Pirates by the yard. It’s not that no one can remember or treasure anything in these films, it is that Depp’s smirk carries its own instantaneous fade-out effect. Nothing is happening. The Marlon Brando Depp admired might have taught him the lesson: Take the money if you can stomach it, or get out and insist on one or two outrageous projects.

That’s not all. If Depp has been our accomplice in killing Jack Sparrow and pumping him full of candied formaldehyde, what has happened to pirates, or the Caribbean? Piracy was once a hard, cruel trade—it may be still off the horn of Africa. Doug Fairbanks invented the movie pirate, and Burt Lancaster was his true heir in the lovely Crimson Pirate (1952). But generally nowadays, the real pirates are Wall Street landlubbers imitating the anxious look on Timothy Geithner’s face. As for the Caribbean … well, a hotbed of strife, corruption, and indolent tourism where liberty still struggles to breathe let alone speak (Haiti is in the Caribbean) has become a swag typeface under which antique pirates behave like Robert Newton in Long John Silver. Or Ian McShane’s Blackbeard in Pirates film four. For a moment, in Deadwood, McShane came out of the closet of growing older in despair and showed he was a real actor, and frightening. He is now drunk on “Yo-Ho-Ho”ism. A lot has been murdered.

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder

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