“Dead Men Tell No Tales” Tells the Wrong Tales [Spoilers]
It’s been ten years since audiences last saw Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) at the end of Jerry Bruckheimer’s At World’s End. Aside from its clunky story-telling and over-complicated attempt to wrap up its many loose ends, the worst element of End was its desecration of the Turner and Swann characters.
The two star-crossed lovers from Curse of the Black Pearl were most endearing to us because of their innocence. Will Turner was a valiant albeit humble blacksmith, unaware that he was tied into a curse by the blood of his father. Elizabeth Swann was essentially a Caribbean princess who was also dragged into the salvation of Captain Barbossa’s (Geoffrey Rush) soul through no fault of her own.
By the end of Curse, Will and Elizabeth were finally reunited beside an arched belfry where Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) had just escaped the clutches of the British Navy.
“So this is the path you have chosen?” Governor Swann asks his daughter Elizabeth. “After all… he is a blacksmith.”
“No,” she replies as she removes Will’s plumed hat. “He’s a pirate.”
As they kissed overlooking the Caribbean sea and Jack swam back to captain his beloved Black Pearl, it was the last time a Pirates movie ended in a way that we truly felt some measure of happy resolve. That was 2003. Let’s recap the endings that have accompanied each movie since then…
Dead Man’s Chest: Davy Jones has taken Sparrow prisoner, and Will, Elizabeth, and the crew of the Black Pearl are forced to call upon the reincarnated Hector Barbossa for help. It’s a bizarre cliffhanger that sets up an even more bizarre film.
At World’s End: Will Turner rids the world of Davy Jones, but in doing so, he absorbs his curse. Now he must take up the position as captain of the Flying Dutchman, essentially terminating his relationship with Elizabeth Swann as he can only visit her on land once every ten years. Somehow, he manages to impregnate her in his one off day before his return to the Dutchman, and she gives birth to a son, Henry Turner. Meanwhile, Jack finds that he has a map to the Fountain of Youth.
On Stranger Tides: This is the Fountain of Youth movie. Penelope Cruz is in it as well as carnivorous mermaids and Barbossa again. That is the most that can be said of this film without going into further depth.
The void left by Turner and Swann was heavily apparent in Tides. While Sparrow is the primary protagonist of the franchise, omitting Will and Elizabeth from Tides made the film feel less like a Pirates of the Caribbean installment and more like an episode of Joey post-FRIENDS.
Bruckheimer wanted to change that sentiment with the re-introduction of Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) in Dead Men Tell No Tales. Whereas End left Will “Davy Jones 2.0” Turner and Elizabeth “The Pirate King” Swann a weird, cursed, broken couple, Tales attempted to quite literally humanize them again through their son Henry. It’s a return to the roots of Pirates of the Caribbean, but it’s a shot that falls well short of its mark. While trying to recapture the magic of Curse, it became an annoying parody of itself.
It’s a battle just to choose which plot hole to expose, which impractical scene to debunk, or which motif to question. This isn’t to say the other Pirates movies were totally believable. The franchise centers around evil ghost pirates after all, but the patchwork story-telling and lazy writing that permeates Tales is so clumsy and awkward that it makes the watch very uncomfortable.
In Curse, fighting on an unbalanced, wooden beam in a blacksmith shop creates a fun, slightly corny one-on-one duel for Jack and Will. In Tales, dragging a full-sized bank through a colony by the power of six or so horses is such an embarrassingly impossible prospect that it derails any magic that Depp attempted to inject into the scene.
By and large, Depp as Jack Sparrow once again shone in this film, and yet somehow Jack Sparrow as Jack Sparrow did not. Several of his scenes felt forced, most notably his drunken opening scene inside the bank vault. Peak Jack Sparrow is the insanity that occurs when he is intoxicated, and starting Tales with peak Sparrow was too strong an opening move.
Depp recovered Sparrow’s familiar swagger as the movie progressed, but in many of his opening scenes, it seemed like a Disney World actor had been picked up from Orlando and instructed to play the most extreme version of Jack Sparrow ever. At some point, the character is just becoming far too predictable.
However, Bruckheimer was able to introduce some original content about Jack: a rather unexpected origin story about the pirate and his compass. Played by Anthony de la Torre in his brief Pirates premiere, young Jack stays loyal to his haughty craftiness even before his claim to fame. In his initial defeat of the Spanish captain Armando Salazar (Javier Bardem), the fundamental elements of Jack Sparrow were brought front and center.
Javier Bardem did well enough in his antagonist role as the ghost pirate Salazar, but unfortunately for him, his character is just as unmemorable as the Blackbeard character from Tides. Of all the many cursed pirates we’ve seen in the Pirates franchise, Salazar is easily the least compelling. If Barbossa is the Apollo Creed to Sparrow’s Rocky, then Salazar is Clubber Lang.
Just as the complexity of the Rocky-Creed dynamic increased with each movie, Hector Barbossa transformed from the franchise’s original ghost pirate villain into the franchise’s fourth pirate dad. It was only a matter of time really. Bootstrap Bill and Edward Teague (Will and Jack’s fathers, respectively) had already played a part in the series, and even Will is a father now.
Yet the exhaustingly long revelation was perhaps the most obvious Hollywood reveal since the unmasking of the Winter Soldier as Bucky Brooks. When the astronomer Carina Smith (Kaya Scodelaria) began divulging details about her mysterious father, it became immediately apparent by Barbossa’s behavior that he was indeed the man who left her at the orphanage doorstep as an infant.
But was the paternal component of Barbossa really necessary? The essence of Barbossa was his mischievious stride and arrogant composure like Jack Sparrow without the absurdity. It’s difficult to balance the transformation of a villain, and though it has been successfully accomplished before (i.e. Darth Vader, Severus Snape), Barbossa was not a character that needed redemption. In a story line that primarily revolved around bad guys fighting other bad guys, his heroic sacrifice to save Carina seemed like an unnecessary addition to the film in the desperate hopes of yanking a couple of tears out of the audience.
As Tales tried to rescue the Will and Elizabeth plot from the abyss, it plunged Barbossa into something just as foreign. That is nothing new to the Pirates series however. Whether you consider it character development or character tampering, everyone but Jack Sparrow has been thrown into some kind of plot line washing machine along the way. In the movie’s only fantastic scene, Henry Turner finally returns to his home, having successfully reunited his father and mother, but it leaves us all wondering whether the last ten years have even been worth it.