Destroy All Monsters: The Long Sad Tale of My Love for PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN
It started abruptly in the summer of 2003. I had not seen Mouse Hunt, but I had seen The Mexican and The Ring. I sort of thought Gore Verbinski was a terrible director. I definitely thought making a movie out of a theme park ride was a terrible idea. I had not seen a good Johnny Depp movie in a decade or more. (No, I don't like Dead Man.)
A week or two passed between the release of Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (good lord, that title is horrifying to this day) and my getting around to seeing it. I wouldn't have bothered at all, except 90% of the people I know told me that not only did I have to, but also that I would love it.
This is a poor strategy with me. When I was 9, my parents had to literally drag me kicking and screaming to a particular movie they thought I might like, my resistance borne entirely of my narcissistic dislike for ever, ever being told how I'd react.
The movie in question? Back to the Future.
Is Pirates of the Caribbean like Back to the Future? In this analogy, hell yes. I came out of that screening of Pirates 1 so in the tank for these movies that I became a Jack Sparrow cosplayer, brought rum (and a lot of cheering) to the opening screening of Dead Man's Chest three years later, and the summer after that (ten years ago this week) declared Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End to be my favourite motion picture of all time.
Of. All. Time.
The vagaries of how that decision was made have very little to do with what you would call quantitative aspects of a film's merits and a lot more to do with something that (thankfully) happens every now and again at the movies, which is: blinding, unapologetic, soul-shaking love. The perfect mix of ephemera, whimsy, personal taste, and go-for-broke gleefulness that, out here in the real world, results in actually falling in love, with actual other persons.
I mean, in At World's End's case, I was kind of kidding. See above re: narcissism; it's occasionally highly appealing to have a thoroughly contrarian opinion at the heart of your rule set. It sets you apart, in a way that having Return of the Jedi listed as your favourite film on Letterboxd never can. Citizen Kane bores me precisely because it has enthralled so many others, and I can wax poetic about all of the Star Warses (yes, even those Star Warses) till I'm blue in the face, but I'd rather tell you why the Special Editions are a crime against film heritage and human history than why, say, Han stepping on Jabba's tail is stupid. It is stupid, but so is Han, and so is Jabba. Let's prioritize.
In Pirates 3's case, I was also, kind of, not kidding. That movie sings at a very personal vibration for me, sure, but it is/was also, for 2007 anyway, the state of a weird kind of art form which happens to be my particular stock-in-trade. And for the blockbuster set, it's about as auteurish as I'd argue it's possible to be. (Consider the crabs in Davy Jones' locker, friends. Consider the crabs.)
If I came out of The Ring thinking Verbinski sucked, I came out of World's End wanting to write a book about him. He's as close to a perfect craftsman of American motion pictures as currently exists, I'll argue, a Spielberg for the 21st century. Have I seen A Cure For Wellness? Hellllll no. But Rango's a goddamned treasure (or at least, a better Pirates 4 than Pirates 4, being as that it is, entirely and certainly, Jack Sparrow's fever dream from the moments he is baking in the non-sun at the end of the world in Pirates 3), and with all deference to its enormous racism, I'll defend large pieces of The Lone Ranger till I'm blue in the face.
Or if you have to pin a single point on it, look at the way Verbinski, as a filmmaker, stages and executes the maelstrom sequence in Pirates 3. We talk a lot about clarity of action in modern blockbusters - the nadir of this being, of course, Michael Bay - but rarely sing Verbinski's praises for his accomplishments in the arena.
In the maelstrom sequence, two pirate ships are funnelling down to the bottom of a sinkhole in the sea. Multiple crew members are swinging from ship to ship in combat. We are following the actions of, perhaps, ten principal characters throughout this period. One guy dies. One couple gets married. An apotheosis is found for the fucking monkey. And at no point in any of this enormous accretion of onscreen detail do we ever lose track of who we are watching, where they are going, or what they are trying to accomplish.
The sequence is 45 minutes long. It's a goddamned symphony.
And let's not elide the fact that for all the degree to which Jack Sparrow gained the lion's share of the pop cultural familiarity, the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy was the first American blockbuster series whose protagonist was, without apology, a girl. POTC begins and ends with Elizabeth, and it is her story that diagrams the movement of change throughout the three Verbinski films. She has the most agency, even when she is being rescued from haunted pirate ships; and she ascends the furthest, to the point where she is, genuinely, the "king" of all pirates on the planet. It's not nothing.
Anyway. Verbinski bailed at that point - and realistically, so too should have Depp, Bruckheimer, and Disney - and we got gifted a Pirates 4 that was most certainly not Rango, and now a Pirates 5 (as of this writing, I haven't seen it yet) which is probably not Kon-Tiki (which, by the way, is well worth your time).
Look, I own Disney stock, and I'm all for them making money. (You might hate Pirates 3 and Pirates 4 and all the others too, but each of these suckers till now made a bloody fortune, at around a billion dollars' each in worldwide grosses for each of the sequels.) And if Dead Men Tell No Tales turns out to be the last one - which, by all evidence, it will be - then at worst, the Pirates franchise only aped the Indy franchise by going two films over its stale-date. (Yes: I am pre-judging Indy 5. Sue me.)
But I'll miss the sick fun of it all, from the early days, when the leading motion picture studio in the world (then, in the pre-MCU, pre-Star Wars days, only on its ascent) made a massive franchise meal out of a movie about literal pirates and the idea that corporatization is an inherently bad thing. That freedom was still out there, somewhere between the wind and the sea. That all you needed was a tall ship and a star to steer her by. A pirate's life for me.
Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on Letterboxd.