Why I Believe Pirates of the Caribbean Does Not Satisfy
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides fails
because the filmmakers leaned too heavily on an amusing character
to the exclusion of what makes movie-going worthwhile.
by Scott Nehring When Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was initially released, expectations were not high. It was a huge-budget movie based on a theme-park ride populated by pirates. What should have been a flashy-but-hollow cinematic experience turned out to be a marvelous, intricately crafted movie worthy of praise. Johnny Depp’s inventiveness as the film’s most memorable element, the staggering, sly trickster Jack Sparrow, along with a well-tuned and layered narrative by screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio established The Curse of the Black Pearl as a firm foundation for a film franchise.
What was truly remarkable about the film was its odd story structure. If asked, most people claimed the hero was Jack Sparrow (“There should be a Captain in there somewhere.”), not only of the first film but also of the entire original trilogy. He was not. The story’s hero was Will Turner.1
The Curse of the Black Pearl centers on Will’s attempt to woo Elizabeth Swann. In the opening scenes, he bumbles while in her presence and is restricted from courting her because of his own moral code and social status. By film’s end he has adopted the pirate lifestyle and, thereby, won her heart. In the broader story structure of the full trilogy, Will’s drive to reunite and save his father becomes the driving force of the storyline. Only when this has been completed are the three films at an end.
Many audience members were put off by the complicated plots of the second and third Pirates movies. As the trilogy progressed, Will and Elizabeth were pushed further into the background, made subordinate to Depp’s powerful Sparrow performances. The films’ convoluted plots were caused by this unnatural sharing of the spotlight.
In Black Pearl, Will remained firmly affixed at story’s center. He was a boring lead, however, so the character of Sparrow was pumped up; a situation that worked as long as Will’s story was central. The more prominent the Sparrow character became, the less meaningful, concise, or enjoyable the film’s story became.
Sparrow’s gaining of the heroic spotlight not only helped to derail the earlier films, it also created the failure of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. True, the problematic script has numerous issues, but I believe the lack of a relevant hero is the missing cornerstone which allowed the whole story to cave in upon itself.
Captain Jack Sparrow is not a hero; rather, he falls within the secondary, rival archetype. Sparrow is Han Solo to Will Turner’s Luke Skywalker. It’s common to see this rival character add flash and moral confusion to a storyline in the filmmaker’s attempt to prop up a rather straight-forward, if not down-right dry, heroic lead.
While secondary characters like Sparrow and Solo are attractive, fun, and charismatic, they only work because they have the hero posing as the straight man. Without the hero’s steadfast morality, the secondary loses the comparison that makes him shine. He becomes a trickster with no one to trick, and in On Stranger Tides, Will and Elizabeth are inexplicably missing. The audience is left with Jack Sparrow as the central heroic figure.
The whole point of Captain Jack Sparrow is that he is devilish. He is a liar, a thief, and a scoundrel who does not retain any redeemable qualities other than his charm and humor. In the hero’s role, he provides the audience with no moral lesson, which is the chief responsibility of the hero character. 2
Elliot and Rossio attempt to correct this fundamental problem by making Sparrow more “good” in On Stranger Tides; for example, the film opens with Sparrow going to great lengths to save a friend and crew mate. This transformation into “good guy” can’t last, however, if they want to keep the basic essence of Sparrow’s character; he is, after all, a selfish thief. The kudos of any good deed he is forced to perform are reduced by the ignominy of the evil deeds he must do to remain consistent with his established character.
The moral vacuum created by Will and Elizabeth’s absence simply cannot be filled by a scheming pirate.
An attempt to patch this gaping hole was made by the obtuse insertion into the storyline of a young, steadfast clergyman, Phillip, and a young, frightened mermaid, Syrena. These two characters, however, are not brought into the story until all other characters and motivations have been firmly established, which makes their arrival and eventual love story seem foreign. Furthermore, Philip’s spouts of dialogue regarding faith and morality are the film’s only tilt toward any ethical standards, and with those proclamations quickly and easily dismissed by his pirate captors, any lesson or meaning within the story soon comes to an end.
Screenwriters Elliot and Rossio swapped the original roles of Will Turner and Jack Sparrow: Will was the hero without any flash; if Black Pearl had been only about him, moviegoers would have been unable to sit through the film; Sparrow breathed life into the story and made it consumable. Despite Depp’s fun performance in On Stranger Tides, Jack is a poor heroic character who can’t hold together a watchable movie (eventually his deviousness must overwhelm his better qualities), therefore Elliot and Rossio created Philip (an early-Will Turner-type heroic character) to perform the responsibilities of the traditional hero. Since Philip raises the moral issues and attempts to save the damsel in distress (Syrena, held captive by the pirates), he becomes the story’s stand-in hero.
A hero can be a weak character but a weak character can’t be a hero. The heroic role serves a definite purpose. The hero is the driver of the narrative, and he does so through the film’s moral argument (“and the moral of the story is . . .”). The hero’s firm and upright beliefs are the central philosophy of the storyline; that is why at some point within the story the hero is willing to sacrifice himself, even his life, for an ideal—something Sparrow never does.
At some point within a story the audience needs to appreciate the hero’s ethical stance. This connection on a moral level cements the relationship between hero and audience. Without a moral understanding, the audience may be amused by a character but they will never be moved by him.
Neo from The Matrix, Forrest Gump, and the mythological Perseus appear to have little in common. One is a computer geek, the second a slow-witted runner, and the third a Greek warrior—about as different as men can get. But one thing ties each of these characters together: they are all heroes.
Each of these characters is the center of their own story and performs heroic deeds which transform them from a common person into a heroic figure. Through their transformations, their worlds are also changed for the better. Neo grows from a grumbling geek with a dead-end job to become the savior of all mankind. Forrest Gump grows from an ostracized, developmentally-disabled child into a millionaire shrimp tycoon. Perseus begins as an exiled child and becomes a grand hero foretold by prophecy. Each of these characters, despite their differences, share backgrounds and personal traits.
At the center of a story is a singular, identifiable heroic character, shades of the same person whether named Jack Ryan (The Hunt for Red October), Annie Sullivan (The Miracle Worker), or Chance the bulldog (Homeward Bound). Despite country, color, class, or gender, the hero retains the same traits and performs the same tasks at roughly the same places in each story told.
Traits of the Hero
Like The Great Story structure discussed earlier, every hero has an identical framework. Traits and actions of the hero identify him as heroic in our collective understanding. … Not all traits are seen in every hero, but a sufficient number of them will be found—like a character-trait buffet; a little from here, a little from there, and the hero emerges. Here is an examination of each of these traits. …
2. Chapter 20, “The Great Story,” of You Are What You See reveals the basics of the hero’s character arc and purpose. Excerpt:
Act One establishes the purpose of the story…. We are introduced to the hero, villain, any surrogates, and the world in which the story takes place. … Act Two sees the hero as he begins his journey …. He must learn the rules, get to know the other players, develop his skills and abilities, then challenge the villain. In Act Three, his heroic stature is tested and it appears he is not a hero after all, only another regular guy. His earlier successes are eclipsed by a series of failures. Act Four shows the hero finally heroic and the villain is ready to fight. At the end, the moral of the story is exemplified in the life of the hero.