Pirates of the Caribbean 5: When a Franchise Reaches Its Greatest Hits Stage

Studios and talent are sticking with franchises longer than ever, but as Pirates of the Caribbean 5 shows, it can become a reunion tour.

There is one truly hilarious moment in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. Inevitably captured again for his amoral and roguish ways—this time involving a banker’s wife and the robbing of said bank—Capt. Jack Sparrow faces the noose once more. Like so much in the movie, it’s a familiar set-up for a gag that has been well played out, repeatedly, in the Pirates of the Caribbean saga. But there is a new wrinkle. His executioner offers Johnny Depp’s wily Jack the option of trying something new… a French invention.

Before he actually knows where he’s headed, the good captain signs up to experiment with this “guillotine.” Sure enough, there is a daring escape that involves our guylined anti-hero, head locked in a block, spinning frantically through the air as the death machine’s blade ever comes within a hair’s breath of his screaming throat.

It’s actually funnier than that, a crackerjack set-piece that reminds viewers of a similar scene in Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, but is, you know, different. Kind of. And maybe in this sequence, it is. But like so much else of this weekend’s Dead Men Tell No Tales, it tells no tale at all. Rather, it is a remix of a previous aural high. A callback to a sequence you might’ve loved before, but now is merely watchable. There is a nostalgic charm to that too, but like opening a “Greatest Hits” album from an old favorite 14 years on, you aren’t risking finding anything new here, much less exciting. And this increasingly is becoming a problem for franchises this summer as they stumble into their fifth, sixth, or seventh movie if you count all reboots as an unending string of branded repetition.

And when few of the scenes in Pirates of the Caribbean 5 offer moments as fun as the aforementioned, revisiting these familiar album tracks so close together mostly reduces their value instead of elevating it.

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Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a competently mounted adventure that, like the theme park it was originally based on, takes audiences through a series of thrills and imagineered moments that they might fondly recall from their own childhoods. But it loses something in the here and now, mostly because while Depp’s Jack Sparrow never changes, a franchise, in theory, should. Although, this conceit is being challenged by modern studio brands.

In fact, with this current landscape, there is something satisfyingly old fashioned about Pirates. It still evoking the Errol Flynn swashbucklers of yesteryear that have been a staple of the franchise from the beginning, and it also is simply nice to see a story about characters who are not so damn altruistic or spandexed. It is set in a fantasy world, but one where folks are allowed to drink, curse, and steal bankers’ wives and still be considered charming protagonists. Unfortunately, this world which felt expansive and epic in the original three Gore Verbinski movies (including that frankly dour third one), appears small and boxed in almost 15 years later. There are all the familiar elements, but they have been there from the series’ start.

More to the point, nearly every sequence in the movie harkens back to an old standard favorite, whether literally with the brief cameos of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, or in slightly more subtle ways. Filling in for Knightley and Bloom during most of the film’s running time are newcomers Kaya Scodelario and Brenton Thwaites. Thwaites’ character is also of special refrain, because he plays the son of Bloom’s Will Turner and Knightley’s Elizabeth Swann (which might make Jack Sparrow 50-something in the film). Like his father before him, Henry Turner attempts to free Jack from a prison cell on their first encounter, and he’ll be grappling with him the rest of them. But as his own character, there is nothing to Henry other than his earnestness.

Scodelario’s spunky Carina Smyth, meanwhile, is treated as the requisite love interest in a bodice for most of the movie, and is only deepened when riffs on familiar beats about orphans at sea are reprised. Just as last week’s Alien: Covenant felt the need to have (mostly) the same climax as 1979’s original film, Carina is dressed in  Elizabeth Swann attire, right down to scenes of her refusing to believe in ghosts until it’s too late, and then stripping to her underclothes to go swimming toward a beach.

The villain also takes on a familiar spectral shade. As with Geoffrey Rush’s invaluable Hector Barbossa—still shuffling around here—and Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) before him, there is more than a touch of the supernatural about Javier Bardem’s Captain Salazar. Bardem, who has created two iconic visages of evil in the past decade within the not-so-complementary realms of the James Bond franchise and a Coen Brothers movie, is reliably gnarly here. In a thick Spanish accent, he gleefully mumbles his vowels and drools black blood while exclaiming his threats, but he is working from a script that’s been well read.

He’ll find Jack Sparrow. Again. He’ll kill him when he does. Once more. He can’t step foot on land like Jones and misses the feeling of sunlight on his face, like Barbossa. Even his ghost pirates appear strangely lackadaisical about their haunting, devoid of the personality of the moonlit skeletons of the first film or the barnacle-faced nastiness of the ones in the sequels. If you want novelty, settle for the idea that they run across the surface of water, as opposed to marching underneath it.

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As a story, Dead Men Tell No Tales is less an exercise in narrative momentum as it is a shuffle track of swashbuckling and CG-spectacles—with the final one involving an enchanted treasure being immensely skippable. One may wish to damn Depp’s Sparrow for his lack of evolution, but in a season that sees Optimus Prime fighting Decepticons for a fifth outing, or Peter Parker going through the rigors of high school for the fourth time in six movies, it’s not exactly alone in its victory lapping.

This, indeed, showcases a new phenomenon in this modern age of sequels where top talent and craftsmanship (and studio money) go to ensure that a series lives well past its sell-by date with no risk of slowing down. The Pirates of the Caribbean movies are easily some of the biggest and most impactful of the 2000s, and the first film still enjoys a place as a summer spectacle classic if for nothing other than Johnny Depp’s then-inspired character creation that proved more than Oscar worthy at the time of release.

In an age where milking a franchise does not lead to a reduction in resources or producer interest, A-list stars and top-dollar budgets can keep these franchises going well past the point when previous series would fade away due to their creative monotony. So it’s a relatively new sensation to see these same characters and actors, including even Keira Knightley who seemed to happily wave the franchise away a decade ago, return with all the excitement of a band playing 20-year-old hits on their annual summer tour.

For a movie season supposedly defined by excitement, there’s a tangible passivity amongst both the filmmakers and increasingly their audiences. Folks want something new but will likely continue to line up for the same old tunes. It’s an open question how far this Pirates franchise, or many of the others lining up at the multiplex this season, can go coasting off past glories. Just be sure, despite marketing saying “The Beginning of the End,” Jack Sparrow is in as much danger of retiring from the stage as his onscreen family members, Paul McCartney and Keith Richards.