With the Pirates of the Caribbean movies more accessible than ever, and a summer season void of blockbusters, this month we’re diving deep into Disney’s swashbuckling series. Grab your cutlass and hoist the colors: here be Polygon’s take on all things PotC.
The Curse of the Black Pearl, the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, more than delivers on a promise of swashbuckling high-seas action, but a surprisingly potent strain of horror runs through the whole thing. The villains, it turns out, are undead pirates who become skeletons under the moonlight. The curse is explored to its goriest extent when our heroes plant a bomb inside one pirate’s body.
All three movies Gore Verbinski’s directed since his final Pirates movie, 2007’s At World’s End, all possess a similar grotesque grandeur, and spin relatively simple premises into phantasmagorias. A Cure for Wellness, in which a man investigates a mysterious rehabilitation center, plunges into the well of gothic horror. Rango becomes a full-blown Western after a pet lizard gets lost in the desert. The Lone Ranger uses a pastiche of spaghetti Westerns as a lens to address Westward expansion and the mythologizing of American history.
But the films may not have happened if Verbinski hadn’t jumped from The Curse of the Black Pearl to second and third Pirates. Backed by Disney, the director and his franchise evolved — less like Pokémon, becoming bigger and stronger versions of the same thing, than the drastic transformation of Tetsuo in Akira. Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End are blown-up, bizarro versions of the movie from which they spawned, having exploded from a rebellious one-off action movie into a gigantic, uncontrollable mass of mutated cinematic flesh. They’re both breathtaking, and still unlike any blockbuster that followed in their wake.
Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End are springboards into the grand wilderness of Verbinski’s imagination. His three films leading up to The Curse of the Black Pearl are a little tamer, in that their unusual elements, like the flickering around Samara in The Ring or the sheer number of crosses tucked into The Mexican, are wrangled in service of the story rather than given free range. But like the first Pirates movie, they have an undeniable undercurrent of eccentricity that’s ultimately what’s most memorable about them. In a movie like Mouse Hunt, Verbinski goes to great lengths to make a hunted mouse’s retaliatory traps terrifying. Like The Curse of the Black Pearl, the movie is more often categorized as one thing — in this case, slapstick comedy — but could easily be classified as horror, too.
The second and third Pirates movies forgo that “but.” Instead, Verbinski begins with the strange details — At World’s End opens with a child being hanged, which seems inconceivable in Disney’s family-friendly world — and molds a show-stopping universe around them. Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, who penned the first four Pirates films, are the greater architects of the world, but find a perfect partner in Verbinski and his fascination with body horror, mortality, and revisionist history. His signatures flesh out the universe of the films, too, as some scenes are what I would call “pure Gore.” The scene in At World’s End where the Black Pearl is transported across a desert by millions of crabs was Verbinski’s idea, drawing from the director’s love of Hayao Miyazaki’s work and his desire to break free from “the rules of live-action filmmaking.”
The Curse of the Black Pearl was loosely based on the Disney park ride Pirates of the Caribbean, which first debuted in 1967. The sequels, luckily, aren’t. Though still full of high-spirited action, they turn the first film’s relatively contained nature into a small part of a much greater, much more magical mythos. Suddenly, there’s a much broader, deeper context to the piracy at hand than just two rival captains, taking into account the reach of the East India Company and the colonialism of the time. Plus Dead Man’s Chest’s half-fish, half-man sailors and At World’s End’s jaunt into purgatory make Barbossa and his crew’s curse seem like a case of seasonal allergies.
The two films also take place in a fleshed-out world without hewing to the common strategy of leaving things open-ended for possible sequels. Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End were developed concurrently. The fourth and fifth movies in the franchise, which Verbinski didn’t direct, were stabs at moving the franchise onward rather than telling a concrete, contained story, and they clearly suffered for it. On Stranger Tides, which soft reboots the franchise with new lead characters, is particularly weak — there’s too much time spent trying to pump up new characters rather than getting them from point A to point B in an interesting way — whereas Dead Men Tell No Tales benefits from the way it reaches back to the first film to wrap up Barbossa’s story.
Left to his own devices, Verbinski used astronomical budgets (the second and third Pirates movies cost $225 million and $300 million, respectively) to explore his visual and thematic curiosities to their fullest extent, staging the most outrageous sequences possible, and infusing every moment with at least one memorably gruesome detail. Davy Jones in Dead Man’s Chest and World’s End is outmatched in sheer size by the Kraken he commands, but his method of killing people by stuffing his tentacles into their facial orifices is truly horrific. Even one of his minor crew members, Hadras, is made unforgettable by the way his head, essentially a hermit crab, detaches and moves independent of his body. These details were notably born from Verbinski’s unwillingness to go along with the original script’s idea of having Davy Jones’ crew be ghosts, like the villains in the first movie. Verbinski wanted them to be physical creatures, hence their moist, rotting forms.
The exaggeration of that fantastical-but-tangible quality is what makes Verbinski’s big setpieces so striking. The climactic fight in Dead Man’s Chest, a sequence in which Hadras’ disembodied capabilities are revealed, puts Jack Sparrow, Will Turner, and James Norrington on a giant spinning wheel. Concurrently, Davy Jones’ crew — the physical manifestation of the anxiousness about mortality that permeated the first movie — chases after Jack’s. Two prizes — a chest and the key that opens it — are in play, and they pass constantly from one set of hands to another. It’s a frantic, kinetic sequence, and a standout in a movie that also includes the Kraken absolutely bodying several ships, as well as a scene where captured crew members must devise a way to escape from giant cages made of bones and suspended in the air — Dead Man’s Chest is the all-traps version of Mouse Hunt.
At World’s End ups the ante by expanding on the historical context, shifting Davy Jones into a secondary-antagonist role and making British colonialism — as embodied by Cutler Beckett and his East India Trading Company — the thing all the pirates are rallying against. “I felt it important that the third film was the end of an era — like in a postmodern Western where the railroad comes and the gunfighter is extinct,” Verbinski said in an interview about the third film. “The myths are dying.” That’s a huge, amorphous idea to tackle, but it takes shape through Verbinski’s penchant for turning old genres inside out. To find a postmodern Western in the depths of a franchise born from a theme-park ride speaks to the amount of ambition the director layers over his pop material.
The big scenes in At World’s End’s are, accordingly, gloriously ridiculous, and turning an entire ship upside-down in order to escape from Davy Jones’ Locker is just the kickoff. Speaking of the scene where Jack hallucinates a gaggle of versions of himself, Verbinski has said that the movies’ tight timetable didn’t leave much time for studio oversight or interference. “These movies were made 10 months apart, so we had the luxury that nobody really knew what we were doing. So we didn’t have any resistance.” Nowhere is that more clear than in the film’s final monstrous battle. The fight to decide the fate of the pirates is held in the middle of a monstrous storm summoned by a sea goddess, locking ships in combat as they’re dragged through a giant whirlpool. A marriage, several major character deaths, and a heart transplant take place in the middle of it all.
As sprawling as their universe becomes, the first two Pirates sequels are cohesive visions. The lore the films develop, and the tangents they go on, only serve to make the stories richer, rather than leaving loose ends dangling at the end. Dead Man’s Chest is just about retrieving a few key items. At World’s End is about a war. And yet they feel so much bigger thanks to the amount of detail in each. Verbinski is the rare modern filmmaker crafting epics with minimal interference and all the resources he needs. It seems as though getting his outsized passion projects funded is only a concern because the special effects needed to bring his full vision to life are so expensive.
The Curse of the Black Pearl has its share of original, uncanny ideas percolating under the surface and occasionally bursting through the seams, as in the scene in which Elizabeth is introduced to the skeletal nature of the Black Pearl’s crew, whizzing around the ship like a pinball as ghoulish faces grin and grimace around her. But Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End give Verbinski the sandbox to imagine the extremes he’s so fond of, fleshing out an entire world rather than playing in one fraction of it.
And today, they feel like a blockbuster subgenre all their own, with such specific preoccupations and such prodigious scope and action. The closest comparisons come from Eastern cinema, each film playing like a cross between Bong Joon-ho’s genre-bending in The Host and Parasite and the colossal, colorful nature of Chinese blockbusters like The Wandering Earth and Monster Hunt. But Verbinski is in a league of his own, and the Pirates movies are the first significant look at what he’s capable of when unleashed.
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