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.
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl took a gamble: Jack Sparrow, the kind of wacky supporting character who might command eight-or-so memorable minutes of screentime, was one of the stars. But even with his extra screen time, he was never really integral to the plot, so the ploy worked. Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Swann may have been the heart of the blockbuster, but Depp’s Jack Sparrow had all the fun. With his drunken sword fights, half-baked antics that always seem to work, and his lovable roguishness, he’s the real swashbuckling pirate in the franchise, which is exactly what made him the standout favorite for both audience and critics.
In the years after Curse of the Black Pearl, Jack Sparrow became the poster boy for new Pirates movies and a pop culture idol. The effects of the character’s popularity were almost immediate.
All of blockbuster output — from Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes reboot to the anarchy of Heath Ledger’s Joker — seemed tinged with Depp’s now-signature strangeness. In no career was this trend more evident than Depp’s own. From his own performances in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, to Sweeney Todd to Alice in Wonderland, to Mortdecai, to Into the Woods, to The Lone Ranger, it all felt like variations on a Jack Sparrow theme. Even the franchise that spawned him wasn’t immune to the charms, and the lucrative profits, of the Jack Sparrow wave. By the time work began on the back-to-back sequels, it was already clear that Jack was going to serve a more central role in Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End.
In the sequels, the series made room alongside the romantic swashbuckling of Will and Elizabeth for the outsized grandeur and complete ridiculousness of Sparrow himself. Suddenly, we weren’t being toured through a pirate-themed circus world by a likeable outsider, we were being guided by the head clown himself. But thanks to Geoffrey Rush and Bill Nighy, two of the best character actors alive, the charisma of Keira Knightley, the pretty face of Orlando Bloom, and the distinctly strange and specific stylings of director Gore Verbinski, Jack Sparrow was mostly kept in check. Most importantly, throughout all three movies, Sparrow never became the main character. No matter how much screen time he had, the story was still someone else’s.
This was something that Verbinski felt was absolutely necessary for the series to work. In an interview with IGN from 2006. “You don’t want just the Jack Sparrow movie,” said Verbinski. “It’s like having a garlic milkshake. He’s the spice and you need a lot of straight men […] The first film was a movie, and then Jack was put into it almost. He doesn’t have the obligations of the plot in the same ways that the other characters have.”
Then the fourth movie happened. In Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, almost all of the recognizably human elements were stripped away and instead of Verbinski’s style guiding the roller coaster, we got director Rob Marshall, whose style begins and ends with pointing the camera in the appropriate direction.
Suddenly, Jack Sparrow wasn’t the lovable rogue of Pirates of the Caribbean, he was Pirates of the Caribbean. All the characters who helped anchor the movie in some kind of human emotion were gone, and all we were left with was ... Jack, the romantic lead. Even worse, more and more of the movie’s moral center started was placed on Jack’s head.
As tempting as it would be to suggest that Jack is too weird to carry a movie, the truth is the architects of the series never really tried to give him that chance. Instead, Jack Sparrow went from an unpredictable wildcard with a penchant for bad decisions and a lucky streak that could stretch the Atlantic, to a leading man with a funny walk and some unwashed hair. He spends most of On Stranger Tides pining after Penélope Cruz’s Angelica, the daughter of the movie’s villain, Blackbeard. Unfortunately, instead of pulling Angelica up to Jack’s level of ridiculousness, Cruz is instead saddled with a boring, muted character full of clichés.
All of the swagger and confidence that propels Jack in his pirating career is lost in their chemistry-less relationship. The rogue’s appeal in the first three movies is that he’s so obviously unappealing. He’s magnetically charming despite being a bad, gross, and probably irritating person. But when On Stranger Tides waters him down for the romance plotline, all it’s really doing is sanding off the edges that make Jack interesting. By the end of the movie when he has to show he really cares about Angelica, it doesn’t really matter, because he’s no longer the lovable rogue Jack Sparrow, he’s just every other lovelorn adventure-movie protagonist. It makes for a stilted romp, and a waste of one of this century’s most fun movie characters. Though it seems the franchise realized its mistakes, as Sparrow moves back to a supporting role for Dead Men Tell No Tales, the fifth Pirates movie doesn’t have the same energy, and Depp’s heart doesn’t quite seem in it.
Pushing Jack Sparrow into the spotlight turned out to be more than just narrative dullness. Jack Sparrow, and therefore the Pirates series, became inextricably linked to the maelstrom of Johnny Depp. When Depp and Sparrow-mania were at their peak from about 2007 to somewhere around 2012, the franchise was riding high. At World’s End and On Stranger Tides both grossed over a billion dollars internationally. But over the last few years the prospect of Depp leading a movie has become complicated, to say the least.
Part of Jack Sparrow’s not-so-hidden appeal is that he isn’t a great person. The implication that slinks around the series is that while Jack is definitely a scoundrel in the present, he’s also done worse things in the past, but you never really hear about them. And more importantly, he always ends each movie with his heart more-or-less in the right place. As long as the bad parts are hidden, we can just pretend they don’t exist at all. That hasn’t been possible with Johnny Depp.
In June 2016, a People magazine story outlined the allegedly abusive relationship that Depp had with his then wife Amber Heard. While the story focuses on Depp, a leaked recording later revealed that Heard hit Depp as well. In July 2020, more information about the abusive relationship was revealed during a lawsuit Depp brought against British tabloid The Sun, over its label of him as a “wife beater.” During the trial, which at the time of writing is still ongoing, Heard detailed more than 14 instances of domestic abuse by Depp, including headbutting her and at times allegedly threatening to kill her.
The trial and accusations haven’t seemed to tank Depp’s career. As of right now, he maintains his role in the Harry Potter spinoff series Fantastic Beasts, where he plays the wizard villain, Gellert Grindelwald. In fact, Harry Potter original author and Fantastic Beasts screenwriter J.K. Rowling — herself a recent lightning rod for controversy thanks to her public and very frequent transphobic remarks — penned a letter defending Depp and his involvement in the series.
But, to its credit, the Pirates of the Caribbean series moved away from Depp long before this most recent trial. The series seemed to cut ties with the actor in 2018 shortly after the release of Dead Men Tell No Tales — a movie that Heard and Depp apparently had a massive and well publicized fight during, which seemed to end in Depp cutting off the tip of his own finger.
Now, it seems that the series will move on without its star of over 15 years and the character that it’s become most known for — though curiously Jack Sparrow does still appear in the Disneyland ride. The move seems like a smart one and it was certainly made for good reasons, but now the Pirates of the Caribbean series sits in limbo, halfway between a world ruled by Jack Sparrow, and one without him in it entirely.
Since the very first movie, Jack has been the “pirate” part of Pirates of the Caribbean, linking the human characters to the series signature supernatural strangeness. So what exactly is Pirates of the Caribbean without Jack Sparrow? Franchises, like Star Wars, Star Trek, and most successful franchises have universes and themes that link them together. I know you can’t really have a Fast and Furious movie without souped up cars, ridiculous driving, and impossibly large humans doing stunts and fighting. But does that mean Pirates of the Caribbean is just a series about boats and curses? How goofy can you make a supporting character until they get crushed by the legacy of Jack Sparrow?
But for better or worse, Disney is pressing on with the franchise despite all these questions. As of June 2020, the plan for the series seems to go in two separate directions. One involves a seeming reboot headed by Chernobyl writer Craig Mazin, while the other is a spinoff series starring Margot Robbie, who will team back up with Birds of Prey writer Christina Hodson — a movie that already had Robbie doing something along the unleashed lines of Captain Jack.
But even with the series attempting to go in radically different directions, the shadow of Jack Sparrow will likely still hang over its head. The first Pirates of the Caribbean movie is great, but without Jack, there may not be a “Pirates series,” for better and worse.
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