5 Ways to Prep
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
By George Rose
May 25, 2017

This is just Johnny Depp on a normal day.

There was once a time when the Pirates franchise was considered quality. And by “once a time” I mean “there was only one time.” That time was in 2003 when the first film, The Curse of the Black Pearl, came out. It blew away expectations and opened to $46 million, proving it was possible to turn a lame Disney ride into a movie. It continued to shock the world and eventually earned more than $300 million domestically and over $650 million worldwide. Exceeded expectations like that are what make following movies so much fun. Yay for Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley for all becoming ridiculously famous as a result!

And then in 2006 the sequel, Dead Man’s Chest, came out and broke the opening weekend record with $135 million. The movie wasn’t as good as the first but went on to earn $423 million domestically and over $1 billion worldwide, one of the first few films to break that barrier. These are the numbers a sequel to a beloved first film should earn if they hope to impress me, which I imagine all movies want to do. 2007 is where things get tricky, though. With the third Pirates, At World’s End, we have a few different factors we’re working with...

1) This is the third movie in a franchise at a time when the first sequel does well but the trilogy ender fails to achieve the same success, either critically or financially or both. There are several examples of this such as Spider-Man, Shrek, X-Men, Transformers and The Matrix. All those trilogies are from the new millennium and performed similarly; the first does better than expected, the second does better than the first, the third suffers from fatigue and declining quality and earns less than the second. This wasn’t the early ‘90s when movies opened small and earned five times that. The new average was a 3.0 multiplier, anything over $500 million worldwide was a success and $1 billion was the ceiling for all but a few.

2) Pirates wasn’t your traditional sequel. Most movies took three year breaks between films. Nowadays, you get two-year breaks because people grow up so fast with the internet and your target audience can quickly evolve past their prior interests. However, in the early 2000s, a new idea was born: film sequels together. The Matrix had done it. Lord of the Rings did it but for the whole trilogy. You save on production costs that way, but you are stuck with whatever quality the third is bound to produce without time to evaluate the performance of the second. It worked for Lord of the Rings but didn’t for the Matrix. Pirates 2 kinda blew so Pirates 3 also sucked. It made a bunch of money but failed to crack $1 billion. That’s less than Pirates 2, contracts were up and the franchise ends.

… but wait, there’s more! That was soooooo 15-20 years ago. We’re in the 2010s now! Franchise reboots and prequels and “fourth films that have different casts than the first three but it’s not a reboot or prequel but distant cousin kind of sequel.” Thanks to the boom in international markets and a new generation of moviegoers, Hollywood keeps bringing back old things and tries to make them new. The fourth Pirates, On Stranger Tides, came out in 2011 with Johnny Depp the only star returning. It earned “only” $241 million domestically, the lowest total of the four, yet somehow earned over $1 billion worldwide. Transformers 4 proved the fourth-quel theory as it was also the only movie in its series not to make more than $300 million domestic but still made over $1 billion. Thanks, China, for saving the US economy AND Hollywood from destroying itself! Foreign markets save the day!

Except they have poor taste. Pirates 4 was crap. So was Transformers 4. Doesn’t matter. China loves Hollywood as much as I love Chinese food. Both are bad for you but we still shove it down our own throats. But with the internet we don’t just get a global marketplace, we get global criticism. Audiences hated Transformers of the Caribbean 4: The Curse of the Desperate Franchise Relaunch. Just complete and total trash. But IMAX and 3D made older franchises cool again and we all paid the price, financially and emotionally. Yet somehow executives weren’t ready to give up. Transformers hired a team of writers to plot out a cohesive storyline for several future films with the first of this “writer’s room” sequels coming out in a few weeks. Pirates 5 went a different way. They chose to bring back the old cast while launching a new younger one. Two franchises from similar paths finally find themselves at a fork in the road.

So, what we have here are not just two blockbusters in the making but a battle royale of franchise fifth-quels. Which will win? In one corner, we have Pirates and the return of the series regulars. In the other corner, we have Transformers and the writers room. Both fourth films opened between $90-100 million. Both earned between $240-245 million domestically. Both earned between $1-1.1 billion worldwide. I have prepared you for the battle and will talk more about it when Transformers 5 comes out. For now, all I have left to do is prepare you for how to possibly enjoy the nonsensical complexities of the inevitably terrible Pirates 5. Uuuugggghhhhhh……

1) Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007)

Since the fifth Pirates is bringing back the characters that left off in the third film, it only makes sense for At World’s End to be my sole recommendation from the franchise. The fourth film was more of a one-off, like just another random James Bond entry from the 007 franchise. Pirates 1 introduced us to Depp’s Jack Sparrow, a famous pirate. Will Turner (Bloom) is a poor guy that loves a rich girl Elizabeth Swan (Knightley) and together they get sucked into the mystical world of pirate ghosts, led by Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush, another franchise regular). Pirates 2 was bigger and louder, introduced Davy Jones as the villain and Will Turner’s father as a pirate zombie fish mutant thing, Swan sacrificed Sparrow to the Kracken monster, and was “to be continued…” leading into the third film. Again, I assume Pirates 4 is irrelevant but Pirates 5 might refute that in the end. We shall see.

What you’ll likely need to know is from Pirates 3. To defeat Davy Jones and redeem themselves, the crew need to bring back Sparrow from dead. They do this with help of Barbossa, who is already back from the dead. Ummmm, okay. Sparrow comes back and all the pirates of the world unite to defeat Davy Jones. However, to do this, Turner must sacrifice himself to become the new Davy Jones and spend ten years away at sea, leaving behind his new wife and child and ending the trilogy. You need to know this because Orlando Bloom is back for Pirates 5 and his son is all grown up as one of the film’s lead characters. We don’t know in what capacity Bloom’s undead captain will come back as or how his return will go down with Knightley but we know it all comes full circle here in Pirates 5… if you even still care after five films.

2) Cutthroat Island (1995)

I was ten years old when this came out and I probably haven’t seen it in over 15 years. What I remember is loving this movie. It was pirates, treasure hunts, ships at war and a strong lead female. Even at that young age, I was very aware of Hollywood status and knew Geena Davis was a star (1988’s Beetlejuice, she won an Oscar in 1989 for The Accidental Tourist, 1991’s Thelma & Louise, 1992’s A League of Their Own). I loved her and I loved Cutthroat Island. What I didn’t know at the time was anything about movie stats. I do remember hearing ramblings that ocean-set films like this and Waterworld were “costly bombs” at the time but I didn’t know exactly what that meant. We didn’t have the internet in 1995.

My recommendation here serves two purposes. The first is because I remember loving the movie. It was fun, action packed, featured empowered women and was about pirates. I wasn’t aware it cost almost $100 million to make but only earned $10 million. Numbers like that make it more impressive that only eight years later Disney would risk $140 million budget on Pirates of the Caribbean. The second reason I recommend this is because it remains a cautionary tale of how you can’t rely on a child’s inherent love of pirates or the status of someone’s celebrity to guarantee success. Pirates 1 was lightning in a bottle, Pirates 2 rode the wave higher, Pirates 3 crippled a franchise and Pirates 4 took advantage of 3D and international markets. Pirates 5 is out of excuses. If it doesn’t make good money, like Depp/Disney’s Alice in Wonderland 2, then Johnny Depp and his merry band of pirates are done in Hollywood.

3) Sleepy Hollow (1999)

Poor quality is not the only contributing factor to the Pirates franchise decline. Johnny Depp’s star power isn’t exactly what it used to be. He went from heartthrob in the 1980s to budding superstar in the 1990s to $20+ million earning worldwide megastar A-lister in the 2000s to lazy, desperate, broke, wife-beating has-been in the 2010s. It kinda sucks when it takes over two decades to become a global phenomenon and only a few years to fall from grace. It also sucks when you’re Amber Heard, a young actress that I never liked but never wished ill upon; she had the great misfortune of trying to get ahead in Hollywood by marrying Depp, fell victim to his domestic abuse and revealed to the world that one of our iconic actors was, in fact, a horrible douchebag.

Even though I am not inclined to support the prior works of a man that hurts women, it’s my job here to prepare you for how to best enjoy watching a movie that happens to star said wife-beater. Depp was once beloved and there is plenty in his filmography still worth watching, my favorite of which is Sleepy Hollow. It’s a Tim Burton retelling of the classic Headless Horseman story. It has just the right amount of horror, humor, gothic romance and Tim Burton twisted-ness! Even though it has nothing to do with pirates, it has plenty to do with the undead, which Pirates 5 is sure to have lots of. You may want to choose another Depp classic that you know will remind you of your love for him but Sleepy Hollow is my favorite.

4) Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (2013)

What we know from trailers, for better or worse, is that Johnny Depp is back as Jack Sparrow in Pirates 5. We also know he is fighting an enemy from his youth, Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), and has the help of two new youngsters, Will Turner’s son Henry and Henry’s love interest. We don’t know how Bloom and Knightley will be back as Will and Elizabeth but we know they are returning. Lastly, we have a base understanding of the plot: Salazar’s crew has escaped from the Devil’s Triangle (aka the Bermuda Triangle) and Sparrow must acquire the Trident of Poseidon to stop him. As a Greek man with a beta fish named Poseidon in his bathroom, I can tell you that this kind of stuff is right up my alley.

You want family-friendly mythology set on the cursed seas of the Bermuda Triangle? Well the Devil’s Triangle and the Sea of Monsters both refer to the Bermuda Triangle, so both movies have what you want. In the Percy Jackson franchise Percy is the demigod son of Poseidon. In Pirates 5, it’s Poseidon’s Trident that Sparrow seeks. I’m sure they are drastically different versions of the true Greek legend that is Poseidon but, regardless, both franchises take their ships to the Bermuda Triangle which has great potential for blockbuster action. Percy Jackson may not be the best book adaptation but I’m not given many Greek mythology tales to choose from so I watch what I’m offered. The Percy Jackson movies are fun and entertaining, and a good way to prep for Pirates 5 with the family.

5) 300: Rise of an Empire (2015)

Though Percy Jackson has Greek mythology, the 300 films are literally about Greeks. Sure, they are a fanciful recounting of Greek history but they are not about the mythology. That’s okay, each movie can prep you differently. Percy Jackson shares the Bermuda Triangle with the Pirates movies but nothing can prepare you for ship battles at sea quite like the 300 sequel, Rise of an Empire. Maybe the mystical isn’t what draws you to Pirates but rather watching two ships and hundreds of men sink their way to the bottom of the ocean on the big screen.

If you’ve seen 300, then you know Greeks fight like beasts on the battlefield. What I didn’t know before seeing the sequel was how well we fought at sea. Rise of an Empire showcases several creative ways that heroes on boats are just as badass as those with a sword. They can use the weather to their advantage and surprise even the most knowledgeable Naval aficionado with offensive and defensive maneuvers never seen before on film. Both 300 films are wildly entertaining and visual feasts, with the sequel utilizing 3D to great effect. The Pirates producers should have watched Rise of an Empire before they started filming. With Pirates 5 currently drifting around 30% on Rotten Tomatoes, they would have been wise to up the ante on their aquatic action sequences since the plot is sure to be as complicated and uninteresting as ever.

The bar is set high for Pirates 5 with fantasy, mythology and battleship battles all having been done before and done well. Where Pirates 5 may eventually fail to compete against Transformers 5 for the “Battle of the Fifth-quel” might be in starpower. Depp’s recent celebrity scandal could hurt him and turn this sequel into the next Alice in Wonderland 2 (the first made $1 billion worldwide and the second couldn’t crack $300 million). Transformers 5 doesn’t have that obstacle but Pirates 5 promises the return of two franchise favorites. Only time will tell. Until then, have a great Memorial Day weekend and feel free to follow me on Instagram (RoseByAnyName)