When Disney released Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl in 2003, few thought the film would actually work. This was Orlando Bloom getting a shot at movie stardom after scene-stealing work as Legolas in Lord of the Rings by way of a pirate movie based on a theme park ride. Pirate movies, historically, had not fared well in quite some time, and the disaster of Cutthroat Island was still fresh in everyone’s minds. Plus, the film was anchored by actor Johnny Depp—far from a movie star at the time, known mainly for starring in smaller, critically acclaimed and/or cult films.
But a funny thing happened—Pirates of the Caribbean was actually good! More than good, the film was great. Audiences flocked to see this buzzworthy portrayal by Depp, were enraptured by the dazzling effects, and swooned for Bloom and Keira Knightley. The movie—which, again, was predicted to be a massive bomb before release—went on to gross over $650 million worldwide, launching a new banner franchise for Disney. But the main reason Curse of the Black Pearl was so great is precisely the reason why I think its next two sequels work (and, yes, are supremely underrated): director Gore Verbinski.
When Verbinski was hired to direct this massive Disney blockbuster, he only had a couple of films under his belt. His calling card, The Ring, wouldn’t hit theaters for another few months, and before that he had mainly worked into the comedy genre with The Mexican and MouseHunt. But what those three films showed was a perfect cocktail of ambition and talent that perfectly suited Verbinski for Pirates, and while he had never worked with such extensive visual effects or set pieces before, his hiring resulted in something almost magical.
So when Pirates of the Caribbean opened to big box office, critical acclaim, and a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Depp, Disney went all-in for the sequel, opting to shoot two sequels back-to-back. Writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio got to work crafting a pair of narratively complex, wildly ambitious follow-ups, and Verbinski returned to get downright weird with it.
That’s the key—Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End are weird movies. They don’t follow the normal trajectory of a sequel. Instead of simply trying to recreate the fun of Curse of the Black Pearl with a new story, Elliott and Rossio wrote new chapters of the same story. They retroactively turn what were no doubt fun flourishes from the first movie into major plot points (like Jack’s compass or the legend of Boostrap Bill Turner). And somewhat miraculously, they work. Oftentimes when this sort of rejiggering is attempted, the “answers” to questions the first movie posed are underwhelming or dumb. But like a good novel, Elliott and Rossio’s answers raise even more questions, allowing the narrative to unwind and fold back in on itself over and over again, keeping the audience guessing as to where this is all headed.
As director, Verbinski had to keep all of this cohesive. Some audiences complained that the sequels were too complicated, too complex. But I’ll take a tightly knotted narrative over a simple, bland story any day—especially in a sequel. Moreover, the complexity of the narrative allows for various character arcs and tracks to play out over the course of both Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End to fulfilling results. Elizabeth Swann goes from damsel in distress to Pirate King; Will goes from shy blacksmith to daring pirate hero; and Jack ever-so-slightly evolves from self-absorbed drunkard to slightly less self-absorbed drunkard.
Speaking of which, the character of Jack Sparrow is also handled tremendously well in the sequels. The best point of comparison is the abysmal fourth film in the franchise, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, which saw a different director at the helm, a smaller budget, and a new cast. That film paints Jack Sparrow as the protagonist, but what Verbinski understood was that Jack Sparrow is not a protagonist—he’s a supporting character. He’s wily and weird and charming, but he’s mostly unchanging and a little of Depp’s goofiness goes a long way. Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End are populated with enough other characters to keep Jack at arm’s length, and the story arc of this trilogy is very much the tale of doomed lovers Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann.