My theory that Elizabeth Swann is the central character of the first Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy gets into some trouble in At World’s End, but it holds together. The reason it gets into trouble is because At World’s End is very much about all three of the lead characters: Elizabeth, Will, and Jack. We’ve been examining motivations in these articles and how the characters change and grow. All three make some monumental decisions in At World’s End that result in my liking the film even more than I did before.
Let’s start with Jack. Though he was unrepentantly selfish all though The Curse of the Black Pearl, he learned to act selflessly by the end of Dead Man’s Chest. In retrospect, we can see him wrestling with that all through the second film. We’re never told exactly why the compass doesn’t work for him in that movie. What’s he torn between? Obviously, saving his hide from the kraken is a huge motivation, but what’s the other choice that the compass is pointing to? What else does he want?
We could make a decent case that it’s Elizabeth, but knowing the specific object isn’t important. From a broad perspective, Jack is waffling between two desires: selfishness and selflessness. That becomes clear at the end of Dead Man’s Chest and he makes the right decision. It’s not necessary to know the particular thing that represented selflessness for him.
In At World’s End, Jack is lamenting that decision. He says so when we first see him in Davy Jones’ Locker, arguing with himself. One of the Jacks wants to be lenient to another Jack who deserves punishment. A third Jack berates the first, declaring that that kind of thinking is what got them all killed in the first place. The rest of the film has Jack continuing to struggle with that. Picking up on the theme of choices and paths from Black Pearl, Jack’s chosen the path of Selflessness and is now suffering for it. The big question for him in the movie is whether or not he’ll back up and choose the other option.
The way that struggle is played out is through Jack’s fear of death. Having experienced it once, he has no desire to go through it again and spends the rest of the movie trying to manipulate his way onto The Flying Dutchman where he can kill Davy Jones and replace him as the immortal ferryman of souls. Of course, by the end, he willingly gives up that desire in order to save Will. He’s chosen Selflessness, and the suffering that goes with it. That’s a hell of a character arc.
Meanwhile, Will seemed to be going nowhere in Dead Man’s Chest. His motivation in Black Pearl was to save a loved one; namely Elizabeth. His goal in Dead Man’s Chest hadn’t changed. He was still all about saving those he loves, though that was expanded to include his dad. However, At World’s End presents him with an interesting choice by making him choose between those two people. Suddenly Will is back in the story.
We shouldn’t take his choosing of Elizabeth too lightly. Bootstrap Bill needs Will much more than Elizabeth does, because she’s become quite self-sufficient over the course of the trilogy. Also, Will’s relationship with Elizabeth has become very rocky as a result of Elizabeth’s choices. The smart, safe choice is for Will to continue trying to save his dad, but that’s not what he does. He picks Elizabeth and asks her to marry him on the spot. I understand why a lot of people don’t care for Will – he spends all of Dead Man’s Chest and two-thirds of At World’s End not being very likeable – but he won me back when – against all reason – he chose a girl over biological family. It’s not as impressive as Jack’s transformation (after all, it’s the choice everyone makes when they fall in love), but it’s a decent character arc.
Elizabeth’s half of the love story is more powerful. Having chosen a life of adventure over safety in Black Pearl and having followed that path to a frightening place at the end of Dead Man’s Chest, Elizabeth – like Jack – is lamenting that decision at the beginning of At World’s End. She’s gone too far, been seduced by the Dark Side, and now she wants to take it back. If they can bring Jack back to life, she thinks she has a shot at doing that.
Oddly enough, it sort of works. A realistic story would force Elizabeth to realize that once you go down a path like that, there’s no turning around. But Elizabeth doesn’t live in a realistic world. She lives in a world of roguishly charming pirates, sea monsters, and ocean goddesses. She’s successful in rescuing Jack and returning to a state of relative innocence.
The word “relative” is important because of course she’s not washed completely clean. Jack never does completely forgive her and she can’t “take back” what she did. But she’s able to come to terms with what she did and have some peace about it, which is a kind of return to innocence.
Once she’s done that, she’s able to move down the path again, but with a proper sense of balance. Having that, she achieves more than any adventurous, pirate-loving person could hope for by becoming the Pirate King herself and leading the nine Pirate Lords and their men into battle against the entire East India Trading Company. Which she then gives up for Will.
The fanboy in me hates that. He’d much rather see a whole series of movies about Elizabeth Swann the Pirate King than know that she wound up on a deserted coast waiting for her man to come home once every ten years. But there’s some touching nobility in that sacrifice that overpowers the fanboy. It’s not very feminist, but it’s awfully human and romantic. She and Will were both willing to make sacrifices for each other: he gave up his dad and she gave up her life of adventure.
Of course, Will didn’t actually end up having to give up his dad at all, but it’s impossible to call the situation unfair. It’s unilaterally tragic. Will wanted to be with Elizabeth more than he wanted to save his dad. That he can’t have it that way isn’t a blessing. If anything, Elizabeth is in the better spot because as her son grows older, she’ll have the option of taking him on all sorts of adventures. But neither she nor Will is getting what they wanted when they chose each other over their other desires. It’s a heartbreaking situation. Or would be if we liked Will more.
As much as I like At World’s End, it’s certainly got some serious flaws. Will’s not being as cool as he could be is only part of them. There are a lot of confusing red herrings for one thing (whether or not Elizabeth is Calypso, all of Will and Jack’s double-crossing, etc.), but the final battle between the pirates and the East India Trading Company also fails in a big way to live up to its promise.
One of the high points of the movie is when Elizabeth rallies the pirates to war with a speech, inspiring them to raise their colors as the music swells. It’s extremely anti-climactic then when the Black Pearl faces the Flying Dutchman in an undeclared clash of champions to determine the winner of the entire battle. It doesn’t feel anti-climactic at the time, because it’s a great contest, but once it’s over and the weather clears, it makes no sense at all for Cutler Beckett to sail his ship alone to meet the Pearl. Flying Dutchman or no Flying Dutchman.
Here’s the thing though. What Cutler Beckett does or doesn’t do isn’t important. The story’s not about him. He’s not even the real antagonist. He’s there to keep the characters moving, but they’re not actually fighting him. The same goes for Davy Jones. Jack and Elizabeth’s antagonists are their own selfishness; Will’s is his father. Everything else is a distraction to drive the plot. Seen that way, it’s much less offensive that the filmmakers chose a shorthand method of finishing off the Cutler Beckett thread. The real story was about Elizabeth’s being in the position to inspire a nation of pirates, not what the pirates did or didn’t do with that inspiration.
And in the end, I still believe this was Elizabeth’s story. All three characters have their big, defining moments in At World’s End, but Elizabeth is the only one who consistently moves forward through all three films. That each of them also opens and closes on her is telling in a huge way as well.
The question is: where’s the series to go without her? Fortunately, Jack hasn’t been as unchanging as I originally remembered. He’s had a story too and that’s what continues in On Stranger Tides. Or should have.
But that’s another article.