As we get closer to On Stranger Tides, I thought it might be interesting to revisit the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films for some context. Though Stranger Tides is the first of three more Pirates movies, reports are that it’s not beginning a new trilogy. Each of the films will stand on its own without directly leading into the next. I’m curious to see how audiences will receive that in comparison to the first set. Most everyone loved Black Pearl, opinions were divided about Dead Man’s Chest, and At World’s End was generally hated. The new films are designed so that each stands or falls on its own.
Personally, I like At World’s End a lot, but it took me two or three viewings to figure out what was going on. Or – more accurately – how much I needed to care about everything that was going on. The world of the Pirates movies is so thought-out and complex that by At World’s End there are so many characters with so many unique motivations and agendas that it’s difficult to keep track of them all. Which is why so many people threw their hands up and declared that it wasn’t worth it.
I don’t really blame them. When even the jilted love-interest of the female lead in the first movie has become a fully-realized, developing character with his own story arc, some overload is to be expected. The trick is to realize who the protagonists really are and follow her (oops, gave it away) story. Everyone else exists only to support her story, regardless of how interesting and diverting he may be. Jack, I’m looking at you.
Curse of the Black Pearl opens on Elizabeth Swann and At World’s End closes on her. It’s pretty clear to me that the trilogy is about her. I’m not saying though that seeing the films from that perspective is going to fix everyone’s problems with them. A lot of people simply don’t care for Elizabeth – I don’t understand that, but I acknowledge it’s true – so identifying her as the main character is only going to make those folks less satisfied with the films. So I’m not trying to defend the first three Pirates films as universally great cinema (even though I think they are); I just say that if they’re going to be criticized, they should be criticized for what they are: Elizabeth Swann movies.
Part of the trouble in identifying whose movies these really are is that it’s impossible to tell until the entire trilogy is done. Again, this is because all the characters are so fleshed out that you don’t know who to focus on. Black Pearl’s opening on Elizabeth doesn’t really tell us anything. Harry Potter isn’t about Dumbledore just because he’s the first person to show up onscreen. And even once Black Pearl is finished, you can’t tell that Elizabeth was the primary antagonist.
Judging from Black Pearl alone, Pirates of the Caribbean has three main characters: Elizabeth, Will Turner, and Captain Jack Sparrow. They all have their own agendas and at first glance, Elizabeth’s is actually the weakest. Her primary goal throughout the film is to keep Will safe. She steals his cursed necklace because she doesn’t want him identified as a pirate by Norrington and her father, then – after a brief diversion in which she seeks to save all of Port Royal from Barbossa’s men – she spends the rest of the movie trying to protect Will from the Black Pearl’s crew. And that’s pretty much all she does.
In contrast, Jack – who I’m going to argue is the least important character – seems to have the strongest agenda: reclaiming his ship. Most of the film seems to be about that and even the name of the movie appears to reinforce the idea that this is where we should be keeping our attention. And because Johnny Depp is so freaking charismatic in the role, we certainly want to keep our attention on him.
Will lies somewhere in between. His motivation plays exactly the role in the story that it appears to. He’s in love with Elizabeth and wants to rescue her (again making her appear to be a plot device), but that changes as he learns about his father. If we’re only looking at Curse of the Black Pearl, Will is the protagonist. Though his motivation is no more or less strong than Elizabeth’s (both are trying to protect each other) or Jack’s, Will is the only character who appears to grow or change in the course of the film. At least at first look.
Elizabeth is a strong, independent character from the first moment we see her and she stays that way throughout. She bucks convention as often as she can. She loves pirates, hates corsets, and never actually consents to marry Norrington.
Meanwhile, Jack is Jack. He’s unchangeable and we love it that way. He’s Bugs Bunny. You can drop him into any situation and it instantly becomes more interesting, but there’s no story to be told about him. That would require growth and we like Jack just the way he is when we first meet him.
Will, on the other hand, learns a valuable lesson about prejudice and stereotypes. It’s interesting. After watching Black Pearl this last time, I realized that my son’s probably the right age now to appreciate these movies, so I started watching it again with him. He quickly had some questions about pirates: Are they good guys or bad guys? If they’re good, why does everyone want to put them in jail and hang them? If they’re bad, why are we rooting for Jack? It was nice not to have to stop the movie and explain this myself, because those are exactly the questions that Will’s asking. I just told David that his answers were coming. (The answer, of course, is that it’s much more complex than that. Not everyone in a group is going to be just like everyone else in that group. I’m pretty pleased with and grateful for the teaching opportunity.)
But even though Will is the most overt protagonist in Black Pearl, Elizabeth joins him in a subtle way. The movie talks a lot about choosing paths. Mostly in reference to Will, who chooses to become a pirate at the end, but Elizabeth also chooses a new path for herself. Though she never agrees to marry Norrington and live out the traditional life of an English governor’s daughter, she sure does wait a long time to announce that she’s not going to do that either. She keeps her options open, not because she’s torn about which choice to make, but because what she really wants to do is pretty damn scary. It’s a choice between safety and adventure, and though the repercussions of her decision aren’t as dramatic as Will’s, her choosing to help free Jack and proclaim her love for Will is an important development in her character.
Helping to drive that decision is Elizabeth’s discovery of just how powerful she has the potential to be. In Jamaica, her influence is extremely limited, but at sea she’s able to control events in very cool ways, including mounting rescues and leading a crew of pirates into battle. That makes her integral to the theme of piracy-as-freedom. In fact, that central theme – though directly talked about by Jack – is seen most clearly in Elizabeth’s story.
So that’s why there are two main characters in Black Pearl. I suppose you could argue that the rest of the trilogy focuses on them equally, but I’m not going to. Instead, I’ll suggest that by the end of Dead Man’s Chest, Will’s starting to drop out of the contest and into a supporting role, even while the movie appears still to be focused on him. But that’s a post for another day.