Thematically, Dead Man’s Chest carries right on from Curse of the Black Pearl. The first film is all about Elizabeth and Will’s choosing their paths. Elizabeth chooses a life of adventure over safety; Will nominally chooses a life of piracy over a more respectable career as a blacksmith. “Nominally” because he certainly isn’t a pirate as Dead Man’s Chest begins.
He’s living safely in Port Royal and is about to marry the governor’s daughter when Cutler Beckett of the East India Trading Company shows up to squash those plans. For that matter, Elizabeth’s not exactly struggling either, but at least she’s living the life she chose at the end of Black Pearl. It was a brave choice for her considering expectations of women in that time and culture, but still less dangerous than the path that Will claimed to be choosing. Since he’s not a pirate though, her choosing to be with him also loses some of its risk. A disappointing opening.
As Dead Man’s Chest progresses though, the situation gets more perilous and complicated for Elizabeth as she learns just where the path that she chose in Black Pearl leads. More on that in a minute. First let’s talk about Will and how the story all but abandons him.
At first glance it seems like Dead Man’s Chest is very much about Will. It reveals a lot of information about his father and dedicates a ton of time to showing how Bootstrap’s fate affects Will and his decisions. But by the end of the movie, Will hasn’t actually grown as a character. His motivation at the closing credits is the same as it was at the opening ones: to save the people he cares about (first Elizabeth, then his father). That’s the same motivation he had in the first movie. Once he made the decision to enter a life of piracy (even if he didn’t completely follow through on it), his growth is pretty much done at the end of Black Pearl. Following that, we’re just learning his back-story and watching him complicate the lives of the two characters that actually are experiencing some growth.
A quick note about Will before we move on though: He’s easily the most heroic character in the trilogy and we should like him a lot more than we do. However, he has a tendency to glower and brood, and that makes him unpleasant. Even though he’s doing very admirable things, he does them resentfully. He takes everything very seriously and wears his selflessness on his sleeve. Self-conscious martyrdom is never attractive.
Also before we move on to the important characters, I feel like I should at least mention Norrington, even though he’s not really growing in Dead Man’s Chest. His motivation is the same that it was in Black Pearl: to advance his naval career. He’s just starting from farther behind in this movie. Still, he becomes more important in At World’s End, so we shouldn’t lose track of him.
It’s Jack and Elizabeth who experience real growth in Dead Man’s Chest. I know I described Jack as an unchangeable, Bugs Bunny-like character in Black Pearl, but it’s not quite as simple as that. One of the interesting things about him in Black Pearl was that you were never really sure what he was going to do. He was only out for himself and that made him fickle. That seems like a contradiction in an “unchangeable” character, so let’s pull that apart a little.
“Unchangeable” doesn’t have to mean “predictable.” Jack is just predictably unpredictable, if that makes sense. This is in spite of what he tells Barbossa at the end of Black Pearl about dishonest men being predictable. He claims that it’s the honest men whom you never know what they’re going to do. There’s probably some truth to that from a certain point of view. Dishonest men will always do what’s in their best interest, while honest men will surprise you by acting for the benefit of others. But what Jack doesn’t say is that particularly clever dishonest men will find all sorts of surprising ways to get what they want. Which he immediately illustrates by freeing Will and attacking Barbossa.
We shouldn’t make the mistake of turning Jack into a hero though. Not in Black Pearl at least. He always acts selfishly in that film; it’s just that his goals tend to align with Will and Elizabeth’s. He’s a good guy by association. And because we like him.
That begins to change in Dead Man’s Chest though. Even before the movie’s begun he seems to be changed by his experiences in Black Pearl. He has his ship now and doesn’t know what he wants next. He’s conflicted and it’s messing with him and his crew. He continues to behave selfishly though until the end of the film, after his talk with Elizabeth in which she convinces him that he wants to try being a good man for once. He demonstrates this by giving up his flight from the Pearl and returning to the doomed ship to be with his crew and help them escape the kraken. When he does this though, we also see how much Elizabeth has changed as well.
Elizabeth’s barely in the first act of the film, but her character arc through the movie is the most interesting. As Jack is struggling with becoming a better man, Elizabeth wrestles with becoming a worse woman. Her lifelong interest in pirates and the path she chose in Black Pearl are leading her to some dark places. She never truly becomes romantically interested in Jack as a person, but she’s devilishly attracted to what he represents: complete freedom to do whatever she likes.
But with complete freedom comes a price. She learns this when she shackles him to the Pearl in order to save herself and the others. Pretty it up however you like, but it’s a selfish thing she does and she knows it. That’s why she’s so upset in the final scene. She doesn’t want to rescue Jack because she loves him; she wants to rescue him in order to undo her mistake in forcing him to die so that she and the others could live. She wants to be able to back up from where her path has taken her.
Jack, meanwhile, stays on his new path. When Elizabeth shackles him to the ship, he tries to escape, but he never calls for help. That seems like the instinctive thing for a truly selfish man to do. His crew is easily within earshot and would rescue him in seconds, so the only thing that makes sense is that he’s still being selfless. He wants to be unchained so that he has a fighting chance, but he knows that Elizabeth’s right. It’s even more selfless and heroic than his returning to the Pearl in the first place.
What’s going to be interesting about At World’s End is seeing how Elizabeth and Jack continue to change. Or if they both continue to change. I don’t think that both of them do, which is why I’m titling these posts the way I am.