Quite a few people seemed to enjoy my discussion of Wonder Woman this past weekend (you can read it here) so I’d like to do something similar in discussing another recent release, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. The fifth film of the saga seems to be your standard sequel, carrying with it all the burden of expectation that comes with each progressive member of a series. Critics have almost unanimously chastised Pirates for its failure to carry such a burden and provide anything meaningful and new to the series. Pirates replays many scenes and scenarios in what seems like lazy filmmaking. However, a closer look at this replaying as a deliberate film tactic with a deliberate message can present this critically-maligned film in a different light. Dead Men Tell No Tales intentionally remembers the earlier films to reclaim an audience who pines for the original trilogy.
Such a remembering of old times is a standard practice in melodrama. We have witnessed such a harkening back to previous times this past year in melodramatic politics when Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” appealed to some Americans’ desire to return to an unclarified time of greatness. Trump never defined what “great” American era he would return the country to or what made that era “great,” he merely noted that times were not what they used to be and he planned to fix that. Pirates plays on a nostalgic longing for the past as well, though decidedly less controversially.
The fourth Pirates film, On Stranger Tides, tried to take the series in new directions with new characters and new goals. Disney clearly determined that if the film had Jack Sparrow, it could replace old characters with vaguely similar new ones and continue on. Fans responded negatively, scoring the film below 60% on Rotten Tomatoes (the only Pirates film with such a fan response). I argue that the studio took notice and implemented a return to the past in this most recent film. Critics still found little to appreciate in the film, scoring it the lowest of all Pirates films at 29%. Fans, however, appreciated the return to the past, scoring it a 70% (the original trilogy average 76%). I hope to briefly discuss what Dead Men Tell No Tales did that fans appreciated but critics obviously missed.
There is an obsessive desire to seek out or return to the past in Dead Men, first represented in the characters of the film. Every major character has either appeared in the previous films or is drawn from the past storyline of the established players. Jack Sparrow, Captain Barbosa, Gibbs, and even protagonist Henry Turner were introduced in the original trilogy, as was their ultimate goal. New characters Carina Smyth and Captain Salazar have backstories revealed in the film that connect their story to the same pre-established past rather than fully new storylines.
The character’s goals further link them to the past. Captain Jack is a washed-up version of himself, seeking a way to return to his former glory. Barbosa is wealthy beyond imagination but seeks something else he had to part with long ago. Henry seeks reunion with his cursed father. Caryna is also driven to reconnect with something from her past, though I dare not spoil anything. Even the villainous Salazar seeks to return to his previous living self rather than the cursed-undead nature he has lived in for decades.
Finally, several scenes and scenarios are played out almost identically to those of previous films. The hangman scene is framed and blocked very similarly, the beach scene has shades of all three early films, and Salazar’s ghostly crew is a hybrid of Barbosa’s undead army, Davy Jones’s cursed crew, and the Spanish ghosts of Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone. I would argue that all of these allusions to previous films of the series serve to redirect the saga back towards the characters audiences knew and loved, many of which make appearances (or their appearances are suggested) during the film or final post-credits stinger. This connects Dead Men Tell No Tales to the fan favorite original trilogy rather than setting it out on its own.
Does Pirates lack originality? Perhaps, but as I’ve stated above, this mimicking of previous films is done with intention (like The Force Awakens did, as well). Based on the positive fan reaction in contrast to the critical reaction, Pirates’ target audience seems to be appreciative of this nostalgic return to earlier films. Disney maintains this is the final film of the series. The stinger, however, certainly leaves room to revisit these popular characters, many of which have just been reclaimed in this last episode. Given the overwhelmingly positive response from fans, I won’t be surprised if Jack Sparrow and the Turners find themselves on another adventure in the near future (with a villain possibly reintroduced after the credits). Given Disney’s recapturing of the original story’s elements, I would be on board.