Pirates 2 and 3 were awful.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl is one of my most favoritest recent films. It hits almost every note I want out of a movie: Fun setting, good action scenes, snappy dialogue, well-drawn characters, and a sense that the world kept on going after the story was through. I will watch it almost any time it’s on TV, because while its stuff-happening ratio isn’t quite up to the standard of classics like, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark, there’s still plenty of stuff there that’s worth watching and re-watching. It doesn’t matter that I’ve seen, say, the blacksmith battle or “why is the rum gone” or the final showdown with Barbarossa before; it’s usually worth my time to watch them again.

The sequels, Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End, were on last weekend to promote the newest film, though, and I realized suddenly that I had no reason to ever watch a single minute of those movies ever again. It’s like… I’m not the hugest fan ever of Temple of Doom or The Matrix Reloaded, but even if I don’t particularly care for the movies as a whole there are still parts therein that I could see myself wanting to watch again. With the Pirates sequels, though, I ran through their respective plots in my head and decided that none of it is worth my time, not even as background noise while Pokemoning or whatever. I came up with a few reasons why this might be, but ultimately they boiled down to a single one:

They were trying way, way too hard to be “epic”.

That’s basically the long and short of it.

The first film, see, was pretty much an experiment. Pirate films were pretty much dead after Cutthroat Island flopped, you’ll recall, and a movie based off a theme part ride didn’t exactly have the most promising of starts. So the movie was based on the idea that this would be all they got; it needed to be self-contained and tell a full story, beginning to end, which it did admirably. By the end of the first Pirates film all the conflicts are neatly tied up and everyone could go their own way, more or less satisfied with the way things played out. Will and Elizabeth got together, Jack was free and had the Black Pearl back, the Aztec curse was lifted, and Barbossa was nice and dead.

The first film was a hit, though, and sequels were ordered — two at once. Now the writers had certainty and a little more leeway in what they could do, but no plot. Moreover, they had to have been feeling pressure to top the first film, so, like all sequel writers, they upped the ante: More of everything! Curse had pirates? More! Curse had humor? More! Curse had supernatural elements? More! Curse had backstabbing and shifting alliances? More, more, more!

The problem was that increasing the quantity of these things didn’t necessarily increase the quality, and even though they tried for a world-spanning, massive plot after the mostly-localized conflict of Pirates 1, they still didn’t have quite enough movie for two full films, which is why the second film in particular is loaded with filler. Expanding the scope of the world also introduced numerous plot holes, some small, some large. This wouldn’t be a huge deal except that the sequels also insisted on constantly nudging you with fanservice-y references to the first film. Watching the third movie in particular, I got the sense that the writers were constantly tugging on my arm, saying “Remember how great the first movie was? Well, we do, and we’re going to remind you constantly. Not by imitating its spirit or sense of originality or anything, though, but rather by constantly repeating its old jokes and references.” The third time that fucking jailhouse dog showed up I just about threw the remote at the screen in disgust. There’s making subtle nods to your fans, and there’s what the Pirates sequels did, which was the filmmaking equivalent of masturbating.

I could go on — the droves of unlikeable new characters, the terrible “serious” plot elements, the flanderization of existing characters, the fact that the sequels are essentially one long movie meaning the second ends on a cliffhanger so bad I can’t even fit it in my head — but I don’t much see the point to it.

Pirates 1 knew what it wanted to be, and kept its ambition in check. Pirates 2 and 3 wanted to be The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, but they were too shallow for that, and filled the empty spaces with packing peanuts. That might be a good way to sell a movie, but that’s not how you make one. I think they should have followed the lead of Indiana Jones instead, and made each movie on an adventure-by-adventure basis — even if that means you can’t exactly call back to every little aspect of every previous film. The Last Crusade contains a nod to Raiders that’s four lines long, is mentioned in passing, and is far more effective than another repetition of the rum is gone. Include Will, or Elizabeth, or Barbossa, or Norrington only if it makes sense to include them, not because you feel like you have to.

Ironically, it looks like the newest Pirates film follows this advice — it’s a Jack-only adventure that appears self-contained (albeit fitting into the larger “Jack seeks immortality” arc). I still won’t be seeing it, though — at least not until it shows up on cable — for two reasons. First, it’s receiving mediocre reviews. Secondly, I’ve been given to understand that Jack is “just kind of there” in the movie — it’s not his story anymore. Maybe it’s time for a reboot? Jack’s a great character, but he’s built up so much baggage at this point that it might be a good idea to start over and see how he looks without the weight of continuity weighing him down.

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