With the release of Dead Men Tell No Tales, Johnny Depp has now fronted five Pirates of the Caribbean films, over which time he’s turned Jack Sparrow into an icon. But while he is undoubtedly the series’ MVP, when it truly comes down to it the true hero of the franchise is Geoffery Rush’s Captain Hector Barbossa.
Jack’s appeal is obvious. He’s a funny, unlikely hero who takes on insurmountable odds with the literal swagger of a drunk making his way to the bar. And like a drunk, Jack hasn’t really changed. In each movie he starts out lacking something material – the Pearl, Davy Jones’ heart, his life/soul, access to the fountain of youth/the Pearl again, and the trident of Poseidon respectively – and then over two-and-a-bit hours of coincidental back-and-forth manages to acquire, destroy or otherwise achieve his goal, but along each journey he never learns or evolves as a person. You can dive into any movie and not have to worry about where you are; he’ll betray Will Turner on a whim in 2003’s The Curse of the Black Pearl and he’ll betray Henry Turner even more readily in this year’s Dead Men Tell No Tales. The only changes are in how the movie’s present him, with the repeated lucky escapes turned into potentially intricate plans and his faux inebriation upped as Depp’s performance becomes more distorted.
And that’s fine when you want an accessible blockbuster series with recognizable elements, but not when this figure is your protagonist; over the past fourteen years Jack’s evolved from a questionably-skilled, always lucky Keith Richards impression aiding Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightly into a lead who’s the very embodiment of what the knockabout series was trying to satirize. The shift happened somewhere in the first back-to-back sequels, Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End, where in amongst all the betrayal and haphazard tackling with Davy Jones (Bill Nighy’s squid-faced Captain who remains the series’ best character) he was suddenly made into a great Pirate Lord whose survival was tantamount. The stagnation is reflected in the stories, with each movie following a far too rigid formula laid out by the original; someone from Jack’s past played by a lauded actor comes back with a vengeance and a mythical ship manned by an undead crew to hunt down a MacGuffin that will allow them to rule the sea and/or Jack’s compass, along the way coming across a witch and the closing-in British. It’s all meant to be a bit of fun, but the clash of silly and epic is feeling tired.
This character decline has both helped and hindered the series. Financially Pirates is as sound as it ever was because of that familiarity, yet the general enthusiasm has waned, mainly because of similar fatigue with Johnny Depp; in 2010 he made Alice in Wonderland a billion dollar hit when such a record was a rarity, last year due to a mixture of exhaustion and well-publicized personal issues the sequel made a quarter of that. Captain Jack has been doing the same old thing for a decade-and-a-half and it’s now a bit tired.
What made him work so well is that he’s not really made to be a lead. You don’t know him, you don’t really understand him. In contrast, though, we have Hector Barbossa. At every step where Jack chose to perv over a girl far too young for him and quip savvy, Rush’s true pirate has shown nuance and personality, evolving over the movies. Forget Jack – Barbossa’s the real hero of Pirates of the Caribbean.