Back in 2003, when Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl came out, it was something a bit fresh and different. While it was a bit long (a problem subsequent films in the series doubled down on), it had the freshness of Johnny Depp’s bonkers performance as Captain Jack Sparrow. With Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, the fifth entry in the series, this once-huge franchise appears to be at a bit of a crossroads, trying to fix some of the problems the series has taken on over the years but unable to fix the sense of staleness that’s come to haunt the series.
Young Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) searches for a way to break the curse that keeps his father, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), at sea. His solution is to find the Trident of Poseidon, which has the ability to break every curse at sea. He soon discovers that he’s not the only one looking for it. Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), a scientist, wants to find the compass to complete the task of the father she never met. The undead Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), meanwhile, is looking for revenge against Jack Sparrow (Depp) after being confined in the Devil’s Triangle by Jack for years. Eventually, Henry and Carina join with Jack and Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush), while Salazar seeks to kill Jack.
After 2011’s On Stranger Tides, the series does seem to realize at least one key idea: in spite of Depp’s top billing, Jack is not a lead character. He’s a character best used sparingly, which is why the first film in the series is still the best use of him. The leads need to be somewhat normal to ground the film, and to give Jack people to bounce off. Unfortunately, Henry and Carina aren’t on the same level as Will and Elizabeth in the original trilogy. They lack the spark that made Will and Elizabeth work. Individually, Henry is okay, though Thwaites is more “pretty” than anything. Carina comes off better, and Scodelario gets more to work with, even though the film tries to make a connection later on that feels heavily contrived.
Even bumping Jack back down towards supporting character status, though, can’t make Depp feel fresh here. The first film was Depp’s big commercial breakthrough, and over the span of 14 years, he’s chewed through scenery at every opportunity. There’s not much more he can do at this point to surprise us.
Even with diminishing results, the first three films in this series worked because they followed not just Jack, but Will and Elizabeth too. If the films had ended there, it would’ve been fine. Instead, Disney won’t let this series die. Even though this film is clearly working to try and return to the status quo, though, it’s too late. Ten years removed from At World’s End, it’s time to bring the series to an end.