The Pleasure of Pirates and What It Tells Us About World Building in Branded Entertainment

As a rule, one should never trust the opinion of an established film critic about a movie with a number after its title -- and one should multiply the level of distrust for each number over 2. The whole concept of franchise entertainment seems to bring out the worst high culture assumptions in the bulk of American film critics (and beyond the United States, it's pretty much hopeless). Franchises are understood exclusively in terms of their economic function within the Hollywood entertainment supersystem, as if Hollywood made any movies that didn't make economic sense. Franchises are seen as aesthetic abominations and critics show little interest in exploring what kinds of new experiences might be enabled by seriality. And critics respond to sequels with extraordinary conservativeness, assuming that all the film can possibly do is to reproduce as closely as possible the pleasures offered by the first film, rather than imagining the expanded canvas which is possible by allowing people to work within yet transform the generic expectations created by earlier works. To be fair, a high percentage of franchise films are formulaic exercises which have little or no aesthetic rationale. But this is not true of all sequels and this doesn't fully account for the function sequels play within the new media landscape. For a good discussion of some of these issues, check out a recent conversation at David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson's blog which featured Stew Fyfe; Doug Gomery; Jason Mittell; Michael Newman; Paul Ramaeker; and Jim Udden.

To be fair, most sequels are more susceptible to the word of mouth response than to reviews per se, because most fans of popular entertainment have learned not to trust critics on such topics.

All of this comes to mind as I reflect on the critical drubbing recently received by the new Pirates film: Pirates of the Caribbean: At the World's End. Check out the website Rotten Tomatoes which links to dozens of on-line reviews of the film, almost all of which are negative, almost all of which tapped the same theme:

1. The film is too complicated and demands too much from its consumers. We want summer movies to be big, loud, and dumb.

2. The film doesn't offer enough screen time to Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow character, who seems to be the only reason they believe patrons would be interested in a film of this kind.

3. The film doesn't have a simple, straight forward plot trajectory but instead moves through a series of set pieces and digressions, most of which showcase secondary characters (i..e. anyone other than Jack Sparrow.)

This summary captures the substance, though not the tone of these reviews, which seem to be a critical referendum on what writers like Jason Mittell and Steven Johnson have described as the increasing complexity of contemporary popular culture. Consider a few examples, drawn more or less at random, for several dozen similar reviews featured at the site:

With so many loose ends to tie up, At World's End is so insanely plot-heavy that it requires scene after scene of exposition, and the whole thing sinks simply under the weight of the story. A complicated narrative isn't necessarily a bad thing - that is, if the exposition provides something new, perhaps a fresh direction for the characters that we've all come to love, but even with so many plot points being juggled at once, there just aren't enough clever twists or cool new elements in AWE to justify the 30 tons of story the audience has to slog through....Except for a few great FX moments, At World's End is practically ALL exposition, and fans are going to grow tired of the unnecessarily complicated story since there's not nearly enough action to keep them entertained for almost three hours....The creators of At World's End were so intent on basing their bleak storyline on the end of the pirate era that they forgot that the movie needs to be, first and foremost, a ride. The whole stupid Pirates of the Caribbean concept is based on a ride, remember? One out of ten fans of the Pirates franchise may truly care about the complicated soap opera of a story at the heart of At World's End, but the other nine just want to see something funny and fast-paced, and they're the ones who are going to be most let down.--Brian Tallerico, UnderGround Online

But even if I wanted to spoil things, I couldn't. This movie is too darned hard to follow. There's so much stuff happening, sometimes all at once, that it's hard to keep track of who's on whose ship, who's selling out whom and even who's getting killed, where and how. And it won't matter whether you've seen the first two Pirates movies or not. You'll still be confused. --Gene Seymour, Newsday

Unlike, say, Shrek the Third, which works perfectly fine as a mediocre stand-alone sequel, At World's End relies heavily on viewers' knowledge of the previous film, Dead Man's Chest. Seems fair enough, given how many moviegoers were willing to pony up for that one. Still, all the curses, vendettas, double-crosses, reconciliations, trinkets, negotiations and sea monsters longing to be human again gave me severe tired head before the two-hour mark. Summer blockbusters may have many goals, but tired head should not be among them....So yeah, At World's End has some fun stuff. If only it weren't so stuffed to the gills with moving parts. -Chris Vognar, Dallas Morning News

One longs for more scenes featuring Captain Jack Sparrow, Johnny Depp's indelible and beloved character in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (* 1/2 out of four), and less of everything else in this bloated, overwrought and convoluted three-hour misfire.--Claudia Puig, USA Today

What I really craved was not more action or reversals of fortune, but a magic compass like the one that gets stolen and stolen again ad nauseam in the movie, one that always points the beholder to the thing he desires the most. In this case, it could have been a story map or just the peacefulness of the brig....Don't misunderstand. I like my action movies complicated, but At World's End is less a complexity than it is a high seas bazaar with everyone and everything vying for attention. Terry Lawson, Detroit Free Press

At the World's End certainly gets no credit for its ambitions here, no recognition for placing new kinds of conceptual demands on its spectators, and no praise for its craftmanship. Rather, it is being forced back into the box where critics place any and all popular entertainment. The perception that summer movies are mindless and motivated purely by commercial considerations is being forced onto this film; At the World's End is being whacked for every step it takes outside of the confines of a totally classically constructed film.

The problem is that At the World's End is not a classically constructed film. Well, don't get me wrong. I have no doubt that at a certain level of abstraction, David and Kristin would be able to demonstrate that it follows the modified structure of acts they see as the hold over of classical narrative technique on contemporary cinema; there's no question that the characters have goals, that there are causal connections between their actions, or that the film follows intensified continuity styles of editing. But, in many ways, the film's heart is not in telling a classical linear story. This film wants to explore a world and much of its complexity emerges from the fact that we have been able to accumulate and master more information about that world through the first two films. I saw At the World's End shortly before I left on my European adventures and was blown away by its attention to detail and its respect for the intelligence of fans. This is one of the best summer movies that I have seen in a long long time and a powerful illustration of the ways that convergence culture is reshaping how franchise entertainment operates.

In Convergence Culture, I explain that Hollywood has moved from a primary focus on stories as the generators of film pitches to a focus on characters that will sustain sequels to a focus on worlds that can be played out across multiple media platforms. This shift accommodates a much more active spectator who wants to watch favorite movies again and again, making new discoveries each time, and who enjoys gathering online and comparing notes within a larger knowledge culture. In the book, I use The Matrix as an extreme example of this tendency towards transmedia entertainment and towards films focused more on world building than on character or plot. The Matrix, in some ways, demanded more of spectators than they were prepared to give, stretching its material across films, animations, comics, and games, while providing little redundancy across the various platforms. The Matrix sequels fell into the blindspot of most critics who remain bound to a single medium and were not prepared to accept games or comics or animation as contributing to the same meta-text.

At the World's End adopts a somewhat more conservative strategy -- keeping everything within the three films (more or less) but insuring that the later films in the series achieve a density of information which would not have been possible in the first title in the franchise. The critic's preoccupation with Depp's Jack Sparrow suggests that they have missed a step in the evolution of the media franchise -- stuck back at the moment when sequels depended on the appeal of a single well-defined character.

Don't get me wrong -- Sparrow is a great character and Depp's is a masterful performance. Without Sparrow, the first film might never have achieved its broad appeal -- which is a strange thing to say about a character as queer, eccentric, and self-reflexive about this one. And yes, for my money, there's not enough of Depp in the third film -- which is funny to say given how there are several sequences here when Depp plays all the parts. But, from the start, the Pirates films have succeeded on the basis of an extraordinary ensemble cast of some of the best and/or most engaging performers in contemporary cinema (Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Bill Nighy, Stellan Skarsgard, Naomie Harris) and for the third film, we can add brief but memorable performances by Yun-Fat Chow and Keith Richards and a much wider array of character actors who are given one or two solid moments each to shine. We've met these characters over time, a few introduced in each of the first two films, and now the directors are able to bring them together, play them opposite each other, in a shifting set of alliances and conflicts. All of this keeps the film in constant motion and gives us an emotional hook for almost every shot.

Then, consider the build up of running gags that surround the various pirates (and their pets) on board the Black Pearl and consider the ways that the use of very distinctive but recognizable encrustations on the various crew members of the Flying Dutchman allows us to recognize and recall these minor characters each time they appear on screen.

And then consider the ways that the device of the Pirate's Council allows the film to hint at a globally diverse array of different pirate cultures -- Chinese pirates, South Asian pirates, Eastern European pirates, Spanish Pirates, French Pirates, etc. -- which can be evoked quickly shot by shot as we move through the film. I found myself intrigued by the suggestion that pirates, who take to the open seas rather than staying closer to land and following trade routes, establish a different set of contact zones than the nations with which they are embattled, and by the hint of the multicultural composition of Pirate crews (even discounting the somewhat politically correct impulses of representation and inclusiveness that shaped this particular representation of the process.)

Or consider the rich atmosphere created by the film's detailed reconstruction of 19th century Singapore which depends on a range of details that may or may not register consciously for many viewers but which suggests a specific historical and cultural context much larger than the actions of the film.

The principal figures are given story arcs which tie together plot strands from the earlier film and each is given at least one, perhaps more, moments of transition and revelation. The secondary characters rely heavily on what my former student Geoffrey Long likes to describe as negative capability -- they are well enough defined that we can imagine who they are, what they want, and why they are doing what they are doing, but much remains for the audience to flesh out from their own imaginations. The Pirates Council in particular invites us to draw together what we know from other sources while suggesting that the world of this franchise is much larger and diverse than anything we suspected so far. So much gets conveyed here through aspects of make-up, costume design, and art direction which evokes a whole complex culture behind characters who may never be given names and who may appear in only a few shots or scenes.

The film, in other words, throws a lot of stuff at us and expects us to catch it. The critics dropped the ball but the film plays fair -- there's a there there, a rationale or reason behind every element, and the parts add up to a satisfying whole if we connect all of the pieces. For someone really engaged in watching this film, the result is epistemaphilia, a mad rush of information being brought together and being clicked into the right mental category. I had this experience even though I saw Dead Man's Chest almost a year ago. I can only imagine the pleasures that await us when we watch all three films back to back in a DVD marathon or all of the telling details I will pick up on during a second or third viewing -- and that's part of the point. The modes by which we consume these films have shifted. Most films don't warrant a first look, let alone a second viewing, but for those films that do satisfy and engage us, a much higher percentage of the audience is engaged in what might once have seemed like cult viewing practices. Once we find a franchise which floats our boats, we will settle in for an extended relationships and we want to explore all of the hidden nooks and crannies. We want to know everything we can possibly know about this world and contemporary franchise films are designed to accommodate our interests.

In this case, one consequence is a heavy reliance on reaction shots, as we read what unfolds through the eyes of a range of different characters and feel sympathy for their various and contradictory points of view. In this regard, At the World's End follows closely what others have written about television soap opera -- the reaction is as important as the action -- though in this case, we may be seeing and trying to take in the reactions of three or four different characters within a single shot.

Another consequence is the development of objects which encapsulate relationships, conflicts, histories, and emotional investments. Again, this is the stock of film melodrama where lover's tokens may carry a lot of the affective weight of the story. But here, because there are so many different characters and subplots, we have a proliferation of meaningful objects (compasses, rings, "pieces of eight," flags, ships, treasure chests, hearts, ships, etc.) which carry different kinds of meaning and power and much of the action consists of the deployment and exchange of these objects between various characters.

A third aspect of the film would seem to borrow heavily from ensemble dramas on television -- each scene might bring together more than one character and more than one subplot with the result that the film moves forward through a series of intersections and interruptions of its plot developments. Plots cross each other: a choice which seems to bring resolution to one plotline opens up new complications for another; a decision which makes sense from one perspective seems enigmatic from another; and the reader must be alert to all of these different levels of development, must think about what the scene means for each character and each plot if they are going to get full pleasure from the story. What may seem like a digression at first may accrue significance as the film goes along -- consider how a series of localized gags and set pieces involving ropes, say, may take shape as the film progresses into a particular understanding of Jack's improvised and yet carefully calculated way of moving through the world.

But, then again, we can watch the movie as a series of set pieces, enjoying individual gags, or just taking pleasure in watching people blow shit up, and because there is so much going on here, we will generally have a good time. Like the first Matrix and unlike its sequels, the film is visceral enough that one can enjoy it on a surface level.

The problem is that people have some difficult moving between the two -- if they suddenly realize that the film is much more complex and layered than they anticipated, they may start to flounder and ultimately drown, which seems to be what happened to a high percentage of the film critics. They went into the film expecting a certain kind of experience; they hadn't successfully learned how to take pleasure from its world-building; they don't want to dig into the film more deeply after the fact, comparing notes online with other viewers, because their trade demands constant movement to the next film and a focus on their own private, individualized thoughts.

Watch a film with a group of critics and it is a rather chilly experience, each trying to suppress signs of their emotional response for fear of tipping their hands to their competition. They don't laugh at comedy; they don't cry at melodrama; and they don't know how to engage in fannish conversation around film franchises, which means that their professional conduct cuts them off from the shared emotional pleasures that are so much a part of how popular culture works its magic on us. For that reason, I trust film critics far more when they are writing about art films which demand distanced contemplation than popular films which desire an immediate emotional reaction.

All of this is to say that the critics were not inaccurate in their description of At the World's End: it is a complex, some would argue overly complex, blend of different story elements; it is pulling us in many different directions at once; it isn't focused around a single protagonist. Where we disagree is in our emotional experience and aesthetic evaluation of the features of the film. These are the reasons why At the World's End is my favorite entry in the Pirates series and are scarcely reasons to pan the finished film.

We might contrast At the World's End with Spider-Man 3, a film which I didn't enjoy very much. While at the World's End constructs a world with many points of entry and many different intersections between its large cast of characters, Spider-Man 3 fumbles a much smaller number of subplots, because they all need to be focused through the clogged pipeline of a single protagonist. We are constantly feeling the thwacking fist of coincidence and contrivance pushing us out of any immediate experience of the film. Each of the subplots follows the basic narrative structure of the contemporary yet still classical Hollywood film. It has to go through the same formulaic steps, more or less in the same sequence, more or less in parallel, which collapses the difference between The Sandman, Hobgoblin, and Venom, as characters who originated in comics during different eras and for different purposes. The film has many moments I could enjoy on their own terms but it keeps tripping over its own two feet and when a film of this size and scale lands wrong, it lands with an awesome thud.

I loved the first two films in the Spider-Man series but the third entry left me totally cold -- in part because it hasn't been able or willing to make this transition between character-centered and world-centered story, doing neither particularly well. In the case of the Pirates films, though, each new entry gave me more of what I wanted from the franchise, could start with an assumption of greater mastery and investment on the part of the spectator, and could push deeper into the complex world building that I have come to expect from transmedia entertainment at its very best.

End of rant. I will now return you to your regularly scheduled summer entertainment. Critics, you can turn off your minds again. Just don't expect me to shut down mine.