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.

Comments

  1. Robin Reid says:

    We’ve just seen P3 for the third time and are unabashed fans: we love the complexity of it, the invitation (in all the films) for careful readings not only of plot, character, but also costume and material culture (the same face that is seen on both Davy Jones’ and Tia Dalma’s lockets is seen in the prow of the Flying Dutchman, it’s not a figurehead, it’s a face carved on the ‘inside’ of the ship, can only be seen behind Will Turner’s back when he and his father are talking!), the incredibly complex details of plot, characterization, that come from careful writing (hah, take that auteur theory!). I’ve heard conflicting rumours (whether or not they “planned” the second two when they did the first, or it came about because of the success of the first), but minor things that are part of the first are expanded in the second and third (we laughed with delight when the dog came in with the keys for the Pirates’ Code, and Captain Teague said “sea turles, mate!”) We’d watched P2 the week before P3 opened, so were in tune with the plot–and my housemate also noted that while USA Today gave it a very low grade/review the more “sophisticated” periodicals (NY Times which she reads online) gave it a higher one. (We also did not much like S3–it “read” like two films crammed into one). The cinematography was brilliant (the ship sailing through the ice floes, the mirroring starscape in sky and sea that foreshadow the “up is down”), and we thought that this film was the best since LOTR to choreograph fights (and since so many of the fights were at sea, they had even more challenges) so there is a narrative and a purpose (with the exception of the whole cannibal sequence in P2 which chould and should have been cut for a number of reasons). Additionally, the acting in the ensemble cast was superb (P1 may have been Depps’ film, but 2 and 3 were ensemble–I am a *huge* Rush/Barbossa fan, and I think that Hollywood should create a “combined real life actor/CGI” award (which Andy Serkis should win retrospectively, and Billy Nighy should also win!)–so in all ways, yes, I am in total agreement. As a number of us have been saying on LJ, some of these critics would clearly have a hard time with Victorian novels if they thought this plot was “too complex”! (I’m not saying it wasn’t complex, but careful reading and a familiarity with the earlier two films are necessary.)

    Two thumbs up from us!

  2. Fujur Preux says:

    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.

    Wow. This bit has been particularly enlightening in many ways.

    Once I read a quote attributed to Kafka; it said, more or less, that one of the main reasons for a book to exist is to “move the frozen sea within us”. I think the same thing can be said about any work of fiction.

    Really, if we don’t allow ourselves to be moved by it, what’s the point of working with fiction, either reviewing it or analyzing it?

    Maybe for an analysis one has to be a little unattached in order to dissect properly the text we’re working in, but I think the work can far more enjoyable when we approached to it because we genuinely liked at first.

    [This is the part where I apologize for my bad English; it's not my first language and I'm always afraid of having screwed up.]

  3. CW Walker says:

    I found myself nodding a lot as I read your essay, Henry. I was a film critic for 20 years and I still teach scriptwriting so I know the mindset.

    POTC3 is messy, no doubt about it. Structurally,[without spoiling the plot details] Plot Point 1 (saving Jack) arrives a little too late and Plot Point 2 —the turning point with Calypso —is not handled as well as it could be.

    Because most film critics have the classic 3-act structure buried deep in their bones these days, this messiness in the structure threw them off.

    But you’re also right: film reviewing is a job and no one wants to be forced to think too hard about a movie that’s ultimately based on a theme park ride.

    Which is too bad, because POTC3 deserved better and I’m betting, over time, much like Star Wars and other world building fan favorties, it will get it.

    In the meantime, it’s nice to see that, despite a very complicated and crowded plot, the scriptwriters found a way to leave some ‘fan space’ so we can do a little of our own world building.

    And finally, I agree with you about Spiderman 3 which was also messy, but not in a good way. The POTC3 screenwriters were determined to juggle all their balls; the Spiderman 3 folks seemed to lose heart.

  4. This is an excellent observation, and one that I think applies to all of the stories that have gathered large fan and fanfiction movements. They hint at more than they deliver. For example:

    Harry Potter. Not a well written series; the first book has a classical structure, but in later books that structure breaks down. Many of the main characters get less and less screen time in later books. The world does not entirely “hold together” because there are so many balls in the air. Yet despite round critiques of the later books, the fan culture continues to live and thrive.

    “Supernatural.” Two characters. Iffy writing; acting that’s nothing out of the ordinary way. But each show hints at such a larger world, and the journal that the father made includes such rich possibility, that it’s hard to pass up.

    I think that part of the problem is that, at least in film and television, critics aren’t looking at the movie like a fan. And when I say that I mean looking at it, looking visually at each piece. Small details often mean the most to fans, because they can provide another avenue for the world to go: for instance, a page of the “Supernatural” journal which has the numbers “666″ written all over it, which gets a few seconds of screen time in an unrelated episode (I don’t know if there actually is such a page; this is just an example). There has to be a story behind that — has to be! And a fan will try to write it, or think of it. But that kind of detail doesn’t make it into critics’ assessments. It’s just so much white noise to them, because it doesn’t contribute more to the main narrative, except as set dressing.

    But no one is a fan of a story, not in the sense of “fan” we’re using here. People are fans of worlds.

  5. Stephanie says:

    I find this article very interesting, and certainly you have a lot of good points to make. The article as a whole would be stronger, I think, if you had the name of the movie correct throughout. It’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, not “Pirates of the Caribbean: At the World’s End”.

    Cheers.

  6. Will Brooker says:

    Well, the movie is going to get at least one more viewer because of your blog – I was very disinclined to see it, before I read this.

  7. Diana says:

    Thank you for the very interesting review. Film criticism seems to be going through a period of existential crisis at the moment, with panicked cries of “the death of serious film criticism” on the one side, “majoritarism/amateurism rules!” on the other, and voices like Andy Horbal somewhere in between.

    Pirates 3 is starting to remind me very strongly of last year’s Miami Vice (another big budget summer film which strayed from blockbuster guidelines) in that the most insightful (and positive) reviews of the films are not coming from the paid film critics, but from internet critics/bloggers and academics. In the case of At World’s End, though, I’m delighted to see that the bashing it has received from the “reputable” critics hasn’t put much of a dent in ticket sales. (Then, that is a double-edged sword, as The Da Vinci Code proved.)

  8. Maria says:

    Thanks for such a thoughtful review of an engaging summer blockbuster!

    I watched Dead Man’s Chest the day after seeing At World’s End and was immediately struck by how many small moments set the stage for AWE. For having to backward-engineer a trilogy, the writers certainly did a good job in crafting a mythology that manages to keep an audience engaged through multiple viewings.

    AWE is not without its hiccups, but it’s nice to see a reviewer welcome the complexity rather than run from it.

  9. Scott Ellington says:

    If these critics had their faces in the wind, there would probably be at least one rebuttal argument on this page.

    In their defense, they act as a kind of consumer protection agency for the national audience that re-elected our current administration. Some contempt in their pandering is to be expected.

    “Rant” is an excellent word to plug into your friendly, neighborhood search engine. It returns cool postings.

  10. Ea says:

    This was very interesting to read, and it struck me that it had gotten so, relatively, bad reviews in the US as you note. Here in Denmark, where I’m from, the professional critics have been a lot kinder. They did still comment on the richness and abundance of everything, and the confusion it could create for the viewer, but on the whole, they also pointed that exact thing out as something enjoyable; that the ending of the trilogy deserved something that was a bit “too much” of everything to live up to expectations. I got the impression that they had been afraid that it would turn out too formulaic and watered down.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve read seven different reviews, and only one was decidedly negative and the in vein you commented on.

  11. Brett N says:

    Bravo.

    I’m a huge fan of the POTC saga for some specific and personal reasons, and I have to tell you that yours is one of the few reviews/critiques which nails the actual stated intentions of the writers.

    The notion with P2 and P3 all along was to do something MORE than the standard “back again for another verse” sorts of sequels most moviegoers have (apparently) been bludgeoned into accepting and expecting. The latter two movies were designed (and that is the most appropriate word) to reward repeated viewings: they are more like puzzles to be unfolded in the way nearly EVERY element and moment onscreen connects absolutely to the larger picture.

  12. Susanne Happel says:

    My father earned his engineering degree from MIT (many years ago) My family hails from East Cambridge so was very interested when I received this link. My only desire is that every mindless critic reads this. Although they still will not get it. I am a long time loyal Johnny Depp admirer and can do nothing but thank you. Finally some one got it right!!!

  13. Thanks for this rant. I think I keep my brain on in my appraisal of the series, which you can read here, on The House Next Door, a film and TV blog run by film critics Matt Zoller Seitz and Keith Uhlich, if you so desire.

  14. Joyce C. says:

    I think what got me interested was the portrayal of 19th century Singapore. And for a history buff like me (and Singaporean) to boot, it was – admittedly – intriguing.

    Of course, the media played on this pull-factor before the movie opened in Singapore. “Welcome to Singapore!” were the words proudly trumpeted on the bus stop ads.

    However, I wonder if the portrayal of Singapore as a pirate meeting place was an accurate portrayal. Imagine Singapore as a Meetpoint (thank you, C.J Cherryh!) for pirates of all creeds and nationalities.

    And I would agree that there are many fans out there who are fans of worlds. For me, if the world is richly textured, multilayered – three-dimensional, I would love it, because it feels real.

  15. AcidicMaryJane says:

    Well, I think I’m going to have to be the dissenter around here. I’m actually a huge PotC fan, but found myself disappointed with #3 and I find it odd that critics and fans that didn’t find it to be the best of the trilogy are considered to be ones who like their entertainment “dumbed down.” I’ve really got to say that I don’t get that.

    I actually had no problems keeping up with the plot. What really upset me was the lack of resolution with many of the main characters. First, we have Norrington. Norrington began the saga as a loyal, law abiding commodore. When he was persuaded to let Sparrow go in the first film, we find out in the second film that this has vexed him greatly. So much that he has ruined his career in the pursuit of the man who made a mockery out of him and was instrumental in seeing the demise of his engagement. Norrington becomes so entrenched in revenge and reclaiming his old life that he actually goes against his own nature to betray pretty much everyone and become the right hand man of the devil himself.

    Now, no doubt, we expect some comeuppance in #3, but here’s what we get: We get to see Norrington murdered by Bootstrap Bill – a man who, in the time it has taken Will, Elizabeth and Barbossa to fetch Jack back from the dead, has lost all his marbles (which, doesn’t quite mesh with the other sailor who became part of the ship but seemed to be in possession of all his mental faculties despite the fact they remain embedded on the wall). After all, Bootstrap Bill is, ultimately, the one who will be instrumental in Will’s choice at the end of the film. And yet, he delivers death to a character that is a beloved part of the fandom. And for what? No reason at all. Just felt like it. You can try to make sense of why Bootstrap would have went nuts and killed Norrington, but the fact of the matter is: there was no reason for it. Now, being killed by Jones or Beckett. Definitely. Bootstrap? Please.

    Right. What about Jones? Now this was one character who AMAZED me in DMC. I felt like he was shaping up for a hero’s journey all of his own. We discovered that he had loved and lost. Become bitter and nasty. He’s obviously going to go down, but surely he’s going to get his shot at redemption, right? Surely we haven’t invested all this time in this character to get…well, nothing, right? He’s a dynamic character worthy of a dynamic end. Do we get any closure with Jones? Nope. Not at all. No redemption.

    And what about that romance with Tia Dalma/Calypso? Hinted at very lightly in DMC, we assumed that this storyline held much promise. And yet, here’s the resolution: Tia Dalma turns into the 50 Foot Woman and dissolves into crabs. Someone mentioned that it came across as a very emo temper tantrum. But it didn’t resolve anything for her character.

    Furthermore, the writers themselves have said that key information was cut in the editing room that left out vital information for the plot. If the writers can agree to this, why is it so hard to understand that critics would see these faults as well?

    I really find it interesting that fans of the series who enjoyed this installment seem to enjoy falling back on, “You’re too dumb to understand it!” I just will never get this. This last chapter had great potential. I even enjoyed DMC – which most critics hated, but even I couldn’t ignore the glaring problems with this installment. Could it be that the critics actually have a point? No way. Never. Not those guys. Not men and women who have watched more movies than the whole of the commenters on this post combined. No. Obviously, they must be dumb. Yes. That’s it! They didn’t enjoy the movie, so they must be idiots who just “didn’t get it.”

    I think Owen Gleiberman, film critic for Entertainment Weekly, hit the nail on the head. It’s not the critics who didn’t enjoy the film “didn’t get it.” It’s that there’s a difference between accepting something because you want to and actually caring what happens with the characters within a film.

    You can find his rant about this exact diatribe on Pirates and how those who didn’t enjoy it are just too stupid to understand it here: http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20041109,00.html

    Perhaps you saw something differently than these critics and the numerous fans who were disappointed with the film. But, as an intelligent man must surely understand, that doesn’t make those that disagree with you idiots.

  16. Julie says:

    Thank you for a very well-reasoned argument! The complexity of the Pirates franchise is precisely why I love it – the fact that you can learn something new every time you watch any of the films (and I’m really looking forward to the opportunity to marathon the three). It’s an extremely intelligent franchise and in many ways I think AWE is the best one, not least because it doesn’t succumb to the prolonged effects/action sequences that we saw in the first two films. (hello, critics: this is a GOOD THING!)

    However, I knew from the first its complexity would make it strike out with the critics; in writing fan reviews, I made the statement that it’s a fan’s film, because if you aren’t familiar with at least the second movie, you’ll be lost. If you are familiar, however, you’ll be richly rewarded for the investment of your time.

    I applaud the creators of this franchise who took the idea of a movie based on a ride, for crying out loud, and made it into one of the most vividly alive, intelligent, and entertaining franchises ever. It’s for these reasons that I’ll watch it over and over again – while Spiderman 3 will collect dust in my memory.

  17. Aniran says:

    It’s all about paying attention to detail. You pay attention to detail and you, like me and others, will love the films.

  18. Marnie Goodbody says:

    Thank you, AcidicMaryJane! You know, I am sick of being told I’m stupid because I hoped for things like consistent characterization, decent plot resolution and some measure of emotional engagement out of the sequels.

    I *get* complex! I’d be the first to compliment Tolkien on his mastery of dozens of different plotlines, all of which work together to create one single engaging story, while also hinting at a vast vista of other worldbuilding stuff which delights the reader + makes them want to come back.

    I just don’t think Pirates has that.

    19th Century Singapore? 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

    I have considered it. I have considered that it’s strange that the films have an 18th Century Navy, a bunch of 17th Century pirates in a town which disappeared in an earthquake in the 17th century, the East India Company in the West Indies, and now 19th Century Singapore on top. This isn’t consistent world-building. It certainly isn’t “a specific historical and cultural context”, it’s a mishmash of historical elements thrown together to create an illusion of depth, but which falls apart if you try to engage with it deeply, the way this article suggests.

    I’m all for complexity, what I hate about DMC and AWE is that they are merely incoherant.

  19. Anajana says:

    Well said.

    Not as purposefully complex as the Rings movies, because they had lead time, knew they were making three-out-of-one story. But taking what had been woven into the first movie somewhat helter-skelter and deepening it, enriching it- I want to know what the chorus sings behind the score, for instance- makes it nearly encyclopedic in its texture.

    http://www.soundtrack.net/features/article/?id=233 for a bit about the score.

  20. D.C. says:

    I’d like to thank you for writing such an enlightening take on this. You’ve hit every point that some people seem to miss or misinterpet.I’m not ashamed to admit that I am extremely fond of the Pirates Trilogy and to read something like this wonderful.

  21. Jennifer Carlson says:

    As someone who “gets it”, I don’t think the folks who don’t get it are necessarily stupid. (Nor do I believe that this essay implies that they’re stupid.)

    But to frank, in conversations I’ve had with those few folks I’ve met who didn’t like the film it almost always boils down to (a) Jack and Elizabeth didn’t become a couple or (b) Elizabeth and Will didn’t have Rom-Com type happy ending. They may bring up other nitpicks, but the really, for the most part, It’s been my experience that they’d pre-written the ending in their head and when it didn’t go down the way they wrote it, they were unhappy. And that’s OK. But at least cowboy up and admit that rather than trying to go the whole “I’m intellectually superior” route .

    Someone here complained about the lack of “consistent characterization, decent plot resolution and some measure of emotional engagement out of the sequels.”

    For a character to be “consistent” the character would have to remain uniform in behavior at all times. That’s not what humans do. A “consistent” character is a non-complex, sometimes even boring, character. A consistent character is what you get on a TV SitCom. This is not a bad thing as a sitcom’s expected goal is to entertain briefly, not engage or challenge. But to apply that expectation to a dramatic adventure film is incorrect.

    If a character is modeled after a human, then the character needs to evolve as a human evolves — usually as a result of their life experiences. I found that characters in the POTC series evolve consistently WITH their experiences and along each of their individual tracks in a logical manner — as long as you are willing to take into account the events that happened to each of them, walk a mile in their shoes so to speak. The characters in POTC experience many events, have mixed feelings and make difficult, and sometimes imperfect, choices, just as real people do.

    As for “decent plot resolution”, obviously that’s going to be in the eye of the beholder. Certainly someone expecting a Rom-Com resolution will be disappointed. I get that. But personally, I found the resolution richer and deeper and more rewarding. Don’t misunderstand me, I like a happy ending too, but there’s a reason why Casablanca is still a classic and no one will remember The Holiday in five years ( or, heck, even one year). I think the less-than-perfect ending resonates because deep down, because we know that’s the more likely outcome. We may like to visit happily ever after land, who doesn’t?–but we know that life rarely provides that kind of pat resolution.

    For example, I would argue there is far more emotional engagement in Elizabeth’s and Will’s bittersweet story ending than if they had walked off in the sunset together. Their ending in the first film worked for that film, but as their story and paths continue, the second ending was a natural progression. And for me, Jack’s ending was perfect for Jack. I mean, there isn’t even the remotest chance that Barbossa is going to let him walk away with the map and so in the end, Barbossa will bring to the Pearl to Jack. Jack always lands on his feet.

    It’s not a perfect film, but in a fictional world of cursed pirates, fish-face people, and the ability to sail to the afterlife and back, I’m also not expecting a Ken Burns documentary. I don’t really care that the buckles on the shoes of the soldiers aren’t historically correct for that century (and I don’t believe that a time-line is actually ever established in the story anyway, if I’m remembering correctly)

    If this was presented as history it might matter, but unless one actually believes in cursed pirates, fish-face people and the ability to sail to the afterlife and back as historical fact ( and frankly, the world would be much cooler indeed if these things existed!) that’s the kind of nitpick used to bolster a weak arguement.

  22. N. Golden says:

    This article is absolutely refreshing. It is also enlightening to bring some understanding of a movie critic’s perspective and why they are so incredibly harsh on some movies. If you see movie after movie and just get one “over with” to move on to the next, no wonder they apply no thought process to a movie like Pirates, or The Matrix. It also explains why Transformers got such high reviews.

    Pirates is definitely a world created. All three films. From the beginning of each film the viewer can totally immerse in that world for a beautiful 2.5 hours. It is layered. The characters, ships, period and places have become real.

    I can only hope that some day critics will grasp the brilliant work that At World’s End is.

  23. V. Perry says:

    Mr Jenkins, thank you for saying everything about this multi-layered, magnificent and wonderful film that I have been unable to articulate. An earlier post describes Pirates as a “world created” and as such not only am I amazed and grateful to all connected with its creation, I have been absolutely, well, flabbergasted that many others took this gem of craftsmanship and richness and dismissed it for being too long? too complicated? So many “critics” seem to have seen a completely different movie than myself, so I much appreciate your thoughtful essay which has shed some light into the dark. Particularly nice was commenting on not only the incandescent Jack (my favorite) but also you seem to have noticed what I feel, the excellence of all the other characters – the casting of these films is perfection. I also delighted in this film’s creators for pulling the rug out from (some) sputtering fans, with the unexpected bittersweet ending of Elizabeth and Will, and even Jack not getting the Pearl but having the last laugh. I am frustrated in that I feel that Verbinsky and co. deserve much, much praise for this work, for all the risks they took and the care they have taken in POTC – I am so glad they did not “cave” and instead gave us scenes that hurt, or soared, or were as funny and haunting as the Locker. I regret not seeing this article earlier. In any event, I am looking forward to upcoming DVD release; POTC are movies I will be watching again and again for years to come.