Johnny Depp recently revealed that no amount of money could get him to return as Captain Jack Sparrow for another Pirates of the Caribbean film. While many might believe that Pirates of the Caribbean can’t exist without Depp, excluding Sparrow from future films is actually what’s best for the franchise.
First released in 2003, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, directed by Gore Verbinski and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, was a hit with both audiences and critics, introducing Depp’s mischievous but lovable Sparrow in a swashbuckling adventure. The character has been a staple of all four of the sequels, most recently facing off against Javier Bardem’s Captain Salazar in 2017’s critically panned Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. With reports over the last couple of years repeatedly confirming that development is still underway on Pirates of the Caribbean 6, Depp’s recent comments revealing that he has no desire to ever return as Sparrow appear to leave the future of the franchise up in the air (or lost at sea).
“I’m Captain Jack Sparrow, savvy?”
There’s never really been a character like Jack Sparrow before. Depp has gone on record saying that Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards was a big inspiration for his performance, with the actor adopting the musician’s slightly slurred speech patterns and physical mannerisms. Sparrow always seems at least a little drunk but, despite his wobbly stride, the character is always ready to say something clever or draw his cutlass and do battle against British Navy sailors and barnacled fish-pirate hybrids alike. Writers Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, who penned all but one of the Pirates of the Caribbean scripts, made Sparrow funny, capable, and cunning, but it’s Depp’s performance that makes the character truly unforgettable.
Sparrow is also, at his core, a “static” character. Sparrow does not grow or change throughout any of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies to any significant degree and remains more or less the same pirate at the end of Dead Men Tell No Tales that he was when he was first introduced in The Curse of the Black Pearl. While that’s part of what makes him so much fun to watch in the earlier films, it also means that the appeal of the character can start to wear thin as the franchise weathers on.
The cracks started to show in the third movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. The first two movies had always felt like “The Johnny Depp Show” to a certain extent, but a particular sequence in the third film, involving Sparrow’s hallucinations of a ship-full of other Jack Sparrows, was a slight step too far. Although Depp’s character delivered more of what fans had come to love about him in At World’s End, that hallucination sequence made clear that there can be too much of a good thing and hinted at what would be to come.
“It be too late to alter course now, Mateys.”
In what many consider to be the worst entry in the franchise to date (and what is reportedly the most expensive movie ever made), Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides features a crucial decision that, in hindsight, is a big mistake – the removal of Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner and Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Swann. Although Sparrow had always been the “fun” character between the three, Turner and Swann’s relationship was, in many ways, the heart and soul of the first three movies.
Turner and Swann were the human characters that the audience connected to and they balanced out the general wackiness from Sparrow and the other pirates. With both Bloom and Knightley not returning for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and with nobody new being introduced to fill their places (at least nobody interesting), the movie lost that heart and that human element that had anchored the first three movies. Instead, it delivered more Jack Sparrow.
Although 2017’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, attempted to right the ship after On Stranger Tides, bringing the franchise back to its roots and even featuring a return of Bloom and Knightley, the franchise, at this point, felt tired. In attempting to create a film that recaptured the magic of the first, Dead Men Tell No Tales sometimes feels more like a Pirates of the Caribbean cover band than the original thing. The same can be said for Depp’s Sparrow. Depp’s heart didn’t seem to be in it anymore and, at times, it feels like the actor is doing an impersonation of himself playing Jack Sparrow rather than organically playing the character.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales marks something of a course-correct for the franchise after On Stranger Tides, but it’s also the film that sees a shift in the public perception of Depp as an actor. Depp’s movie-star persona takes some big hits before and during production on the film. After starring in a number of box office bombs, including 2013’s The Lone Ranger, 2014’s Transcendence, and 2016’s Alice Through the Looking Glass, Depp is no longer the reliable box office draw that he once was.
In addition to headlining a number of unsuccessful films, issues in Depp’s personal life start to bleed into his public persona. Ex-wife Amber Heard’s allegations of abuse against Depp are made public in the spring of 2016 and, in what has since become a significant point of contention in the current legal dispute between Depp and the Aquaman star, Depp severs the end of his finger in the midst of production on Dead Men Tell No Tales. The injury causes delays in filming and costs the production millions.
In what quickly becomes something of a snowball effect, rumors regarding Depp’s substance issues also start to emerge at this time, complicating Depp’s movie-star image. These developments evidently do more than just hurt the star’s public persona, however, and, in conjunction with his previous box office bombs, make him a complicated proposition for studios. One studio executive even called the star “radioactive.”
All of this is to say, the issues in Depp’s personal life are now inextricably linked with his movie-star persona and, while the actor maintains a strong and passionate fanbase, he is simply too high risk to put front and center in a major franchise right now.
“All I need is a [new] crew.”
Although Sparrow is often the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks about Pirates of the Caribbean, what the franchise needs now is new blood. The argument could – and probably should – be made that, without Depp, the best thing for the franchise is for it to be pushed overboard with a cannonball strapped to its ankle. But, since Pirates of the Caribbean remains a highly valuable piece of IP for Disney and another film (or series of films) is all but guaranteed, the best thing for the franchise is a complete wiping of the slate.
A Pirates of the Caribbean spinoff film starring Margot Robbie has reportedly been in development for several years but much remains unknown about the project and it’s unclear how the film will connect to the characters and plots from past movies. What the film needs to do, however, is introduce a brand new cast of characters to root for and tell a brand new story set in the Pirates of the Caribbean universe, without Jack Sparrow. While hardcore fans might be reluctant to accept a new film without Sparrow, the unique world of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies allows for the introduction of fresh voices to take Sparrow’s place.
“Now, bring me that horizon.”
While Jack Sparrow is, undeniably, one of the most memorable characters of the last twenty years, he has evidently worn out his welcome. Sparrow was never designed to single-handedly carry a Pirates of the Caribbean film and, while Dead Men Tell No Tales attempts to take some of the load off of Depp, the film ultimately just isn’t that good and Depp seems as tired of the franchise as many fans are. Plus, regardless of the outcome of Depp’s current legal issues, the uber-public airing of dirty laundry that’s taken place over the last five years will be hard to separate from the actor moving forward.
Of course, much of this feels inevitable. At a certain point, many franchises lose sight of what made them great in the first place, actors outgrow their old roles, or audiences just get bored and move on (or all of the above). Whatever the future holds for Pirates of the Caribbean, it’s for the best that Depp won’t be involved, both for his sake and for the sake of the franchise. Plus, even if Depp were to return to the role, he’d be around 60 years old and something about a 60-year-old Jack Sparrow swinging from the rigging of the Black Pearl just sounds wrong.