'Pirates of the Caribbean': The Diminishing Returns of Johnny Depp

The tepid reaction to 'Pirates 5' and the star's involvement in Universal's Dark Universe follows a slew of films that were either ignored, derided or worse.
Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.]

There was once a time when Johnny Depp joining a big-scale franchise would be exciting news, instead of something that inspired dread and snarky online comments among moviegoers.

Depp, whose fifth Pirates of the Caribbean film is in theaters now, was front and center in this week's first cast photo of Universal's newly titled Dark Universe — a shared universe launching next month with Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe's The Mummy, and also set to feature Javier Bardem as Frankenstein's Monster and Depp as the Invisible Man.

The photo led to few positive reactions from anyone aside from Depp super-fanatics, ranging from dismissiveness to outright anger. (Depp's casting in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them inspired a similar response last year.) No doubt, some of the negative reaction is due to Depp's contentious divorce last year, during which Depp’s ex-wife Amber Heard alleged that he had committed domestic violence. But even when you look past personal allegations, Depp’s career has been stuck in a fallow period for a few years, and movie fans had begun to turn on him even before those allegations.

Arguably, Depp’s last well-received film, either critically or financially, was Rango, back in 2011 (though the new Pirates is tipped to be a commercial, if not critical, hit). Since then, Depp’s appeared in a slew of films that were either ignored, derided or worse. For every Black Mass, which gained some critical praise but a mild box-office reaction, there’s been a Mortdecai or Transcendence or Alice Through the Looking Glass. Captain Jack Sparrow is what turned Johnny Depp into an A-list movie star, unquestionably, as opposed to a well-respected, quirky indie performer. But the popularity of Captain Jack Sparrow has also made it so every time Johnny Depp stars in a blockbuster, it feels like he’s playing the same character no matter the setting.

In 2003, watching Johnny Depp cavort around in the colorful accoutrements of a pirate was an unexpected delight. A film based on a theme-park attraction could have easily been a flop —Disney tried with a second film later that year, The Haunted Mansion, and it was a flop — but thanks in no small part to Depp’s fresh work, Pirates of the Caribbean soared. Since then, Depp has continued to work with a diverse list of filmmakers, from Tim Burton to Michael Mann to Kenneth Branagh in the upcoming Murder on the Orient Express. But few of the films in which he’s starred in the last 14 years have reached the same creative heights as that first Pirates. In effect, what was once exciting and unique has now become shtick. Captain Jack Sparrow was singularly off-kilter in 2003; now, the character is boring and old hat.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in Dead Men Tell No Tales. In the early going, there’s a sense of a possible arc for Jack that could function as a meta-commentary on Depp’s career. Sparrow loses his pirate crew (including his longtime best friend Joshamee Gibbs) because he’s “lost his luck.” Thus, the film could have depicted Jack’s desire to get his mojo back. Instead, Jack tries to evade the clutches of Javier Bardem’s ghostly Captain Salazar while helping out the son of his old friend Will Turner in claiming the mythical Trident of Poseidon to help break Will’s curse and save his own hide. By the end, all is well again, without the sense that Jack’s mojo is back; instead, it just feels like his old crew has accepted that Jack will always be their captain, like it or not.

What was novel is now predictable: Jack will lust after women, rum and gold. (He’s first introduced in Dead Men Tell No Tales waking up in the middle of a bank vault with a bottle of rum in his hand and a beautiful woman sleeping next to him. Hat trick!) Sparrow was once a delightfully incorrigible type, but after nearly 15 years, he’s nothing short of desperate.

Part of the problem is simple: the quirk of Captain Jack Sparrow has carried over too many of Depp’s other performances, from his Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland to Sweeney Todd to Rango. It’s hard to recapture the magic of the soused, Keith Richards-inspired pirate when similar iterations of the character keep popping up in various films outside of the Pirates franchise. Depp’s upcoming roles, at least, suggest something less outrageously, almost forcefully quirky; to detractors, a role which requires him to be literally invisible for extended portions may be preferable to the alternative. But the damage may already be done: Pirates of the Caribbean pushed Depp into stardom. The movies he’s made especially in the last few years suggest that he’s chosen to do what’s familiar, instead of what made him so famous: doing what’s unexpected.

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