Hasslein Blog: CUBING: Pirates of the Caribbean


Hasslein Blog

Friday, July 26, 2013

CUBING: Pirates of the Caribbean

By Duy Tano

The Lone Ranger may be getting horrible reviews right now (I still haven't seen it as of this writing), but I'm still looking forward to seeing it, mainly because it's got most of the original Pirates of the Caribbean team on it. I'm a huge Pirates fan.

Really, Duy? you ask. Pirates?

Yes, I love all three movies.

Even the second and third?

Yes, even the second and third.

Okay, but you have to admit they're not as good as the first.

Actually, the third one is my favorite.

Explain yourself, you handsome devil, you!

Why, gladly! If you'll read on, I'll happily explain why I love the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. And I'll even do it in bullet point format, so you can follow my scatterbrained thoughts more easily. Never let it be said that I'm not helpful. Sit down, grab some rum, and I'll tell you a tale. And by "a tale," I mean a longwinded explanation.

Reason #1: The Pirates series gets more and more fantastic as it goes along.

One of the reasons I've frequently seen for Dead Man's Chest and At World's End being inferior to Curse of the Black Pearl is that it gets less realistic as it goes along. Black Pearl had an ancient curse revolving around golden treasure, Dead Man's Chest has Davy Jones showing up and being a Lovecraftian-type demon, and At World's End has resurrections and goddesses. But that's one of the things I love about it. Unless I'm watching a truly grounded story like a crime movie or a romance (cue the sarcastic comments), I can't be bothered with Hollywood's definition of "realism." What's important to me is if I can suspend my disbelief within the world that is presented to me, and if I can feel like I'm actually in that world. Pirates does that to me, and it slowly escalates into fantasy with each succeeding movie in such a way that just absolutely works for me.

One thing I like about this is the openness to interpretation of the more fantastical aspects. When Jack Sparrow died while facing the Kraken ("Hello, beastie."), he was taken to Davy Jones' Locker — used until then as the euphemism it's used for in regular figurative language (dying at sea), and now taken almost literally (an afterlife for those who die at sea). The end of Dead Man's Chest reintroduces the resurrected Hector Barbossa, the villain from Black Pearl, so it's established right away that a resurrection is possible — but then they actually have to find him. For that, they get a crew and some charts (which look cool; they involve spinning things around and putting pieces together and stuff), which take them to a waterfall. They fall off the edge and end up at Davy Jones' Locker, at which point they're united with Jack. They then go through an Absurd (capital A) process to get back to the real world.

What really happened? Was it literal (they successfully retrieved Jack)? Was it some metaphorical representation (they died as well and some magic thing caused them to come back)? It's both — it works both ways, and I like it.

Another example. In Dead Man's Chest, when they're talking about how Davy Jones came to be this Lovecratian demon, they give two versions of the story: that he gave his heart to the sea, and that he gave his heart to a woman. Tia Dalma, the voodoo lady, immediately says, "Same story, different versions, and both are true." It turns out, as revealed in At World's End, Davy Jones fell in love with Calypso, goddess of the seas. What was a throwaway, Sandman-esque statement in one movie becomes the literal truth the next. And I like that. It tickles my brain.

Reason #2: Its mechanics are surprisingly nuanced.

This film series involves pirates, and pirates are vile, backstabbin' buccaneers! So, as a consequence, they lie a lot. They make deals they don't intend to keep and use each other as sacrificial lambs. They double-cross each other so much that you actually have to pay attention not just to what they say, but what they don't say, the looks they give each other, and all the little hints they throw at each other.

There's a scene before the big fight scene in At World's End when Jack, Elizabeth, Will, and Barbossa are trying to get one up on Beckett and Davy Jones, and it looks like Will and Jack are on opposing sides. Elizabeth catches on quickly and acts on it, and then Barbossa catches on and quickly acts on it, and then Jack feeds Barbossa what he needs — all nonverbally. As far as Beckett and Jones are concerned, these guys are just fighting with each other. I think it's a really well-done and nuanced scene, because you really have to pay attention, and as a result it lends itself to multiple viewings.

Speaking of nonverbal communication, here's another thing to keep in mind, should you choose to watch it again: Jack Sparrow fears death. Every single one of his actions is motivated by it, and the one time he goes against it, he actually, you know, dies. In The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics, Denny O'Neil notes that a writer should always keep in mind what his character fears, even if it's never said out loud. Jack never says he's afraid of death until Davy Jones asks him really late in At Worlds' End, and there's some resonance to it when he just seriously answers "You have no idea," partly because he doesn't respond in his traditional smartass way, but also partly because it's true, and it's the first time it's made explicit. It echoes as a result of withholding that key piece of information from being verbalized.

Reason #3: Quotable quotes

"These are the only rules that matter: what a man can do, and what a man can't do."

"For sure you have to be lost to find a place that cannot be found. Otherwise, everyone would know where it is."

"You didn't beat me. You ignored the rules of engagement. In a fair fight, I'd kill you."
"That's not much incentive for me to fight fair then, is it?"

"Take what you can."
"Give nothing back!"

"Who is this traitor?"
"Not likely anyone among us."
"Where's Will?"
"Not among us."

The Pirates dialogue goes from smart-alecky patter to witty repartee to whimsical Gaiman-esque passages to just plain cool lines. And if you're going to give me 8 hours to watch, you better have some of that going for ya.

(Apologies to my wife, who will hear me repeat lines from them every so often, especially after I've just seen them.)

Reason #4: The Brethren Court

At Worlds' End has a device I'm always going to love and will always be a sucker for: the Brethren Court. In other words, a club of pirates, comprising nine pirate lords from all over the world. I love that kind of thing. The Club of Heroes in Batman, comprising Batman wannabes of all nations; Galactus' heralds — basically, I love collections of characters who are not exactly a team but have one thing that unites them. I'm a sucker for it, I think it's rich material, and I will never not love it.

In fact, I want every member of the Brethren Court to get his own movie. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE.

Reason #5: The fights are awesome.

One thing that I think gets a short shrift in a lot of action movies is the fights. A lot of the time, they're completely mindless — and don't get me wrong, the visceral effect is a huge part of their appeal, but I think the best fight scenes work when there are points to them, whether to advance the story or to build character. Avengers is my favorite example of this, closely followed by the Pirates trilogy. In At World's End, at the end, there's a big fight when Will asks Elizabeth to marry him — and they do get married, right then, right there, in the middle of the battle. It's a comedic moment that goes to touching that becomes more important on a rewatch considering how the movie ends.

One thing that's consistent in all three movies that you won't notice unless you're looking for it is that Jack Sparrow is the worst swordsman of all of them. He loses every swordfight and somehow gets away with winning the fight because he either cheated or planned out something beforehand or just plain got lucky.

The fights also shift, seamlessly, in terms of tone. Jack could go from being a cartoony scaredy cat one second and then fire a pistol with pinpoint accuracy and deadly seriousness the next. I've always admired that kind of thing, being able to shift tones easily. That won't change.

Also, in Dead Man's Chest, Jack and Will and Norrington all fight on a big giant wheel. It's awesome. It's also been criticized for being silly. Well, if love of silliness is a crime, sir, then lock me up.

Reason #6: It has a rich world populated with richer characters.

The Pirates series goes around the world for whatever time period they're supposed to be in. Every place they go to has a history, even if that history is not delved upon. There are artifacts and songs and tattoos (Jack has a whole poem tattooed on his back, which is apparently a real poem) and a whole host of other things that really lend to the feeling of these places having gone through adventures before you ever got there. I favor that kind of approach to world-building, because it evokes the feeling of being in another country. That really sucks me in.

As with the places, the characters also have their own individual histories. Each one is visually distinct with his or her own personality. Anamaria steers the Black Pearl in Curse, outmaneuvering Barbossa for a while, and at the end of the movie, Jack still owes her a boat. I wonder what happened to her. I wonder how Ragetti lost his eye. I wonder what happened to Gibbs to cause him to turn to piracy, and how exactly it mirrors Norrington's tale. So on and so forth.

Two characters I no longer wonder about, though, are the protagonists of the series, Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann. Something that made Pirates more fun at its onset was the fact that Jack wasn't the protagonist, although he was clearly the star. The first movie in fact was written to be more Will-centric with Jack as the sidekick who gets the best lines (you know the type), and revised to put a larger spotlight on Jack. This slightly askew way of approaching it helps to see what would be an otherwise conventional story — Will and Elizabeth's growth as characters — in a fresh light. And thank God for that, because Will and Elizabeth were pretty annoying characters at the start. However, when they finally grew into their roles by the end of At World's End, with Elizabeth giving a Braveheart-like speech to the crew and Will turning awesome seemingly at the drop of a hat, they had won me over. And as a consequence, I no longer wonder about them. Pirates was their story, and I saw it through to the end.

My favorite character dynamic is from the two main pirates. When Jack and Barbossa are together, it's gold. They bicker like two kids on a playground — or like Spike and Angel, from the 5th season of Angel, which happens to be my favorite season in the Whedonverse. I could wat

Reason #7: It's fun!

Now all of this fancy shmancy talk about world-building, choice of protagonists, and nuanced mechanics would still not be enough to make me enjoy a movie about pirates if they didn't add up to one thing: being a fun romp. But, Pirates is oodles and caboodles of fun. The dialogue is never serious for too long without someone saying something funny to break the tension. The ideas are full of whimsy and a big plus to someone who loves things like Golden Age Captain Marvel, like I do. And the fight scenes are a joy to watch, with the kind of choreography that doesn't even make me feel like they're going on too long (though they probably are, on any objective level). There's something in it tonally to hook you and to make you laugh when necessary. In short, it's fun, and it's executed very well. I could watch those three movies on a loop.

What do you say now?

Why, you're right, Duy! I think I'll watch those movies this weekend and give them another chance! Just one more thing—

What's that?

I noticed you didn't mention the fourth movie.

What fourth movie?

The one with the priest and the mermaids, and they did try making Jack the main character, and—

Nope, sorry, I have no idea what you're talking about.

No, no, you know, there was that scene where all the mermaids come out and attack at once, and Penelope Cruz was in it and—

Nope, tralalalalalalalalalala… It didn't exist. Goodnight, Hasslein. Goodnight!

(But the Jack/Barbossa scenes were still fun in that one. Too bad there were only around three of them.)

Duy Tano is a popular Internet blogger and comic book expert. Check out his blog, The Comics Cube!, at www.comicscube.com, which tackles all sorts of different topics for all sorts of different forms of sequential art. Superhero comics, indie comix, komiks, manga, BD—you name it, it's a valid topic for discussion.

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