All blockbusters want to be the next Star Wars to some degree or another. But few have internalized what makes Star Wars great: it builds a universe full of cool shit that’s as likely to render a child goggle-eyed as a sympathetic adult. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise doesn’t just create a bunch of stock characters and set them loose: it surrounds them with a world where sailors’ superstitions and heathen curses step into the role of science, where every island is like a stop on the Odyssey.

We were already prepared to see Singapore in these movies when Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow mentions it in passing in the first one, Curse of the Black Pearl. The sense of a larger world was so strong in that film that we might have been wondering what Singapore would look like in this universe even before our heroes sail into it in At World’s End, the under-loved third installment. It doesn’t look much like any Singapore we know of, and the captain they find there is as casually racist a stereotype as the previous movie’s cannibals, but it lets us drink in the squalid fantasies of the period. Look closely in the background of the bathhouse: some of the bathers have been there so long that fungus has grown on them. That’s the kind of detail this movie lives for.

If Singapore doesn’t disappoint, neither does the Shipwreck Cove at which our heroes find themselves at a grave meeting. Built from dozens of ships piled into a crude tower, it looks like it spawned off China Miéville’s Armada in The Scar. The Pirate Lords who populate it introduce themselves by name and reveal little else about themselves, and they form such a diverse cast of characters we find ourselves making up their backstories in our heads. At World’s End understands it needs rich supporting characters to balance out the blandness of its heroine Elizabeth Swann and her paramour Will Turner. Their love story doesn’t have the gravitas it deserves, but at least it gives this ship of fools an anchor.

Captain Jack is offscreen for much of the movie, and if the hokey scene where Depp mugs with hallucinatory copies of himself in a desert wasteland is any indication, it’s the right place for him. (It is poignant, though, to realize Jack’s personal hell is a desert—a place where he can’t sail.) The character worked in the first movie because it had a world of normalcy to push back against. It worked in the second movie because he was in a trap and his pursuers were never far behind, and his desperation was as funny as the stakes were high. Here, the world is so batshit that he would only get in the movie’s way if he blundered through it in great noisy slapstick scenes.

The movie stays out of its own way: no annoying sidekicks, no dick jokes, no anachronisms other than the appearance of Keith Richards as the craggiest pirate of them all. The opening hanging scene is Grimm-dark, not grimdark. All good latter-day swashbucklers have moments like that: the opening of The Mummy, the pickled severed head in The Mask of Zorro, every other scene in the Indiana Jones movies. It’s the kind of darkness that lets kids know the real world is scary, even as they know that what’s happening onscreen isn’t necessarily the real world. At World’s End finds the same middle ground as the best fantasy movies, where magic and danger lurk around the same corner.

A year later, Nolan’s The Dark Knight and Marvel’s Iron Man would polarize blockbusters either towards embarrassed angst or self-congratulatory irreverence. Contemporary movies with the same willingness to occupy their alternate realities are either cult phenomena (the John Wick movies) or auteurist exceptions (Fury Road). This could be seen as the last gasp of one of the most interesting eras for blockbusters, the one that produced the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies and the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings with room for Superman Returns and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: daffy, disturbing visions that live proudly in the other realm of existence that movies were made to create. At World’s End is the climax its time deserves—even its name suggests that things couldn’t have been pushed much further.

One Comment

  1. Luquinhas Lucas

    May 25, 2021 at 5:21 pm

    Am I the only one who likes the whole Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy? Many say that only the first is good.


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