After 15 years, it’s almost too easy to forget that not many people were optimistic about the release of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl back in 2003. At best, it seemed as if it would coast by on curiosity around how Disney could turn one of their most beloved theme park rides into a full-blown film, and instead it surprised everyone by being an absolute blast.
It scratched an itch for the type of swashbuckling adventures that simply didn’t exist on the big screen anymore by then, fueled by a compelling story, fun action set pieces and a whole handful of great characters – the standout, of course, being Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow, a performance that famously worried and angered Disney executives during production only to prove them all wrong by immediately breaking into the pop culture zeitgeist.
Thanks to the surprise success of Black Pearl, it didn’t take long for the studio to realize the franchise potential that had been gifted to them, and two sequels were filmed back to back not long after: 2006’s Dead Man’s Chest and 2007’s At World’s End. Those were then followed by On Stranger Tides in 2011 and Dead Men Tell No Tales in 2017, both of which drew in audiences even though critical praise for the franchise plummeted with each new film, with the fifth entry in particular seemingly coming and going with little fanfare, suggesting that the franchise’s true juggernaut days have long since passed.
It’s not that bold to claim that common consensus on all the sequels is less favorable than it is for the first film, and I personally agree with much of the general criticism, whether it be the sequels’ increasing tendency to get lost in their own narratives, the needless pushing of spectacle over heart, and the over-reliance on Jack Sparrow to the point of exhaustion. I adore the first entry, abhor the fourth, and found the fifth amusingly passable if entirely forgettable, but I would argue that while the sequels have strained the franchise into the realm of irrelevancy, the first follow-up, Dead Man’s Chest, doesn’t deserve to be lumped into a category with its successors as a shining example of everything wrong about the current state of the franchise.
Lest we forget, at the time of its release, Dead Man’s Chest went on to become Disney’s highest-grossing film ever for several years, breaking a billion dollars at the global office back when that was still a rare achievement, and yet, over twelve years later, its own legacy has been tarnished by the lesser sequels of the 2010s. To an extent, I even enjoy At World’s End, but of the two back-to-back sequels, it’s Dead Man’s Chest that I feel deserves to be defended – first, at least – after all these years from the “Pirates sequels are all bad” argument as a worthy, albeit imperfect, follow-up to Black Pearl.
Now, if it’s been a while since you’ve seen it, let’s do a quick recap: Dead Man’s Chest picks up some time after the events of Black Pearl, with the wedding day of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) ruined by the arrival of Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), who’s come to Port Royal in order to arrest them both for helping Jack Sparrow escape at the end of the first film, though he’s willing to allow Elizabeth to go free if Will can find Jack and obtain the rum-loving pirate’s compass, an item that points its holder in the direction of whatever their heart wants most.
Of course, Jack’s got problems of his own, as the villainous Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) is looking to collect on a longstanding debt, and is thus on the run from Jones while simultaneously searching for the Dead Man’s Chest, which holds Jones’ heart. Whoever can control the heart can control Jones and, by default, the sea, and it doesn’t take long for everyone’s paths to start crossing in pursuit of the chest.