(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: with Pirates of the Caribbean being rebooted, it’s time to note that this series is not all about a single actor or character.)

In the year of our dark lord Cthulhu 2018, the only true zombies are movie franchises. No matter how steep the diminishing box office returns, no matter how loudly we collectively groan when another installment is announced, sequel and reboots and spinoffs just keep lumbering to the local cineplex. One of the latest is Disney’s mega-popular Pirates of the Caribbean saga. It was announced last month that the Mouse House is considering a Pirates reboot and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it ever since…especially since it was revealed that Johnny Depp is most likely not returning for this new adventure.

To which I say: that’s probably for the best.

Look, I used to love Jack Sparrow. When Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl came out in 2003 (15 YEARS AGO – WOWZA), Sparrow was a breath of eccentric fresh air that helped buoy a film based on a theme park ride into a billion-dollar franchise. But then, the thing happened. You know the thing. The one where Hollywood sees that audiences like something, so they force-feed it to us until we’re sick of it. What were once fun personality quirks in Jack Sparrow turned into obnoxious parodies with each successive installment until Jack’s antics overshadowed every other aspect of the narrative.

But with Disney wooing Deadpool and Zombieland writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick to pen the script for this new version of Pirates of the Caribbean, audiences can expect a witty and biting story. And it’s one that doesn’t need Jack Sparrow in order to be successful.

Jack Sparrow Was Never Meant to Be the Main Character

Who is the main character of the Pirates franchise? If you said Jack Sparrow, no one would blame you. He is definitely the most outsized character in the series. But he isn’t, and was never intended, to be the main character. You simply have to re-watch Curse of the Black Pearl to see it. The first character we are introduced to? The only singing on a ship in the middle of a dark night? The one obsessed with all things pirate? Young Elizabeth Swann. She is the main character. The franchise just forgot.

Let’s examine the evidence. Not only is Elizabeth the first character we meet, standing alone on the bow of a ship as a child, she is the focus again as soon as the narrative shifts to its “modern day.” The audience follows the now adult-enough-for-the-time-period Elizabeth as she awakens and goes about her life. It is at this point we are introduced to her main conflict: marry the man she’s been told is her future or admit her feelings for her childhood friend. Will Elizabeth choose Commodore Norrington or Will Turner? Her kidnapping at the hands of Barbossa is the catalyst that kicks off the entire saga.

Elizabeth Swann is also the character with the most defined story arc. Over the course of three films, she goes from a feisty but traditional bourgeois daughter to a literal Pirate King. Along the way, she discovers a lot of things about herself, including stuff she doesn’t like about her calculating pragmatism. She saves pirates, is arrested, stows away on a ship to find her lover, engages in epic battles on the high seas, fights a bloody kraken, resurrects Barbossa from the dead, successfully pretends to be a literal goddess, gets married in the middle of a pitched battle, and ultimately convinces a hive of scum and villainy to make her their leader. That’s a hero’s journey, dammit.

Of course, Disney didn’t stick the landing. Instead they had Elizabeth revert to 18th-century gowns and mooning over her husband as she awaits his once-a-decade return. No. Bad Disney. Even within the narrative set up by Pirates, the forced separation of Elizabeth Swann and Will Turner when he becomes the new Davy Jones rings hollow. The original Davy Jones spent his entire movie finagling his way around the “only step foot on dry land once a decade” rule. You can’t tell me a literal Pirate King wouldn’t find a way to smash her man more than once every ten years. I refuse to believe that and if a single woman had been consulted during the scriptwriting process, that horrid ending — where Elizabeth Swann retires from piracy to remain faithful to her husband because if she sluts it up he’ll never be able to break the curse — would have never seen the light of day.

Which brings me to…

It’s a Romance

Oh, I’m sorry. Did you think this was an action movie? Easy mistake, what with all the zombie pirates and the barnacle-man with an octopus beard*. But look a little closer and you’ll see the core of the Pirates trilogy is ripped straight from romance tropes. You have the feisty female lead. She comes from wealth but not so much that she’s snotty. She needs to marry because her father is worried about her future. There is a dashing but boring man — Norrington — waiting in the wings to give her a comfortable yet empty life. There’s the True Love™ she met as a child but who has no money or status. There is adventure and loss and kissing and declarations of undying love. Pirates is a romance novel hiding under a loose collection of Caribbean mythology.

Jack Sparrow is not a romantic lead. His personality does not allow for it. At best, he is a lusty distraction thrown at the heroine in a moment of weakness and confusion. Which is part of the reason why the first Pirates movie without Elizabeth Swann and Will Turner felt so off. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides tried to shove Jack Sparrow into the romantic lead role opposite of Penelope Cruz’s Angelica and it just did not work. Jack’s aversion to commitment is always played straight. He is no Mister Darcy, waiting for the right person to draw him into a loving relationship. He’s a selfish chaotic neutral whirlwind of scarves and bad dental hygiene. Without an epic romance to hold the pieces together, Pirates as a franchise simply descends into a series of disjointed action set pieces.

*Though in a post-SHAPE OF WATER world, maybe the octopus beard should’ve given the true genre away.

Pirate Mythology is Vast and Varied

One thing the Pirates franchise has been especially good at is capitalizing on the vast mythologies that surround seafaring. Everything from cursed Native American gold and mermaids to sea goddesses and magical navigational equipment has shown up. Even the literal underworld! But it is merely the tip of the narrative iceberg.

For all its flaws, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End did a fantastic job of opening up the world. The Pieces of Nine and Shipwreck Island introduced the Brethren Court. Pirates from different cultures around the world working together — well, following loose guidelines together — was a hook Disney never explored. At the end of the initial trilogy, the pirates of the world have declared literal war on the East India Trading Company. By default, this is a declaration of war against all legitimate trade and the countries that pay those sailor’s salaries. That…isn’t something that just goes away.

How does Elizabeth balance her King duties with raising a child? Does she strap young Henry in a sling and continue her dangerous life? Everything about Elizabeth’s personality up until this point would indicate yes. Would her husband, who literally ferries those who have died at sea, use his position of power to wring crucial information about shipping lanes and military movement to his wife? Survey says yes.

Then there’s the other pirates. What is piracy like in the South China Sea under the reign of Mistress Ching? What about Gentleman Jocard, a former slave. Do his crew target slaver ships in righteous vengeance? Or how about Ammand, the leader of the Ottoman pirates who cruises the Black Sea to free infidel (Christian) ships of their cargo? Or Sumbhajee Angria, leader of the Arabian Sea pirates and a literal Hindu priest? How does he blend those two sides of his life? Or Eduardo Villanueva, the pirate lord of the Adriatic Sea, splitting his time between the Philippines and the west coast of South America?

Each of those characters would make a fantastic backdrop for a new film. Have the Pirate King go on adventures all over the world. Let her bring her children and her husband. Just because Will Turner can’t step foot on dry land doesn’t mean Elizabeth can’t set foot on his ship. Or move the timeline up and allow young Henry from the latest Pirates film to uncover his mother’s secret double life as the world leader of piracy. Give him a hero’s journey that sends him all over the world looking to uncover what other tales his parents may have kept from him. Introduce audiences to a wide, diverse mythology built on the foundation of the original Pirates trilogy.

Whatever Disney does, hopefully they at least know better this time than to ultimately reduce their hero to little more than a uterus with legs and infinite patience.

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