As far as blockbusters go, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and Rogue One have something in common: they both suck for about an hour. The first third of each picture plagues itself with stunningly unlikable characters, jarring set-hopping, and a hastening toward a final half that, admittedly, makes the slog worth it. Rogue One boasts one of the finest endings to any Star Wars movie. At World’s End also enjoys this distinction in its own franchise. But unlike Rogue One, Gore Verbinski‘s film leans further into its world and feels less perfunctory. That’s why, when all is said and done, At World’s End is an effective trilogy-capper with a sporadically good story, astounding visuals, and an overlooked emphasis on Elizabeth Swann as the central character. Move aside, Will Turner. There’s a Pirate King in town and she’s here to fuck shit up.
Her importance may not be immediately apparent but it’s been one of the series’ most consistent aspects. While it may feel haphazardly plotted, The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is deceptively deliberate with its characters. Keira Knightley‘s Elizabeth Swann exemplifies this perfectly. Johnny Depp gets top billing but Knightley gets the superior role. The movie recognizes Elizabeth as the franchise’s emotional centerpiece and incorporates that epiphany into its story. She could easily have been relegated to a simple, hero-motivating damsel-in-distress. Instead, she evolves into a strong-willed warrior who bears the brunt of the trilogy’s tragedies and comes out stronger. She needed to experience James Norrington’s death alone and she does. Their strained relationship required closure, and watching Bootstrap Bill impale Norrington with a large piece of sharpened wood did the trick. Later, she shares her initial grief over Will’s death with Jack but carries that sadness with her. For Elizabeth, shit hasn’t been easy. Along with Norrington and Davy Jones, she’s one of the franchise’s only dynamic characters. The Curse of the Black Pearl sows these seeds in its second half, leaving further development to the underwhelming Dead Man’s Chest.
The co-protagonists, dashing Will Turner and wily Jack Sparrow, appear to take center stage in The Curse of the Black Pearl. Jack Sparrow steals the show in Dead Man’s Chest. But At World’s End is Elizabeth’s movie all the way. This works, mainly because Depp and Orlando Bloom don’t service the overarching story nearly as much as Knightley does.
All three, however, serve a greater purpose. The smartest creative decision Verbinski and his writers make is burdening these heroes with unique journeys that, by the story’s end, either transform or reinforce who they are. Will hates pirates and promises his duty-bound father that he’ll save him from Davy Jones. Elizabeth fights for those she loves, using her heart as her compass and her sword as a reminder not to fuck with that compass. And Jack…well, Jack just wants to do Jack shit.
A Welcome Intensity
From Jones strangling Ian Mercer with his tentacles to one of Sao Feng’s pirates snapping off a frostbitten big toe, there’s a welcome intensity here that benefits the film in unexpectedly fun ways. This installment is a better movie than it’s given credit for, even if its quality tops out at “good” and “fun” rather than “great.” There’s so much to chew on, so much to enjoy. Those who can look past its length and frequent silliness will have a blast.
Making it all more enthralling is the inclusion of truly spectacular visual effects—some of the best the 2000s could offer. Verbinski knows how to make shit look beautiful, a knack that’s on full display here. This point doesn’t necessarily make the film’s case more compelling but it’s worth a brief mention.
An Effective Trilogy-Capper
At World’s End satisfies because it’s both a proper ending and an opportunity to pretend that its two sequels are bad fanfiction with little regard for what worked previously. Dead Man’s Chest benefits from Verbinski’s infectious passion, even if nothing of note happens. A stark contrast to the disastrous On Stranger Tides and Dead Men Tell No Tales, two snoozefests burdened further by lazy performances from Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, and nearly everyone else involved. By the time Dead Men Tell No Tales kicks off, Depp looks so over it that his presence becomes profoundly annoying. This makes At World’s End the last enjoyable Pirates film.
And honestly? That’s fine. There are so many moving pieces that work and it’s incredibly gratifying to relive a movie that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Time likely won’t be kind to this misunderstood blockbuster. Hell, it wasn’t kind to it from the get-go. With any luck, though, maybe audiences will come to see it differently. Or they won’t, in which case I’ll show myself out.