This summer, I have been a good little moviegoer who did just what Hollywood wanted me to. I went to all the big “Three” sequels of all the blockbuster movie trilogies. Shrek III, Spiderman III, and finally Pirates of the Caribbean III: At World’s End. In all three cases I thought it would have been fine to end each series right there, although apparently there are plans for Four and Beyond in every case, which I think may be serious overkill. But I liked Spiderman III a lot, enjoyed Shrek III just fine and look forward to adding it to our DVD collection, and … then I saw Pirates III.
Criticism of this movie has tended to centre on the fact that the series is tired, the plot is incomprehensible, and the movie is waaayyyy too long. Other critics have said that there’s so much swashbuckling pirate action that none of that really matters.
I rarely follow plots well anyway, so I shut my brain into low gear and sat back to enjoy lots and lots of hot Captain Jack, with a side dish of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann and some Captain Barbossa for added spice. I didn’t have high expectations. I expected lots of (as the Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything would say) “piratey things,” and a few good laughs. Oh, and I expected that of course the love story between Will and Elizabeth which has been unfolding since the first movie, would reach some kind of resolution.
Were my expectations fulfilled? Some of them. Did I have fun? Some of the time. Was I satisfied with the ending?
Let’s just say I haven’t been so completely enraged by the ending of a movie since, ooh, Pretty in Pink. And that’s going back a ways.
This would be a good time to post a spoiler warning and put the rest of my comments behind the cut for those of you who haven’t seen the movie and might still want to. Warning: spoilericious rant follows!
First, about Pirates as a kids’ movie. I have heard people say they were sorry they took their kids because there’s just too much violence and disturbing material. We decided to let Christopher, who was avid to see it, go with Jason. Emma and I went to see Nancy Drew instead (not stellar filmmaking, but a fun movie with a refreshingly strong female lead). Christopher didn’t seem shaken by anything in Pirates, although he hasn’t wanted to see it over and over as he did with Spiderman. I think it would have been too much for Emma, so I’m glad we did it the way we did.
Later, I went to see it with Jason. I enjoyed the first two Pirate movies enough that I definitely wanted to see this one in the theatre, even if it meant Jason had to go see it twice in one week.
One thing that keeps me going with this series is that I really enjoy all the characters. Johnny Depp as Captain Jack is, of course, amazing, and I’m not surprised that after a lifetime as a quirky character actor, Depp seems happy to play Captain Jack as long as Disney can keep coming up with things that vaguely resemble plots. It’s always a joy to watch him onscreen, and his character development in this movie (where, as Elizabeth once predicted, he actually does have the chance to do the right thing instead of look out for himself — and, reluctantly, does it) is actually interesting.
But I’ve also thought that Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley brought more than just pretty faces (very pretty though they are) to the roles of Elizabeth and Will. I thought their typical doomed-by-class-differences love story was engaging, both characters have gone through some interesting changes in the three movies, and I really cared how things worked out for them. I wanted some kind of “troooo lovve” resolution for Elizabeth and Will, even if it came with a pirate-y twist.
Oh, there is a resolution, my friends, but “twist” is definitely the word to describe it. Or even “twisted.”
Elizabeth’s character continues to develop particularly strongly throughout this movie. She becomes a true pirate in her own right, making her own choices independent of either Will or Jack, taking both her destiny and her sword into her own hands. She and Will finally get married by Barbossa in the middle of a battle at sea, and at this point they are in every way equals and partners. Completely satisfying.
But then things go awry. Will is killed, and the only way for him to cling to some kind of existence is to take on Davy Jones’ thankless task as captain of the Flying Dutchman, ferrying souls to the afterlife. This doesn’t seem like too bad a deal for Will, who looks even more swashbuckly after his brush with Death. After all, he gets his own ship. There is apparently a clause in the contract that prohibits him from setting foot on land more than one day every ten years, but since he likes being at sea, again, this doesn’t seem too much of a hardship.
One of the final scenes of the movie shows Elizabeth leaving the Black Pearl, getting ready to join Will. So at this point I’m assuming she’s going to join him on the Flying Dutchman, tie her fate to his and leave the land behind forever. Seems like the sort of thing she’d do, loving him with an undying love and all. One of the myriad plot points this movie has never made clear is exactly what you have to do to be in the crew of the FD. Die, possibly? But even if that were the case I’d assume Elizabeth would be up for a temporary death and then eternal life aboard a fairly cool ship with Will. Why not?
For whatever Ridiculous Plot Contrivance Reason (never explained), Elizabeth does not go on board the Dutchman. Instead she meets Will on land, on a featureless sandy beach somewhere, where the movie implies (delicately) that their marriage is consummated. Will gets his one day on land and heads back to see for ten years, leaving Elizabeth alone on the aforementioned featureless beach with a box that contains Will’s heart (why Will had to follow Davy Jones’ example and cut out his own heart is, again, not explained at all. But he seems to get by just fine without it).
At this point I was howling in rage and frustration (quietly. I didn’t get kicked out of the theatre). They string us along with a love story plot for three movies and this is the payoff? They get married and get to spend one day out of every ten years together? Admittedly, they probably won’t face the problems of boredom and taking each other for granted, but even in our world of commuter marriages, this is a little extreme.
Don’t worry, it gets worse.
If in their wisdom the filmmakers had decided to deny Will and Elizabeth a traditional happy ending and decreed that Elizabeth couldn’t go on the Flying Dutchman with Will — okay, I could have handled that. There could have been lots of ways of bringing them together occasionally that wouldn’t violate the prohibition. (At one point Davy Jones appears on land with his feet in a bucket of water, which suggests numerous possibilities for amorous liasons). Is there anything to say Will can’t go on board another ship? What if Elizabeth gets her own ship (she certainly deserves it) and they hook up at sea now and then? That would be fine … I’d be happy with a brief montage of scenes suggesting that they go on being in love while both having exciting, though separate, lives at sea.
Particularly, of course, I want Elizabeth to have an interesting life. Even if the series goes on, Keira Knightley has said she doesn’t want to play Elizabeth Swann for the rest of her life, which is understandable, so this movie is presumably the end of Elizabeth’s story. She’s gone from being the pampered daughter of an English governor to being, at one point, King of the Pirates –admittedly, this is a political move engineered by Jack, but the point is, Elizabeth is anything but a damsel in distress, languishing and waiting for rescue. She is a tough, pro-active, proto-feminist woman pirate. At the very least she should end the movies in command of her own pirate ship, if not her own fleet — or doing something else satisfyingly active.
The ending with her standing alone on the empty beach with Will’s Box-o’-Heart is depressing enough, but even worse is the one little glimpse we get into her future, in a flash-forward scene that occurs after the credits (Jason told me we had to stay through the credits because there was something afterwards, and for once I’m almost sorry we did). It’s Ten Years Later, and Elizabeth is standing on a featureless headland, grassy instead of sandy this time so presumably she has relocated. And she’s not alone this time. She’s accompanied by a cute little boy dressed in pirate gear, who looks to be about, oh, nine years and three months old, and they’re waiting for Will and the Flying Dutchman to make port for his once-a-decade conjugal visit, and of course to meet his son.
That’s it. Not a thing in that featureless landscape — not even a house — to suggest how Elizabeth has spent the past ten years, other than waiting for Will and raising his child. This was the point (Jason can corroborate this) at which I completely lost it.
To say that the incredible personal journey of Elizabeth Swann ends with her as a passive bystander, waiting for the Man Who Brings Meaning Into Her Life (but only brings it once ever ten years) is to shove her back into the straitjacket of Tired Movie Stereotypes for Women. It didn’t just fail to satisfy me. It didn’t just annoy me. No, the ending of At World’s End actually, literally, enraged me.