pirates breaks box office records, but why?

July 11, 2006

As you may have heard, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest has broken both the record for the largest one-day opening, with $55 million, and the record for the largest opening weekend, with $135.6 million (both are domestic totals). Those are enormous numbers, figures that producers of less popular movies might well sell their souls for. To be honest, it’s difficult for me, having seen and reviewed the film now, to understand what is driving this level of interest. Yes, the first film was a resounding success that, among other things, revitalized Johnny Depp’s career and launched a lucrative Disney franchise. And I enjoyed it, as well as its sequel, if only for Depp’s performance and if only for the duration of its running time . But the kind of success that Chest is having is, frankly, unbelievable. Its popularity is certainly, as the New York Times notes, rooted in the magnetism of Depp’s character, but why? Why do we care so much about Jack Sparrow, so much that we turn out in record numbers to see the latest Pirates film?

The Times article linked above calls Jack Sparrow “a kohl-smeared, offbeat and humorous pirate hero.” In a discussion of the film, a friend of mine said that he believes that Jack is “the defining cinematic hero of the decade” in the eyes of this generation, my generation, an assessment that, given the film’s success, seems quite plausible. For myself, I’m not sure he even qualifies as a hero at all. Of course he’s charming and witty and sufficiently brave (or perhaps foolhardy) in the face of laughably extreme danger that his presence never really becomes dull and that we feel obliged to root for him to pull through–which of course we know he will–but none of that really qualifies him for the aspirational status that we assign to figures like, say, Superman. I can see the movie’s popularity with Sparrow in a supporting role, perhaps with Bloom’s character front and center–if only he weren’t such an insufferable bore–as an actual hero of the films. In that sort of situation, Jack might serve as comic relief: an important character to be sure, but one on which the film was not so wholly dependent that everything else can seem incidental.

But that’s not how it is at all: Sparrow is not only the most popular character in the films, he’s the central character (especially in the sequel). And people love him. A lot. Enough to dress up in pirate costumes and line up at midnight like this were a Star Wars film. At least those films, for all their faults, had main characters with principles and convictions of real moral fiber. Yet it seems now, with Chest‘s incredible success, that for many people Jack Sparrow can take the place of those sorts of heroes. What does this mean for the hero archetype of old? In Jack, we see a desire to be free of the law replacing the traditional struggle to maintain it and the pursuit of gratification replacing the pursuit of truth. I find this troubling, and though I will reserve final judgment until after the trilogy concludes, this trend bodes ill, I think, for the changing values of our society.

Update 7/12: Chest has now broken both the Monday and Tuesday box office records. Oh joy.

–D. S. W.

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3 Responses to “pirates breaks box office records, but why?”

  1. Chris Donovan said

    I wouldn’t worry too much about changing values. Anti-heroes have often been popular; look at the adoration people have had for Jack Nicholson and his characters, spanning five decades and many shifts of national mood. Even with Star Wars, the reluctant, self-interested hero, Han Solo, has always been more popular than the stick in the mud, straight-arrow Luke. And remember that even Superman in the original films had a sense of humor and a look of mischief in the eyes, which the new incarnation (sorely) lacks.

    Oh, and about the box office, remember too that this is a summer film with appeal to women (the stats bear this out), who are drawn to Bloom (especially the young end of the demographic) and to Depp. That used to be the key to Tom Cruise’s hits, before he became frightening. And Pirates, unlike most the wannabe blockbusters of the last few years, isn’t particularly designed for nerds– no arcane knowledge, years of comic book reading, or sense of adolescent angst required. Like Indiana Jones of old, Pirates is fun that cuts a wide swath.

  2. Jonathan Coveney said

    I just want to eat the placenta.

  3. mrwiz said

    If this were Slashdot, Jon, I’d probably be modding you down for that outrageously random blurb with which you saw fit to defile this sacred space. Things being what they are, I’ll just let you off with a warning this time :P.

    Incidentally, I remember hearing that Cruise never actually said that; it was all a rumor, apparently.

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