This month has given us our first look at what is sure to be one of next summer’s biggest blockbusters, as the teaser trailer for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales debuted online. Directed by Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg of Kon-Tiki, this fifth entry in the on-going film series based on the Walt Disney theme-park ride sees Johnny Depp return alongside Geoffrey Rush and Orlando Bloom, while Javier Bardem, Kaya Scodelairo and Brenton Thwaites come aboard. Taken by itself, this first glimpse is an effective anticipation-builder, showing off some intriguing imagery and a spooky mood, as well as the always-entertaining sight of Bardem in villain mode.
What’s been most interesting about the trailer, however, is the reaction to it. As tends to happen when the trailer for a new instalment of a known property drops, the internet went into overdrive with chatter, but the reaction was mostly atypical. It was one of neither feverish anticipation nor scorning mockery but rather a sense of recollection, as if the franchise suddenly re-entered our collective memory. The question is, come the film’s 26 May release date, will this passing nostalgic amusement translate to box-office booty?
Back in 2003, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl arrived with no hype, no big names save for a kooky indie darling known as box-office poison, and a premise – a swashbuckling adventure based on a theme-park ride – that sounded like a recipe for disaster. However, the mixture of an underwhelming summer slate – Hulk (a film I’ll defend but I won’t pretend my opinion is the majority), The Matrix Reloaded, and Bad Boys II among others – positive word-of-mouth and, above all, its own sheer quality (it still holds up as a relentlessly entertaining action-adventure that is both enjoyable for all ages while being just risqué and violent enough to feel dangerous and edgy when you’re a kid) turned it into an unexpected smash. It made Johnny Depp, Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom into household names, drew Disney into a decade of attempts to replicate its success, and, of course, started a lucrative franchise.
The film and its two sequels – 2006’s intermittently fun but severely scattershot Dead Man’s Chest and the 2007’s fascinatingly ambitious fiasco At World’s End – are arguably second only to Harry Potter in terms of definitive Generation Z pop-cultural myths: Jack Sparrow, Elizabeth Swann and Will Turner belong to kids of 2000s just as Sarah Connor and John McLane did to those of 1990s and Indiana Jones and Luke Skywalker to those of the 1980s. But do those same kids still care? After all, the first trailers for Zoolander No.2 and Blair Witch saw misty-eyed fans lighting up social media with proclamations of excitement, but that didn’t stop either of those films from flaming out financially. Then there’s the fact that, quite frankly, audiences wouldn’t be unjustified in being trepidatious about another trip on the high seas with Sparrow and co.
The most recent instalment in the series, 2011’s On Stranger Tides was, to be frank, pretty terrible – and it isn’t as if Johnny Depp is the safest bet these days. The Tourist, Dark Shadows, Transcendence, The Lone Ranger, Mortdecai – his recent filmography reads less like a list of credits and more like a rap sheet. That’s before we even get to the mental and physical abuse he is alleged to have inflicted on his now-ex-wife Amber Heard over the course of their marriage. Although Hollywood seem to have forgiven him, the (justifiable) outrage that followed the accusations this May suggests audiences might not. You could say that he’ll always be safe with his signature franchise, but this year saw Alice Through The Looking Glass – a sequel to Alice in Wonderland, his biggest non-Pirates hit — crash and burn with a measly global total of $299million on a $170million dollar budget. It’s perhaps telling that the trailer has no sign of Depp save for a wanted poster: they’re selling the icon of Captain Jack Sparrow, but carefully avoiding showing Depp himself.
Let’s not forget that it will be facing some serious competition. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 will be in its third week of play, while – perhaps more pressingly – Wonder Woman opens the very next week. Next to the follow-up to one of summer 2014’s biggest smashes and the big-screen bow of the super-heroine, another Jack Sparrow adventure just doesn’t seem that exciting.
That said, though, there’s a chance none of that will matter. After all, despite arriving with next-to-no hype and, as mentioned above, being easily the worst film in the series, On Stranger Tides made a billion worldwide. And then, of course, there’s the not-to-be-overlooked possibility that the film will simply be good enough that no amount of bad buzz or competition will be able to stop it. After all, it’s happened before…