With the Pirates of the Caribbean movies more accessible than ever, and a summer season void of blockbusters, this month we’re diving deep into Disney’s swashbuckling series. Grab your cutlass and hoist the colors: here be Polygon’s take on all things PotC.
No one would ever accuse Rob Marshall of being a great, or even mildly interesting filmmaker. The director didn’t find much magic in a musical adaptation of 8 1/2 starring Daniel Day-Lewis, cast half of Hollywood in a stiff version of Into the Woods, and for some reason tried to direct a sequel to Mary Poppins. So it’s no surprise that his Pirates of the Caribbean movie is far and away the low point of the series. But not even the glossy mediocrity of Rob Marshall could stop Ian McShane’s Blackbeard from achieving legend status.
In the very likely event that you saw this movie once almost a decade ago and don’t remember a single moment from it, allow me to remind you what happens: In On Stranger Tides, which actually adapts a 1987 novel by Tim Powers into a Pirates of the Caribbean sequel, King George II hires Jack Sparrow to find the Fountain of Youth, who fills the navigator role on an expedition led by rival pirate captain Hector Barbossa. At the same time, the legendary Blackbeard, the most famous and feared pirate on the seas, is also looking for the Fountain so that he can live and pillage forever. Also for some reason Blackbeard has a sword called the Sword of Triton that lets him control his ship with his mind — this doesn’t really have anything to do with the grander Pirates mythology, but it helps move the plot.
The first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies had excellent villains in Barbossa and Davy Jones. Each, at one point or another, was cursed with eternal life, and Geoffrey Rush and Bill Nighy play their respective characters with all the energy and ridiculousness that’s called for in a series based on a theme-park ride. The sour taste of immortality adds nuance to what could be mustache- (or tentacle-)twirling performances. It helped that they also had highly dramatic movies around them. Ian McShane got none of that.
Rather than a character who has suffered through godhood and understands that escaping death is a punishment not a reward, Blackbeard is actively seeking ascendance in On Stranger Tides. In a series that’s all about the hubris of cheating death, Blackbeard is our look into what kind of character would invite that curse on themselves. He’s like a perfect thematic prequel to both Barbossa, Davy Jones, and even Javier Bardem’s Captain Salazar from Dead Men Tell No Tales.
The only problem is that neither Rob Marshall nor the script he’s shooting, written by the original series pair Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, seem to recognize that these are important themes of the Pirates of the Caribbean series. Thankfully, Ian McShane gets it. Rather than the tortured lives of the series’ other villains, Blackbeard is pure unrestrained hubris. From the moment he first walks on-screen it’s clear how he became a myth while he was still alive and why he thinks he deserves deification, and is willing to sacrifice his own daughter to achieve it.
Unfortunately, the rest of the movie never quite makes it to McShane’s level. Jack Sparrow, a character best used with at least a little restraint, is the protagonist rather than a supporting character and the weight crushes out all the life and strangeness that makes the character fun. Sparrow even gets a love interest in the form of Penélope Cruz’s Angelica, but her only real contribution is to be a bargaining chip for Sparrow and Blackbeard to throw around rather than her own character — a far cry from the first three movies where Elizabeth was easily the strongest character. All of this combines to make a film that commits the worst sin a movie about undead pirates ever could … it’s boring. That is except for Ian McShane.
Beyond single-handedly tying On Stranger Tides to themes of the other Pirates movies, McShane is just fun to watch. He gives Blackbeard a level of confidence and swagger that makes Jack Sparrow look timid. His literal entrance is built on the premise of upstaging Sparrow’s antics. He strides out of a door, backlit by golden light, with his beard literally smouldering. It’s a grand entrance, but the only thing that really sells it is McShane’s presence. He has a wide heavy walk that commands undivided attention and a look in his eyes like he owns the entire world.
Just moments after he walks on screen, he has to use his sword powers to command his ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, to tie Sparrow up. This is an objectively silly action that involves swinging his sword in the air for no apparent reason. There are few actors on earth who could point a sword at nothing and make you believe they controlled an entire ship, but god dammit Ian McShane most certainly can.
None of this is to say that On Stranger Tides is a good movie (it isn’t). But thank god for Ian McShane, the only actor alive who could drag Pirates 4 up from the depths to at least make it watchable.