Why Pirates of the Caribbean Failed To Make You Love The Genre Again


Although Pirates of the Caribbean spawned some financially successful sequels, there’s a reason that it didn’t revive swashbuckling adventure movies.

while the Pirates of the Caribbean movies were massively successful, there is a reason that the series did not spur a subsequent revival of the swashbuckling adventure movie sub-genre. The pirate adventure sub-genre was once of cinema’s most thriving institutions. From the 1920s to the 1960s, swashbuckling movies like Sinbad the Sailer, Treasure Islandand The Crimson Pirate delighted audiences and proved huge box-office hits until the 60s saw the popularity of this brand of historical adventure story take a dip that the sub-genre never truly recovered from.

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Since then, this sort of historical action-adventure has fallen in and out of popularity with audiences, with pirate movies specifically often proving to be major flops. However, there is one major exception to this general rule. As proven by Johnny Depp’s massive Pirates of the Caribbean 6 fee proves, the Disney behemoth is one of the most popular and profitable action franchises in cinema history.

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Ever since 2003’s The Curse of the Black Pearl became a huge hit, the Pirates of the Caribbean series has been one of the most lucrative franchises in cinema history. With even its most comparatively disappointing outing earning over $700 million, the franchise is a massive financial success. However, despite this, the success of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies never prompted a revival of the pirate adventure sub-genre more broadly. The reasons for this are numerous and complicated and they are inextricably tied up in the history of pirate movies as a specific sub-genre, the historical action-adventure genre more broadly, and the difficulties involved in replicating the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise’s singular formula.


Pirate Movies Often Flop (Badly)


Geena Davis as Morgan Adams in Cutthroat Island

From 1986’s pirates to 1995’s expensive failure Cut Throat Island to even 2015’s Peter Pan retelling Pan, pirate adventure movies have a terrible tendency to be incredibly costly flops. While the sub-genre was popular in the early age of Hollywood, since then, the swashbuckling adventure movie has largely been supplanted by serial-style action-adventure movies such as Indiana Jones and its imitators. While these two sub-genres may sound interchangeable at first glance, there are a few major logistic differences that make the latter more appealing to studios. For one thing, action-adventure movies like The Mummy and Indiana Jones franchises tend to be set in the more recent past, meaning the costumes, makeup, and sets required aren’t as elaborate. For another, conventional pirate movies specifically require a lot of filming on water, something that the infamously expensive Mad Max knock off water world proved can be a costly folly. However, the dwindling popularity of pirate movies began long before the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise arrived, and other elements also played into the franchise’s failure to reignite the craze.


Pirates of the Caribbean Arrived After A Historical Action Movie Trend


Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider movie.

The success of movies like The Mummy and the Tomb Raider series proves that the historical action sub-genre was doing well around the time of The Curse of the Black Pearl‘s release. However, the Pirates of the Caribbean movie arrived at the end of this trend, not the beginning. The Mummy was a huge hit in 1999 and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider succeeded (financially, at least) in 2001. By the time the first Pirates of the Caribbean sequel was released in 2006, 2002’s disappointing The Scorpion King had taken the shine off The Mummy franchise’s success and Lara Croft hadn’t been seen in the cinema since 2003’s critical disaster The Cradle of Life. Not only that, but the expensive misfires Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas had simultaneously proven that animated historical adventures were no more reliable when it came to profits than their live-action counterparts.


Pirates of the Caribbean Did Revive The Adventure Genre (Briefly)


Hugh Jackman as Van Helsing wielding his auto-crossbow in Van Helsing 2004

The likes of 2005’s Sahara and 2004’s Van Helsing would likely not have been as big without the success of the Pirates of the Caribbean series, but the fact that these movies underperformed critically and commercially proved that the historical action-adventure formula wasn’t in for a long-term revival. While 2007’s Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End saw the series continue to set global box-office records, the attempts that studios made to update the franchise’s formula or borrow elements from it proved fruitless. Van Helsing was too horror-focused to work as a big summer blockbuster, a tonal issue that wasn’t aided by the until-then breezy’s movie’s surprisingly tragic ending. meanwhile, Sahara‘s attempts to make a modern-day spin on Pirates of the Caribbean proved that the historical setting was part of what made the franchise appealing to viewers, with the 2005 misfire even casting original Jack Sparrow candidate Matthew McConaughey as its charming antihero.


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Both of these expensive attempts to start new action-adventure franchises borrowed elements that made Pirates of the Caribbean work as a series, but failed to replicate the success of the earlier movies. While part of this was due to Pirates of the Caribbean‘s great villains and the franchise’s stellar supporting cast (which neither Van Helsing nor Sahara could boast of), another major factor was the unique tone of the series. The original, critically-acclaimed Pirates of the Caribbean movie was scary, but not a full-blown horror in the vein of From Helping. It was funny, but not an outright comedy (and the franchise wouldn’t produce one until the later, critically abhorred sequels). This led to one of the biggest issues facing filmmakers hoping to copy its successful formula.

Pirates of the Caribbean’s Tone Was Hard To Copy


Jack Sparrow looking up in a poster for Pirates-of-the-Caribbean 4

A mixture of action, romance, horror, and comedy, the tone of The Curse of the Black Pearl was so tricky to recapture that even the movie’s own sequels couldn’t replicate its magic. As a result, few other major studio releases tried. None of the later Pirates of the Caribbean sequels retained the original movie’s mixture of swashbuckling set-pieces, sweet romance, comic relief, and unexpectedly dark horror elements. As such, the franchise’s decline in critical popularity could have played into other creators choosing against investing in the swashbuckling sub-genre. Aware that pirate movies meant a lot of shooting on water, a reliance on the popularity of historical action-adventure stories, and a high chance of financial failure, studios opted not to green-light many movies that replicated the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise’s formula upon seeing that even the official sequels couldn’t gain the original movie’s critical acclaim. As a result, the Pirates of the Caribbean series didn’t revive the sub-genre as a whole, despite the franchise’s enduring popularity.


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