The sexism of the original theme ride, Pirates of the Caribbean, hasn’t been expunged from the film series, as often ‘Let Her Go’ is seen in the films, and all previous installments of the series, are still considered Damsel in Distress (see Feminist Frequency‘s Damsel in Distress series) within their core narratives. Pirate Angelica, presented here, is hardly an improvement on the original Elizabeth Swann character regarding agency, as this clip during the climax sees her manipulated by both her father, and Jack Sparrow, simultaneously:
The mermaids are even worse than Angelica. According to “A Feminist Analysis of Pirates of the Caribbean“:
The main female character in the fourth installment, Angelica (Penelope Cruz) is perhaps the most misogynistically portrayed woman in the series. Angelica is meant to be a love interest for Jack Sparrow (sorry – Captain Jack Sparrow), but their amour was supposedly born when he seduced her right before she was to take vows as a nun; it’s clear that this “seduction” was rape. She is both extremely manipulative and easy to manipulate, at one point even attempting to persuade Jack to do what she wants by pretending to be pregnant with his child, and her motivations are consistently driven by her affection for her father and her “love” for Jack, both men who treat her abusively. Like Elizabeth, Angelica is handy in a sword fight and capable of managing a crew, but unlike Elizabeth, she fails to develop her own goals and never emerges as a leader.
The mermaids in On Stranger Tides are deeply problematic. They are predatory and lure their human targets into the water with sexual posturing. Most disturbingly, in order to obtain immortality from drinking from the Fountain of Youth, the pirates need to obtain a mermaid’s tear. Thus, the mermaids incarnate male fears of female sexuality and subjugating them allows their male conquerors to accrue extraordinary power through immortality. The ambiguous finish of Philip (Sam Claflin), the missionary who pities and eventually loves the mermaid Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), has even less heartening implications. As he dies, she kisses him and pulls him into the water; it is not clear whether this is a gesture of compassion and love or simply her predatory instincts kicking in, but once again we witness a supernatural female character being led by her dangerous instincts.
Two of the posters released for the promotion of the film feature the mermaids, which further establishes the approval of them being viewed as sexual objects with their postures and, of course, lack of clothing.
According to the IGN review:
Following a four-year high-seas hiatus, Captain Jack is back in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Disney’s moderately successful attempt to breathe new life into their phenomenally successful franchise.
The last film – At World’s End – made a mint at the box office, but was pilloried for its crippling run-time and confusing plot. On Stranger Tides pulls back on the former and untangles the latter, but still fails to hit the effortlessly entertaining heights of the original Pirates flick, Curse of the Black Pearl.
Johnny Depp reprises his Oscar-nominated turn as the irrepressible Jack Sparrow, who bizarrely starts the film in judge’s robes, presiding over the trial of former partner-in-crime Gibbs who – following a potentially deadly case of mistaken identity – is on trial for being… Jack Sparrow.
There follows a spectacular chase scene through the streets of London and a brief bit of banter with his old sparring partner Barbossa (now peg-legged and working for King George as a privateer) before Jack finally reaches his natural habitat – the sea – and the story starts proper.
And while the plot isn’t as labyrinthine as either part two or three, it still takes some explaining, with multiple characters endeavouring to enlighten the audience, but sounding more like Basil Exposition from the Austin Powers movies than people having real conversations.
The central quest revolves around the legendary ‘Fountain of Youth’, with Captains Sparrow and Barbossa competing with a (somewhat pointless and ineffective) fleet of Spanish ships to reach the mythical, life-restoring water.
But there are inevitable obstacles in the way, the most immediate of which is Penelope Cruz as Angelica, a beautiful, manipulative, deadly pirate with whom Sparrow has crossed swords in a previous life. Bickering former lovers who are just as likely to kill as kiss each other, Cruz is an entertaining foil for Depp, although her motives remain unconvincing throughout.
Another spanner thrown into the works is Blackbeard, captain of the Queen Ann’s Revenge, and the pirate that all others apparently fear. Played by Ian McShane – best known to U.S. audiences for Deadwood and U.K. audiences for Lovejoy – he certainly looks the part with his piercing eyes and leathery skin. But this Blackbeard never truly strikes fear into the heart, his voodoo dolls little more than a novelty; his zombified crew more ill-tempered annoyance than terrifying incarnation of the walking dead.
Far more effective are the film’s mermaids, a new addition to the series and responsible for Pirates’ one truly stand-out moment. This mesmeric sequence introduces the stunning sea creatures in all their ethereal beauty before unleashing their furious brutality, and is a genuine show-stopper that’s over all-too-soon.
It’s at his point that the film loses all sense of momentum, proceedings slowing down to a snail’s pace as characters cross and double-cross each other as they navigate their way across an island in search of the mythical water.
This passage isn’t helped by an entirely unconvincing romance developing between mermaid-with-a-heart-of-gold Syreena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) and dull-as-dishwater missionary Philip (Sam Claflin). Clearly designed to fill the void left by franchise ever-presents Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann, the attractive-but-underwritten pair bring nothing to the party short of allowing Depp to make a good ‘missionary position’ gag, and commit the heinous crime of actually making you miss Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley.
There are fun discoveries along the way, including the shocking fate of the Black Pearl, the revelation of Sparrow’s time spent in a convent, and the now-inevitable appearance of Keith Richards as Captain Teague, himself endeavouring to explain a plot-point involving a pair of chalices.
But it all ends in somewhat underwhelming fashion, bowing out with a whimper rather than a bang and leaving loose ends flapping like sails in the wind.
Director Rob Marshall – replacing Gore Verbinski and hitherto best known for Chicago and Nine – does his best with the material, but seems more at home with the comedy and drama than the action for which the series is famed.
Indeed, the aforementioned chase scene and mermaid attack aside, Marshall’s action seems over-choreographed and under-cooked, having more in common with the dance sequences for which he made his name that the more spectacular jaw-droppers from the previous flicks.
Johnny Depp is on typically fine form as Sparrow, but one can’t help but feel that his rock star-pirate shtick is looking a little tired this time around, with Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa fast-becoming the most interesting and entertaining character in the series.
And while the run-time is down on part three’s colossal 169 minutes, it still clocks in at a butt-numbing 136, which could have been trimmed had a more brutal approach been taken to the young romance and the involvement of the Spanish fleet in the edit suite.
So while Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is a definite improvement on At World’s End, enlivened by that spectacular mermaid sequence and a sparkling turn from Cruz, it’s only a sporadically fun flick, with the formula feeling somewhat stale fourth-time around.
Indeed, one can’t help but feel that the Disney-Depp partnership has taken the series as far as it can go in this form, and short of a large-scale overhaul of the franchise, it may be best to set these particular Pirates adrift for good.