Pirates Kick Superhero Butt

Their secret weapon? The rollick.

By Steve Burgess 21 Jul 2006 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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No fun brawl in sight.

This year's battle of the summer blockbusters has pitted hero against anti-hero. Leaving the solid hit The Da Vinci Code to one side as a sui generis religious thriller, the July match up pitted Johnny Depp in the sequel Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, against Superman Returns, an odd sort of original-yet-quasi-sequel. Must be a little kryptonite in that treasure chest -- it's been pirates all the way, as Johnny and crew sail toward $300 million at the box office. Supe, while thoroughly respectable at roughly $165 mill so far, is eating pirate dust (and still well south of its massive $260 million budget). Are pirates more popular than superheroes? Not if Spider-Man has anything to say about it. No, you can chalk this victory up to the powerful force called fun.

Pirates of the Caribbean 2 was not treated kindly by most critics, who found it noisy, long and rather pointless. Legitimate points, for sure. But say this for Depp and his jolly crew -- they have redefined "rollicking." These guys really know how to rollick.

By contrast, Superman Returns made a lame attempt to capture the Christian buck by making The Passion of the Superman. Should have called in Mr. Fantastic as script doctor, because that turned out to be a real stretch.

Good-natured stink

It's not surprising that critics had the cutlasses out for Pirates 2. A good-natured hit movie suddenly and awkwardly stretched into a trilogy, with the final two movies being filmed simultaneously -- the whole thing had a Back to the Future stink to it. Unlike the original Star Wars trilogy, there's no obvious reason for Pirates 2 to exist, other than the financial one. Director Gore Verbinski and producer Jerry Bruckheimer deal with the problem by not stopping to think about it. Pirates 2 is frantic, frantic, frantic.

Depp's character Captain Jack Sparrow returns, but lacks that Oscar-nominated freshness. This time out it often seems the essence of Sparrow is running while flapping his arms. Nonetheless he's a charming companion, even if he has a tough time explaining the plot. "You're not making any sense," Sparrow says to one pirate who tries to figure out what's going on. Sparrow may as well be speaking to the screenwriters.

Not that it matters. Funny how the more plot you have, the less important it tends to be. Just keep things rolling along, as they do literally during a ludicrous and entertaining swordfight conducted on a runaway millwheel. The movie's special effects are cooler than most, particularly the octopus face of Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) and his band of lost souls who've been colonized by various sea creatures. There are lots of visual oohs and aahs, plus sly witticisms tossed off by Captain Jack and pals. (My favourite moment is when he pays a debt with "an undead monkey.")

Ancestors of action

The Pirates of the Caribbean series does not really share much cinematic DNA with other pirate movies. Its true ancestor is Raiders of the Lost Ark. A quest leads to a series of Saturday morning serial adventures, one after another, after another, until you beg for relief, or at least a popcorn refill.

Superman Returns is altogether more ambitious, and much less successful. Perhaps the most interesting thing about director Bryan Singer's movie is the unprecedented category it creates: the re-sequel. Superman Returns is like a reno job in which the top floors are being shaved off an old building; it attempts to slide in after Richard Donner's 1978 Superman film (even borrowing the theme music and the deceased Marlon Brando), and arguably after Richard Lester's Superman II. Let's pretend Superman III never happened, the filmmakers are saying, and this is it.

One movie that obviously still exists, at least in the Hollywood boardroom, is Passion of the Christ. Superman Returns strains for Christ metaphors all over the place. Superman's dad Jor-El makes his speech about sending Earthlings "You, my only son," and Superman poses Christ-like in the sky listening to the prayers of the multitude. Few of these moments seem integral to the film -- they have a pasted-on feel. In fact, after Supe listens to the prayers of the unfortunate he responds to...a burglar alarm. Apparently our saviour has been sent to save banks from high insurance rates.

Uh, Superman?

Besides, this Superman is downright immoral. With Lois Lane happily married until he comes along, he's now faster than a speeding bullet and able to wreck homes with a single date. The filmmakers should have figured out that the big romantic plot-twist here (I won't give it away) will probably cancel out any goodwill from the Christian right.

But Singer and Co. keep trying. There's a resurrection of sorts and lots more Christ-posing. What there isn't is a lot of momentum. Superman Returns is weirdly ponderous. Pirates 2 may be way too long, but Superman Returns feels longer. And best of all, when Jack Sparrow falls off a cliff and gets pelted with falling fruit, there is not the slightest chance that his spread-eagled pose is meant to be Christ-like. What a relief.

Noisy and overlong it may be, but Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest is so easy-going that it's very hard to dislike. The motives behind its creation may be as cynical as Superman's false piety. But give me cheerful cynicism every time. And judging by the box office numbers, swashbuckling will always beat sermons in the summertime.

Steve Burgess is The Tyee's at-large culture and film critic.  [Tyee]

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