A ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ Fangirl 20 Years Later

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl official poster.

There are simply too many wonderful movies, shows and books for me to pick just one favorite that I hold most dear above all others. Instead, I have a group of titles that are particularly important to me set apart in their own little category — the ones that captured me when I watched them for the first time and haven’t let go. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is one of those movies, and in July, it turned 20 years old. (Which makes me feel totally fine and not at all ancient!) This movie, and the two sequels that followed in 2006 and 2007, were the formative media of my teenage years. I fully realize it sounds hyperbolic to say that a movie based on a theme park ride is that foundational for me, but sometimes life is weird. I haven’t seen Curse of the Black Pearl on a big screen since I sat down in the theater as a 14-year-old girl in the summer of 2003, so when Disney put it back in theaters for a few weeks to celebrate the anniversary, off I went.

It’s been a while since I’ve watched any of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, but everything I love about The Curse of the Black Pearl came rushing back to me. As much as people scoffed at the idea of a movie taking its inspiration from a theme park attraction, it really is a fun, adventurous ride of a viewing experience, and I didn’t realize how much I’d missed it until I was sitting there in the dark in awe of it again. Twenty years ago, I bought the soundtrack and played it endlessly, and the score is still sweeping as hell. The jokes still had the audience laughing, and the action scenes seem perhaps even more impressive now than when the movie was made because they weren’t created entirely in front of a green screen with CGI effects as they most likely would be today. And as much as I enjoyed simply watching the movie again and taking it in, I also couldn’t help but pinpoint all the aspects of Pirates that made it so ideal for my introduction to fandom.

Jack Sparrow and Will Turner in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

It’s so well suited for it that it’s no wonder Curse of the Black Pearl turned me into a full-on fangirl, never to be the same again. At the heart of every great fandom are equally great characters to obsess over, and Pirates of the Caribbean is full of them. Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa is a superb villain — scary and threatening but also compelling as hell to watch. Even Commodore Norrington (Jack Davenport), a character that in many other movies would be relegated to a stuffy plot point, has complexity and depth. And Captain Jack Sparrow is, of course, the single element of the movie that looms the largest. It’s a strange feeling to look back on how truly outstanding Johnny Depp is in this role now that he’s devolved into someone perpetually embroiled in domestic violence lawsuits and court cases. Jack Sparrow is an incredible character, a delightful mix of witty genius and zany charm. There’s not a second that he’s on-screen when you’re not entertained, and his story is so ripe for mining. How did he become a pirate? What’s behind his eccentric personality? How did he learn all the things that allowed him to get himself out of jams and make things go his way time and time again?

There were threads consisting of hundreds of messages on fan boards, and I may be looking back through rose-tinted nostalgic glasses, but I remember the fandom being, on the whole, an incredibly friendly and welcoming place where everyone was happy to have people to talk to who thought Pirates of the Caribbean was cool too. There’s still so much we don’t know about Jack’s character even after five films, which is much more preferable than an arc with every single i dotted and every single t crossed. You don’t get to theorize with your friends if everyone already knows everything there is to know, and where’s the fun in that? That ambiguity is what helps keep fandom alive.

Will and Elizabeth during their rush wedding in Pirates of the Caribbean.

But most importantly (at least for me), there’s Elizabeth Swann and Will Turner, the best ship in a story full of boats. I know they didn’t technically invent love and romance, but they certainly did for me. Orlando Bloom went full puppy dog eyes every time he looked at Keira Knightley, and I was a human teenage girl, so, of course, I was going to become obsessed with them. This was the first time I looked at a movie couple (my OTP, a term I learned from this fandom!) through the lens of someone starting to think seriously about romance, and they still had me going to pieces when I was in the theater a few weeks ago.

Will and Elizabeth are each exceptional characters on their own, and they’re even better together because they’re together. The trope of people from different social classes falling for each other and their relationship being frowned upon because of it is still one of my favorites to this day because of them. Will’s declaration of love for Elizabeth at the end of Curse of the Black Pearl remains absolutely unmatched in its flawlessness. (Later in the series, they go on to have what is, as far as I’m concerned, the single best wedding in cinematic history.) But even if Will and Elizabeth aren’t your thing, plenty of other characters remain to ship every which way. (If I squint really hard, I can see the appeal of Jack and Elizabeth, but Jack was right when he said that it would have never worked out between them.) And shipping is an inextricable part of the fandom ecosystem. I discovered fanfiction after watching Pirates and started devouring as much of it as I could just to get more of this couple, and what a huge world that opened up. Where would I be now if I didn’t know every time I watched something that preoccupied all my thoughts that there was a group of people out there to connect with who are just as passionate? Discovering that sense of belonging is something I needed so desperately when I first saw this movie.

Will and Elizabeth bandaging scene in Pirates of the Caribbean

In 2003, I read and watched all the Harry Potter books and movies available, and I found them engrossing. Still, it wasn’t until Pirates of the Caribbean that I really got into fandom at the kind of deep level that’s since become my standard (because it was the first time I simply couldn’t shake the need for more). The internet landscape of the early aughts was there for me with its message boards, fansites, fanfiction and art, but most importantly, the knowledge that there weren’t just some, but many other people who ate up the movie as much as I did and felt compelled to share their thoughts and feelings about it with others. I was introverted, painfully shy, and had just entered a very large high school. I was so tense and anxious that my jaw locked up for weeks, and I had to feed myself by sticking tiny bits of food into my barely open mouth. Long and depressing story short — things were bleak; I badly needed something to focus on that made me happy, and that ended up being an online fan community. Since the Curse of the Black Pearl re-release, I’ve also watched Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End again, and the whole experience brought me right back to that giddy place and time when losing my mind over Pirates was some of the most fun I’ve ever had. I’m happy to see that there still seems to be a relatively active and passionate fanbase for these movies.

And whether you’ve been a fan for decades or not, it can’t remain unsaid that watching Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is a viewing experience that showcases exactly why the members of the WGA and SAG-AFTRA are currently on strike. I spent my teenage years watching every bit of DVD extras and behind-the-scenes footage. Still, you don’t have to dive that deep for it to be clear from every frame of this movie just how many hands were all over it: it was made on a boat out in the water; countless extras are elaborately costumed and grimed up with makeup; there are pitch perfect and memorable performances from the background and supporting actors; a story that still grips audiences; music that is recognizable from just a few notes; visual effects that hold up unbelievably well after more than two decades. Hundreds and hundreds of people worked very hard to make a movie that remains a cultural touchstone and kicked off one of the biggest franchises in history. I can’t fully put into words how big this movie was in my world when I was younger and what a tender, soft spot I still have for it. That’s important! And it’s just one of the many reasons that the unions’ fight for fair and adequate compensation is such a vital one.

Featured Poster Credit: ©Disney


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