Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy could be celebrated as one of the best trilogies of all-time. Okay, arguably.

Everything from Klaus Badelt and Hans Zimmer’s epic score, to Dariusz Wolski’s stunning cinematography, to Verbinski’s fantastic direction, all these elements cement this trilogy as a breathtaking fantasy adventure. However, most don’t see it this way. Often, the most well-thought criticisms towards the trilogy usually fall along the lines of pacing issues, the “overstuffing” of characters, and identical plot devices used repeatedly. All this comes off as neglectful of what the trilogy is trying to be: a swashbuckling adventure featuring many characters who want many things. It’s a simple premise but one I feel is able to achieve a lot due to Verbinski’s vision and a character-centric narrative.

The first major achievement of this trilogy is exploring the moral compass of piracy. In the fantastical world of Pirates of the Caribbean, piracy is presented more of the act of manipulating and sacrificing others in order to further your own personal gain rather than the act of stealing and plundering.

This manifests itself in the characters’ actions throughout the trilogy. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is constantly misguiding and using people to get what he wants (be it the Pearl, the Dead Man’s Chest, or the heart of Davy Jones). Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) both start out as citizens in the eyes of the law, but the decisions they make in order to reunite with one another prove that, at their heart, they are pirates. Will’s actions include (but are not limited to) freeing a notorious pirate, stealing a ship, and nearly giving up many pirates to Davy Jones and the Navy, while Elizabeth, of course, has left Jack to die at the hands of the Kraken. Jack even calls her “pirate,” as she leaves him to die.

A nice counter point to these actual pirates are the antagonists in the Navy. Like the pirates, they all want something but are on the “right” side of the law. Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander) seeks to rid the world of pirates, but he manipulates Will, Elizabeth, and Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), and a few others to do so. “It’s just good business,” is his signature line. Of course, there is also James Norrington (Jack Davenport), who seeks honor and accomplishment through military rank and a good wife (or trophy wife). He uses Elizabeth’s wanting to save Will in Curse of the Black Pearl to get both, and he uses Jack and Elizabeth to get to the Dead Man’s Chest in the film of the same name. It’s only when he’s stripped of his military rank that the realization is made that Norrington is a pirate just like everyone else.

In Curse of the Black Pearl, Elizabeth’s father (Jonathan Pryce) excuses her for her involvement with pirates, because he believes she was motivated for the right reasons. This is the foundation of the series. Pirates of the Caribbean establishes that no matter what flag a character hoisters, if that character manipulates and schemes for the benefit of themselves, they’re a pirate.

With that philosophy on pirating set, the trilogy explores the consequences of unchecked ambition, sinister desire, and failure to commit. These, too, manifest themselves in the characters’ actions throughout the trilogy. In Curse of the Black Pearl, Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) wants the Pearl and stages a mutiny, which spares Jack from the curse that later falls upon Barbossa and the crew of the Pearl. Similarly, Jack himself gets cursed with the Black Spot after he finally assumes command of the Pearl, in Dead Man’s Chest. This is emphasized thematically with the inclusion of the sequence in Dead Man’s Chest where Jack is worshipped as a “god” in an island full of natives but is later nearly killed and eaten because of this. A similarly bizarre sequence transpires in At World’s End, where Jack is stuck in a purgatory with many different illusions of himself. The scene comes off as wacky and seemingly as a way to get more weird Johnny Depp scenes, but this scene does a lot to establish both Jack’s desire for immortality and the cost of having it. “It’s not just about living forever, Jackie. The trick is living with yourself forever,” says Jack’s father (Keith Richards).

Additionally, Davy Jones’ deformities and cruelty stem from his tragic love story with Calipso (Naomie Harris), the physical manifestation of the sea, when she denied to fulfill his desire of physical interaction on one day every 10 years. And of course, there are the many, many characters brought to their deaths by their own desires.

This exploration of piracy, desire, and their consequences are paid off in third film, At World’s End. While the series argues that everyone is a pirate and that there is no real difference in the way a Barbossa operates from how a Cutler Beckett operates, or in the way Will and Elizabeth love from the way Davy Jones and Calipso love, the series does highlight the importance of what the reason behind their actions are.

Going back to the Elizabeth’s father’s forgiveness of his daughter, At World’s End notes that our protagonists are pirates and heroes because they fight for ideas greater than themselves. Will and Elizabeth fight for every second of their love together, while Davy Jones and Calipso both gave up on each other, which led to more cruel and treacherous waters. Barbossa fights for freedom for all pirates, while Beckett fights for dominion and control. This why it’s incredibly satisfying for all the pirate fleets to rally behind Pirate King Elizabeth Swann at the end to not fight for things but for abstract concepts greater than themselves.

If it’s not clear, the reason these movies are always over two hours long, despite their simple Macguffin premises, is that narrative is always twisting and turning to fit the character and to reveal truths about the character and the world. It never sacrifices character to let the plot take over. The trilogy would’ve been over halfway through the second film, if that were the case, but Verbinski takes a careful amount of time developing the world and the characters through their actions, which gives every motivated decision weight behind it.

Most ensemble movies these days (even the fourth installment of this series) try to logically maneuver their characters into positions to fit the plot, at the price of robbing the character and the narrative of emotion and sincerity. Give me a character-driven narrative that ends with an emotionally satisfying moment like that of Elizabeth, Will, and Barbossa calling to “hoist the colors!” instead.

What of Jack? He never changed throughout the trilogy, and it’s evident from On Stranger Tides that he continued his search for immortal life, but that’s only because he gave up immortal life by giving it to Will. The character will continue to go on adventures with his compass that points to whatever he wants most, because he always desires something.

But I guess it’s the pirates’ life for him.

Edited for content on 5/25

Featured Image: Buena Vista Pictures