I admit, the scandals got to me. During Johnny Depp’s first scene in Pirates of the Caribbean 5: Dead Men Tell No Tales, I felt a rush of tabloid-dictated thoughts like “he’s a wife beater” and “he probably has someone secretly feeding him his lines through an earpiece because he’s too lazy to actually put the work in and memorize scripts anymore” and “the crew, actors and extras probably had to stand around for hours waiting for him to finally show up to set.” The sight of Depp in a movie used to encourage happy thoughts and general good will, but now the man carries some serious baggage, both due to his tumultuous personal life and increasingly spotty resume (as I wrote about earlier). On that last part, it’s increasingly difficult to remember the last time Johnny Depp took a starring role in a genuinely good movie (Black Mass is the closest he’s come), and as a result domestic audiences have long since turned on him.
Yet Depp somehow remains Hollywood’s Teflon Man, with scandals and box office misfires simply sliding off of him as he continues to land one high-profile gig (the chief villain of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) after another (a central cog in Universal’s recently announced Dark Universe). It begs the question of when exactly will Hollywood punish Depp for his personal and commercial sins? When will he be humbled back into indies to re-prove his wares before landing another commercial gig? The answer appears to be, well, not anytime soon.
Part of that is because his immense talent still draws in people who want to work with him. There are those who remember his larger body of work and want to believe greatness still lies within him. To do so means wilfully ignoring his obvious turn into latter era Marlon Brando self-indulgence and laziness, but if you’re lucky you might just get a bit of that old Depp magic.
In the case of Dead Men, it took me all of two minutes to get past my Depp hang-ups. The film introduces Jack Sparrow sleeping one off in a giant safe, stumbling and mumbling in front of the gathered crowd on hand for what was supposed to be the public unveiling of the treasures within the safe. Instead, they’ve caught Sparrow mid-robbery with a bottle of rum in his hand and the wife of the local banker as his latest romantic conquest. They are then stunned when the entire bank housing the safe is accidentally pulled off its foundations by Sparrow’s gang and dragged through the city streets, causing Sparrow to be tossed about like a rag doll. Of course, he’s completely nonplussed because to him this is just another Tuesday. As far as he seems to be concerned, the only truly troubling part of the whole affair, which also includes a group of soldiers chasing after them while a different set of soldiers concurrently chase after the son of Jack’s old friend Will Turner, is simply his inability to properly down a bottle of rum due to all the turbulence.
Depp plays the scene beautifully, like a mixture of Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master and Buster Keaton circa Steamboat Bill Jr., setting the stage for a film which highlights Depp’s preternatural talents for physical comedy while also remembering to shift the dramatic heavy lifting to others since that’s never been Sparrow’s strong suit. There’s enough here to remind us why we liked Sparrow in the first place and why the Academy saw fit to nominate Depp for an Oscar the first time he played this character. Of course, others disagree, regarding Dead Men Tell No Tales as simply another overstuffed and seriously self-indulgent installment in a franchise built around overly enabling Depp’s artistic impulses to the point that the Jack Sparrow of 2017 is a caricature of the Jack Sparrow of 2003. However, I have a more charitable view of Dead Men and regard it as being one of the early surprises of the summer: a legitimately enjoyable Pirates of the Carribean movie with a likable Johnny Depp performance. I didn’t even know that was possible anymore.
But what we think of Dead Men and/or Depp doesn’t matter as much as it used to. What matters is what the rest of the world thinks. And on that point we seem to be in agreement: these films aren’t as fun as they used to be.
In the U.S and Canada, Dead Men is currently projected to open to $76.6 million for the 4-Day Holiday weekend, a 22% decline from 4-day domestic debut of the prior Pirates movies, 2011’s On Stranger Tides. It’s the same story at the international market as well, where Dead Men mirrored On Stranger Tides release strategy (open in a handful of major markets at mid-week, expand to almost every other market in the world over the weekend) but saw weaker results, with a 19% drop from On Stranger Tide‘s five-day total of $260.4m to Dead Men‘s $208.4m.
That doesn’t mean Dead Men is a failure. It debuted at #1 in all but two countries, and opened big enough in China that it has already exceeded the entire runs for At World’s End and On Stranger Tides in the Middle Kingdom. However, it does continue the ongoing narrative that everything with Depp right now is a case of diminishing returns.
Depp’s track record since the last Pirates movie:
Yet Warner Bros. had no problem casting Depp to play a character who will loom large as the Voldermort-like villain of the Fantastic Beasts franchise. Universal was totally cool with using Depp as a human prop in a photoshoot alongside Russell Crowe, Javier Bardem, Tom Cruise and Sofia Boutella promoting the studio’s new shared cinematic universe which is being kicked off later this summer with The Mummy. Disney will probably get in bed with Depp again for another Pirates movie unless the coming weeks bring significant drop-offs at the box office.
But why? Surely Depp is more trouble than he’s worth, particularly since he still commands a hefty salary and cut of the back-end on everything he does.
Well, old-fashioned movie stars are in seriously short supply these days. And while Depp has exhausted good will at home in other areas of the world he is still greeted as if the calendar never turned away from 2003. For example, Dead Men is actually the first Hollywood film to stage its world premiere in Mainland China, and Depp was practically mobbed by the adoring masses on the red carpet:
And Hollywood thinks the lesson from Depp’s trumped up downfall is to simply re-cast him as the co-star, not necessarily as the star. Make him one of the several faces in a cinematic universe, not the face. Properly push Jack Sparrow back into a supporting role. Allow Depp to lurk in the background as a villain of a universe ruled over by other actors. Bank on his name holding enough political capital to attract international audiences, but don’t shove him down the throats of domestic audiences as the central figure in yet another movie in which he’s all quirks and little else.
That strategy didn’t work for Alice Through the Looking Glass. It’s kind of working for Dead Men. And it remains to be seen what will happen with Fantastic Beasts and Dark Universe. In fact, Universal seems to be trolling the world by casting Depp to play the Invisible Man since invisible is exactly the way many would prefer Depp to remain these days. However, Hollywood will keep backing Depp for now for lack of better options (there are no longer new movie stars replacing the old ones, not in an age where IP matters more than stars) as well as the ongoing hope that his name can still be leveraged into effective international marketing campaigns.