In the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, scenery chewing (wonderful, but scenery chewing) performances from Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Bill Nighy, and others, have obscured the franchise’s most defined arc, at least in the first three movies: Elizabeth Swann’s ascension to power. The only truly significant female character, Elizabeth Swann quietly rose through the ranks while Will Turner resolved his father issues and Jack Sparrow…worked toward whatever Jack Sparrow was working toward. Reclaiming his ship? Several times? Her stated mission is to marry Will Turner, a standard mission for a woman in a Disney movie, but her path to the alter is so convoluted and fantastical that she manages to achieve so much more before the end of “At World’s End.” But her story isn’t finished, even after that movie, and her fate is far from satisfying. I’m not usually one to advocate keeping franchises going, especially when they have very considerately ended, but I think that Disney should continue the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series with Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Swann as its central character. After all, she’s not just a full-blown pirate when all is said and done; she is the Pirate King.
“The Curse of the Black Pearl” begins with Elizabeth Swann resigned to her life as the Governor’s daughter who must marry well. She wears a pirate medallion and studies pirate lore and is nice to the lower classes, but goes about the life of luxury she was born into. Until she is captured by pirates, that is, during which abduction she knows enough to demand “parley” with their captain. In that movie, she is a victim, but not a passive one. She attempts multiple escapes, is a participant in the climactic battle scene, and even has the best line: “Do you like pain? Try wearing a corset.” In the second movie, “Dead Man’s Chest,” she drives the action. Sure, when she and Will are arrested for having helped Jack, which interrupts their wedding, Will is sent on the treasure hunt that will earn their freedom (because the man is expected to be the one who goes on the adventure and solves the problem), but when Elizabeth is freed from jail by her father, she makes her own way out to sea to try to solve the problem as well. Long story short, when a giant sea monster attacks, she’s the one who figures out how to save almost everyone, in a very pirate way: “Any man who falls behind is left behind.”
By “At World’s End,” she’s part of the crew and part of the mission, and over the course of the movie she becomes part of the hierarchy. A dying Pirate Lord makes her his replacement, earning her a place on the Brethren Court, and when the Court finds it must elect a king, Jack Sparrow forgoes the traditional voting for himself in the first round, which every other Pirate Lord does, and votes for Elizabeth, making her the Pirate King, and putting the authority to take the pirates to battle in her hands. I’ve made this as brief as possible, leaving out as much as possible, because there is a lot, but not only does this arc make her ultimate fate at the end of that movie, stranded alone and pregnant on an island not expecting to see her baby’s father again for ten years, particularly disappointing and unsatisfying, but it provides the perfect title for the next movie, the first in which she’s the central character: “Pirates of the Caribbean: Return of the Pirate King.”
What’s the story and how do we get her into it? Who cares? These movies aren’t about Shakespearean unfolding of plot, they’re about adventure on the high seas, spectacularly rendered CGI villains, and…jokes, I guess. Fortunately, Keira Knightley is hilarious. There will probably be some retconning, but that’s what franchises do these days, no one will mind if the continuity is a bit off. Her son is grown as of the end of the last “Pirates” movie, so no need to have him around, and if we must retain Orlando Bloom, I’m sure he’d make a great first mate, like he does in the “Lord of the Rings” movies. Bringing back Zoe Saldana’s Anamaria, who was a small but memorable part of the first movie, seems to be in order (when Saldana’s not busy with Disney’s “Avatar” or Disney’s “Guardians of the Galaxy”), perhaps as a crewmember, perhaps as a rival pirate. I’m thinking Ava DuVernay or Patty Jenkins for director, maybe Sigourney Weaver as a villain. The franchise left off with, supposedly, every curse on the open sea being lifted. That’s no fun. Someone has to curse the seas again. That’s what the movie can be about. And it can draw on stories of historical female pirates, like the ones Anamaria is named after.
The “Pirates” franchise is all about restoring full life to those caught between life and death through magic, so pulling the series itself out of limbo by way of a little Disney magic seems appropriate. Disney is about to hand Thor’s hammer to Jane Foster, finally give Black Widow her own movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which also, now, thankfully, includes Captain Marvel, and wrap up its Rey-centric “Star Wars” sequel trilogy. But those are all stories, properties, and ideas that came from outside of Disney that the company gobbled up, as the vast majority of Disney movies are. “Pirates of the Caribbean” is Disney’s own creation, both the movie series and the ride it is based on. It would be Disney’s only contribution to the rise of the live-action female-led action movie that came from Disney itself. And Keira Knightley deserves this. She has consistently been one of the best parts of the “Pirates” movies and every other movie she is in. She deserves to lead a franchise, to become the hero. Maybe even an anti-hero. In “Dead Man’s Chest” she and Jack discuss right and wrong and necessary. As Pirate King, as captain of her own ship, can she remain true to her values, or will piracy drag her down to Jack Sparrow’s level, and can she find the good in being there, the balance that he struck? In “The Curse of the Black Pearl,” Gibbs tells Jack Sparrow, in reference to Saldana’s Anamaria, “It’s frightful bad luck to have a woman on board.” Jack responds, “It would be far worse not to have her.”
“Pirates” as a franchise is, so far as I can tell, dead in the water. Sequels and reboots have been canceled, but we live in a world where franchises, uh, find a way. Disney may return to “Pirates” and think it would be bad luck to bring back any of the original cast, including Knightley. To paraphrase Jack Sparrow, it would be much better to have her.
Aaron Netsky (@AaronNetsky on Twitter, @aaron_netsky on Instagram) is a singer, writer, actor, and all-around theatre professional who has worked off and off-off Broadway and had writing published on AtlasObscura.com, TheHumanist.com, Slate.com, StageLightMagazine.com, and ThoughtCatalog.com, as well as his own blogs, Cantonaut (http://cantonaut.blogspot.com) and 366 Musicals (https://366days366musicals.tumblr.com), and his Medium account.