Audiences embark on another session of summer swashbuckling this weekend as Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" hits theaters — bringing with it Johnny Depp's beloved, Oscar-nominated pirate captain who's really, well, a clown.
Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow thrilled fans in the first "Pirates" film with a character so jaunty, seemingly drug-addled and crazily erratic — all based upon a caricature of Rolling Stones rocker Keith Richards — that it completely defied most modern archetypes for the action/adventure protagonist.
"Where Superman is all masculinity, Jack Sparrow is a complete goofball modeled on Keith Richards," said William Luhr, a professor of English and film at Saint Peter's College in New Jersey.
"He comes off as quite a bizarre character, sometimes a goofy, fun pirate; other times quite dark with a dastardly smile and a cutlass, but he's essentially just a goofy clown — sometimes really falling short as a pirate."
The quirky Sparrow is part of a complete revolution in how Hollywood portrays male lead characters, said Christopher Sharrett, a professor of communications and film studies at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.
"We've seen a big change from the concept of the masculine hero in the days of John Wayne, Errol Flynn and Clark Gable, and now we're seeing an era of much more untraditional characters," he said.
"Whereas in the past Hollywood films wanted you to believe you were seeing a reflection of the real world, their characters models of masculinity and femininity, now that's not the case — instead most characters seem to be throwbacks to a new wave of heroes that don't take themselves seriously," he said. "Depp as this comic hero is really a continuation of the deconstruction by Hollywood of masculinity."
Depp, who describes his role as part "Keith Richards-kind-of-guy and part Pepe Le Pew," said studio executives were initially terrified of his portrayal of Sparrow.
"They said, 'He's gay, he's drunk. Oh my God, what are you guys doing?' But once we cut a scene together, they saw the fun of it," he told The Associated Press.
But Jack Sparrow isn't the only hero of the film, or even its sole main character — he just fools everyone into thinking he is by outshining everyone around him, said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc.
"The hero is really Orlando Bloom (Will Turner). He's the good-looking guy who gets the girl. He's just overshadowed by Jack Sparrow, the goofy, lovable bad guy you love to hate, whom you root for even though his values are suspect," he said.
"Plus you have Keira Knightley (Elizabeth Swan) in there as well, who's not just eye candy but a strong character, giving you more of an ensemble where you have all kinds of characters different people can root for," Dergarabedian added.
In the new "Pirates" movie, Sparrow fools lovebirds Bloom and Knightley into helping him avoid paying an unsettled debt of his soul to undersea master Davy Jones (played by Bill Nighy) and his army of sea-phantoms. Sparrow owes Davy Jones his soul after offering it in exchange for becoming the captain of his own ship.
The three end up combing under the ocean for the infamous "dead man's chest" and even fighting enormous sea monsters as part of their adventures.
The question remains, however, whether Depp can reclaim the magic of his first performance and help the movie rival the $654 million in booty hauled in worldwide by the first surprise hit film.
Disney reportedly has already spent $450 million on "Dead Man's Chest" and the third and final installment.
With advance ticket sales already over 20 times those of "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" in 2003, according to Web broker MovieTickets.com, Dergarabedian said the industry's hopes are quite high for a huge treasure trove of box-office gold.
"A lot of Hollywood folks think this has the potential to be the biggest opening weekend of all time," he said. "There were very high expectations for 'Superman' and now for 'Pirates' — and a big part of seeing that through will be Depp re-achieving his oddball performance."
For Depp, a longtime rebellious, bad-boy actor seen as quite eccentric himself and best known for roles in smaller, artsy films — the franchise has ushered in a major career shift.
"It's really his first mainstream, blockbuster movie. His paycheck has gone way up with these films," Dergarabedian said. "All of a sudden he's the leading up an incredibly lucrative franchise, and already known for playing any kind of wildcard, niche role."
Disney has even updated its famous amusement park ride to include a likeness of Depp and a few other characters from the film — a move that has riled purists who want the classic ride to remain in its original form.
However, just following the same old Hollywood sequel formula won't cut the mustard for the latest film's box office success.
"The first time around, people had low expectations about going to see a movie based on a Disney theme park ride, and Depp has to add new elements to make his character still juicy to the audience," Luhr said.
For the third installment of the film series, the franchise has the Keith Richards card up its sleeve — the rocker will play Depp's father in a cameo role, Depp confirmed this week.
"The decision to roll out Keith Richards is all about box office and targeting actually the older generation, to counteract how Depp's flaky character — the tattoos, that he's out of his gourd, the seeming drug use — strikes a chord with young people," Sharrett said. "Most adults see the film as a high-priced cartoon, so an appearance from Richards could really help the franchise out in that regard."
But this weekend, the main selling point of the whole swashbuckling soirée will be Depp himself, returning as the mad, maniacal buccaneer.
"Disney is really selling the whole shebang on Johnny Depp and special effects," Luhr said. "They've been basing all of the promotion on him and Knightley as the beauty — selling glamour as well as goofiness."