Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz in "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger… (Disney Enterprises )
When "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" debuted in May 2007, many critics derided the third installment in the Disney franchise, calling its plot incomprehensible and 169-minute running time torturous. Newsweek prayed it was the final movie in the series; the New Yorker said a monkey delivered the best performance in the film; and Time suggested an alternative title for the picture: "Pirates of the Caribbean: At Wit's End."
Yet rather than sheath their swords, Johnny Depp and Co. restocked the eyeliner supply and relaced the corsets, signing on a little more than one year later for a fourth go-round. The copious haul of doubloons that Capt. Jack Sparrow pocketed worldwide suggested that with a little freshening of the franchise, audiences might be lured back aboard for yet another film.
"Even though the reviewers weren't crazy about the third one, it did almost a billion dollars. That's a big movie," says "Pirates" producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who, along with Disney, a new director ("Chicago" helmer Rob Marshall) and a new supporting cast, including Penélope Cruz, will bring another adventure in the eye-patch saga to theaters this week. "If we do a little less [money] on the fourth one, we'd be happy."
The return of "Pirates of the Caribbean" on Friday (this one is titled "On Stranger Tides") is part of a major shift in Hollywood, with studios now routinely pursuing a fourth picture in a series, often after an extended layoff — or even a fifth, in the case of Universal's current hit "Fast Five."
Long-running film series featuring such characters as Tarzan and Charlie Chan were a staple in the early decades of Hollywood. But those faded as TV became popular, giving viewers regular installments of favored heroes. In the 1970s, '80s and '90s, three tended to be the magic number when it came to sequels: Michael Corleone whacked his last pigeon in "The Godfather Part III," Neo would outwit no more Sentinels after the third "Matrix," Ellie Sattler will no longer study — or battle — rogue dinosaurs after "Jurassic Park III."
The roots of the custom run deep — three-act storytelling, after all, goes back millenniums. After a third film, the conventional wisdom used to go, audiences move on, and the material has lost creative steam. For years, producers of film franchises typically made deals with actors to star in three films.
But now, four and more is becoming common. Besides extending the "Fast & Furious" series, Universal has also given a new lease on life to the "Bourne" movies, reviving them with actor Jeremy Renner and director Tony Gilroy when star Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass said they were out of ideas after a trio of films. Sony has done the same with "Spider-Man" — after three installments pairing Tobey Maguire with director Sam Raimi, Andrew Garfield is taking over the webbed wonder role; "(500) Days of Summer" director Marc Webb is helming the film, which focuses on Spidey's high school years and is due out next year. Also in the works: new editions of "Spy Kids" and "X-Men."
Yet as studios extend franchises, they're raising questions about whether they're sacrificing creativity for profit. Are there new stories to tell in a fourth film? Do actors, writers and others want to commit so much time to essentially a single enterprise, or can a new cast and crew grab the baton and infuse new energy (and still please fans)? And will audiences embrace these efforts, or see them as naked grabs for cash?
"Both 'Spider-Man 2' and 'Toy Story 2' broke the stigma of sequels and proved that a sequel doesn't necessarily have to be a lame rehash of the first movie," said movie critic and historian Leonard Maltin. "There are no rules.… But then there is the third 'X-Men' and 'Spider-Man' and the third 'Pirates,' which may still be running. I left the theater after two hours."
When Melissa Rosenberg, the screenwriter on the first three movies in the "Twilight" saga, was asked by novelist Stephenie Meyer to return for a fourth film, she reacted unenthusiastically. "I thought, 'You know, I'm done,'" she recalled in a recent interview. "I felt like, 'I've done three. How am I going to do this any better?'"
Rosenberg was eventually persuaded by Meyer and studio Summit Entertainment to stay on; there was, at least, a fourth novel to draw from. (The studio eventually split that final book into two films, both scripted by Rosenberg.)
On June 3, Fox will release a fifth "X-Men" film, a prequel of sorts starring James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, but in a different universe than that depicted by 2009's origin film centered on the series' most popular mutant, Wolverine. Critics have wavered over the series' history, but fans have rewarded the decade-old franchise with close to $800 million in grosses worldwide.