Headlining a franchise used to be the surefire bet to becoming an A-lister or, for those already there, cementing superstardom. Lately it’s become the riskiest of gambles.
For every Hunger Games that mints a new Hollywood heavyweight in Jennifer Lawrence or Iron Man that catapults Robert Downey Jr. to new heights of celebrity, there’s a John Carter that fails to ignite the career of Taylor Kitsch or a Green Lantern that serves as a blight on that of Ryan Reynolds. And then there’s Johnny Depp, who with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise rode the Black Pearl to the status of, arguably, most famous actor in the world, only to follow up with one career misstep after the next. Most recently there were two high-profile franchise disasters: Dark Shadows and now The Lone Ranger, which just bombed with $48.9 million against a reported $225 million budget in its first five days of release, with a critical thrashing for good measure.
It used to be that a conversation about Hollywood’s most bankable celebrities couldn’t be had without mentioning Depp’s name. But maybe it’s time to realize that Depp was never supposed to be a part of that conversation in the first place. With his career on ever shakier ground—how many critical and financial disappointments can an actor weather before the blame shifts from the project to him?—it’s occasion for a reevaluation. Maybe Depp isn’t a movie star. And maybe he never was.
Depp was 47 by the time the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean installment hit theaters in the May 2011. At that point the franchise had already grossed over $2.6 billion worldwide, earning the actor the distinction of “one of the most bankable stars of all time,” according to The Daily Telegraph. Depp offered an insightful bit of self-analysis about achieving that status. “It’s interesting to experience this ride after what was essentially 20 years of enjoying a career based on failure,” he said. “And then suddenly something clicks. The weird thing is, I never a changed a thing.”
That’s true. Depp’s Capt. Jack Sparrow, though the lead in a splashy Disney franchise, was close kin with all the eccentric characters he had made a career of playing in such indie films as Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape—which is to say, weird. Depp’s strength has always been as a quirky character actor, which is why the nutty cocktail of effeminate sexuality and drunken, swashbuckling charm he concocted as Sparrow was so crowd pleasing.
But then he did start changing things.
Rather than continue to play the off-center leading man, Depp signed on for a litany of projects that cast him as the action hero, and with very little success. The Libertine earned just $4 million domestically. Public Enemies failed to reach $100 million in the U.S. The Tourist, despite aligning two of Hollywood’s biggest stars (Depp and Angelina Jolie), was a dud, as was The Rum Diary. By and large, those films were savaged by critics, too, with The Tourist’s Golden Globe nomination for Best Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy, branded a low point for the notoriously star-gazing organization.
This isn’t to say that Depp’s career post-Pirates debut has been mired solely on low points. But the box-office and critical high points he’s enjoyed over the past 10 years (Oscar nods for Finding Neverland and Sweeney Todd, massive grosses for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland) came when he returned to his wheelhouse of weird.
So how then does one explain the successive bombs of Dark Shadows and The Lone Ranger, two films that showcase Depp’s penchant for oddities? They’re symptoms of Depp’s condition as a franchise addict, a disease plaguing Hollywood—and ruining careers.
As Gilbert Cruz points out in Vulture, The Lone Ranger “represents everything that’s wrong with Hollywood blockbusters.” The film is a perfect storm of the industry’s most egregious modern problems: “franchise obsession, origin-story laziness, over-reliance on bloodless violence, and inability to prevent running-time bloat.” Saturate cinemas with a glut of shoddy franchise flicks, and only a few are going to stick, no matter the star. In other words, it’s time for studios to stop being shocked when a bad franchise film flops, even if Johnny Depp, “one of the most bankable actors of all time,” is the star.
Depp’s recent string of failures strongly suggests that the idea of the box-office guarantee is well past its due date. Will Smith’s Midas touch proved, as many expected, faulty with the dismal performance of After Earth. Tom Cruise’s box-office ups and downs are as jumpy as his couch antics (the fourth Mission: Impossible was massive at the box office, but Oblivion never even managed to hit $100 million domestically). Sandra Bullock is on a roll, sure, but only after a long absence from the top of the charts. New great hopes like Channing Tatum are proving that a star’s name may no longer be all it takes to sell tickets, with White House Down performing so far below expectations.
The best idea for Depp, then, would be to embrace this idea that the category of “box-office star” is kaput, for him at least. He’s a character actor who stumbled into the role of action-movie headliner thanks to the success of Pirates of the Caribbean. But it’s a role that doesn’t suit him. That’s why the projects he has in the pipeline seem so promising. The quirky sci-fi thriller Transcendence finds Depp playing a scientist whose brain is downloaded onto a supercomputer. More exciting, he’s signed on to play the Wolf in Rob Marshall’s film adaptation of the musical Into the Woods, a dark, mischievous role for which Depp could not be more perfectly cast. The one franchise flick in production on Depp’s IMDb page: another Pirates installment, which, at the very least, we know he’ll excel in.
So given the recent setbacks and the films he has coming up, let’s hope Hollywood redefines Johnny Depp. He’s a movie actor, not a movie star ... so let’s stop trying to force him to be one.