Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides - It could have been way worse
If you are expected great story-telling or a convincing plot from the fourth installment in a franchise of films based on an amusement park ride, I'm pretty sure you're going to be disappointed. That isn't what Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides, or any of it prequels, offer. Personally, I'm OK with that--I don't watch these movies for their literary value--but if you're not, I'd definitely skip this one. It makes the previous installments seem absolutely well-told.
I've reviewed all three of the previous Pirates movies (Curse of the Black Pearl, Dead Man's Chest, and At World's End). Though I liked all three films, none of them received high marks for heroine content--the major female character, Keira Knightley's Elizabeth Swann, was a consistent disappointment, and Dead Man's Chest was horribly racist. On both counts, On Stranger Tides is a step in the right direction. But not a very big step.
Elizabeth Swann (and her husband, Will Turner) are gone. Instead, the role of Captain Jack Sparrow's sometimes-adversary-sometimes-collaborator is filled by Angelica Malon, played by Penélope Cruz. Angelica is a much different woman. When we meet her, she is impersonating Captain Jack Sparrow well enough to fool a crew of sailors, and she proves to be as good with a sword as Captain Jack himself in their initial duel. Throughout the course of the film, she shows herself to be, in many ways, a female version of Jack--manipulative, self-serving, and maybe even a little bit cruel, but definitely a complete character.
Unfortunately, my generally positive feelings towards Angelica are mediated by two things: First, the film insists on a history between her and Jack, during which he found her in a convent, about to take her vows, and deflowered her. Could have lived without that. Secondly, it slowly comes to light that Angelica's actions, at first self-motivated, are at least partially directed by a not-quite-believable family allegiance. This isn't bad, in and of itself, but I would have liked it better if she'd simply been, like Jack, selfish.
The bigger issue than Angelica is the film's only other female character, the mermaid Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey). Though she does come through at an important moment at the end, Syrena is an unmitigated disaster. It was as if the filmmakers were concerned that Angelica was just too good a female character and had to offer Syrena to balance her. Syrena spends nearly the entirety of the movie captured, in bondage, and in need of saving. And through most of it, she's also naked.
I thought a lot about what I wanted to write about racial issues in this film, and I'm honestly still not sure what to say. The only Black characters in the film were Blackbeard's hulking zombified gunners. Didn't like that at all. However, one thing this film had the none of the previous Pirates films did was a major character of color. That is, if you consider Penélope Cruz an actress of color. Cruz is Spanish, as is her character. Syrena, too, was a Spanish character (I guess--it's difficult to assign nationality to a mermaid) played by a Spanish actress. The Spanish soldiers featured in the film were also played by Spanish actors. In the context of the film, wherein the Spanish characters were clearly intended to be construed as "other" to the British cast, I think it's fair to consider these characters, and their casting, as a win in the non-racist category. Given the absolutely embarrassing racism of this franchise's second film, I found this pleasantly surprising.
It's hard to justify more than a single star for this movie--it's just nothing groundbreaking. However, given my single-star ranking of Dead Man's Chest and two star rankings of Curse of the Black Pearl and At World's End, I'm going to go ahead and give this one two stars. On feminist and anti-racist grounds, it was at least as good, and probably better, than the first and third films.