It seems that Depp is stuck in an endless cycle of trying to recapture the delight that came with his entrance in that first Pirates of the Caribbean, cashing gigantic studio paychecks to keep whatever financial demons he has at bay, and looking for the next big hit to propel him back into the hearts of the viewing public. Despite negative reviews (including one from The Atlantic’s own Christopher Orr), Pirates’ success is basically assured due to the franchise’s huge popularity overseas—the last entry, 2011’s On Stranger Tides, was similarly derided but made $1 billion worldwide (more than 75 percent of it internationally).
As a result there will, at least for the next few years, still be the opportunity for Depp to cash in as much as he wants. But with each tentpole movie, he gets further and further away from the idiosyncratic charm that helped him make him stand out in the first place. Beyond that, he seems to have entirely lost his grasp on what made him such a magnetic screen presence in the first place. In the original Pirates, he found an angle (18th-century pirate-as-rock star) that felt fresh, funny, and inventive. In the fifth, released Friday, he seems completely disconnected from the performance, hitting his marks and saying his lines (and wearing his iconic costume) with all the energy of someone waiting to clock out for the day.
After the unexpected success of Pirates (it was a word-of-mouth sensation that opened big and dominated the entire moviegoing summer in 2003), Depp continued to mix smaller indie work into his repertoire even as his stardom grew. He was helped by the fact that he’d been a part of the Hollywood churn for some 15 years, getting his big break on the TV show 21 Jump Street and collaborating with directors like John Waters (Cry-Baby), Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man), and, of course, Tim Burton (with whom he has made eight films). Before Pirates, he had only seen one film make more than $100 million—Sleepy Hollow in 1999.
As a marquee idol, Depp saw even his smaller projects (the thriller Secret Window, the dark musical Sweeney Todd) become hits, racked up three Oscar nominations, and made two family-friendly films with Burton (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice and Wonderland) that were worldwide smashes. Though his first return to the Pirates franchise (Dead Man’s Chest in 2006) got mixed reviews, it still earned a fortune, while Depp’s performance as J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland received critical acclaim. Films like Public Enemies (2009), a collaboration with the director Michael Mann in which Depp played the notorious John Dillinger, felt like the perfect way to translate his superstardom into something interesting.
Depp broke up with his longtime partner Vanessa Paradis in 2012, and then embarked on a relationship with Heard, his co-star in 2011’s The Rum Diary; they would marry in 2015 and break up a little more than a year later after a reportedly tempestuous romance. Depp contested Heard’s allegations of verbal and physical abuse during their divorce, but shocking pictures showing Heard’s injuries from an alleged domestic incident were then published in People Magazine. Depp nonetheless pressed on, publicly denying all of Heard’s accusations and signing on for several major film franchises, perhaps in an effort to dig himself out of his widely reported financial hole.