Death, betrayal and even an attempted corporate takeover of the pirate world infuse the last of the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy - a series that began as a children's romp and has moved to darker themes as its audience matures.
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End opens on Friday and some experts think the Walt Disney Co film will set a new record for biggest opening day weekend, a title that the film's predecessor Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest held last year when it opened at $135.6 million but lost earlier this month after Spider-Man 3 debuted at $151.1 million.
In the latest Pirates, lovers Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) set sail to raise Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) from the dead and unite the Nine Pirate Lords against the East India Trading Company, which wants to hunt down pirates using a cursed ship called the Flying Dutchman.
The movie brings back cast members from the earlier films, including Geoffrey Rush as Captain Barbossa, Jack Davenport as Admiral Norrington and Bill Nighy as Davy Jones, the captain of the Flying Dutchman, but as more careworn, sunburned versions of those characters.
"I think the first movie was much more naive in a way. The love story gets complicated and there are betrayals, distrust and jealousy," director Gore Verbinski told Reuters.
"Those are things that you have to overcome to have that love story grow up. Our audience has grown up -- those 9 year olds are now 13 year olds."
DIZZYING PLOT TWISTS
As the East India Trading Company hunts the pirates, they turn against each other in a series of betrayals that make for dizzying plot twists and transformations of the characters from trustworthy to suspect and back again.
Actor Orlando Bloom said he enjoyed seeing his lovelorn young blacksmith grow up into a full-fledged pirate whose intentions may or may not be honorable by the end of the movie.
"(Will) embraces the pirates' code and the idea of being a pirate in order to get what he wants, which in turn sort of puts a question mark above his head (about) his motives," Bloom told Reuters. "I think he can't escape who he is."
The action takes the adventurers from the Caribbean shack of the mysterious Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris) to Singapore, where they meet the Chinese pirate lord Captain Sao Feng, played by Hong Kong action star Chow Yun-Fat.
"Nobody is a good guy and nobody is a bad guy - everybody is out for himself in the pirate world," Chow told Reuters.
Chow, who had director Verbinski personally shave his head and endured 2-1/2 hours daily in the makeup chair to become the scarred Sao Feng, said making At World's End was "like my Christmas every day."
"I never wanted to leave," he said.
While it ties up plot threads hinted at in the previous two films, At World's End winds the series up at a new starting point for further adventures of Captain Jack, if producers, Disney and the cast should so desire.
Depp has said he would sign on for another film, and producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who was ridiculed for basing the first Pirates of the Caribbean on a Disneyland ride until the franchise became a $1.7 billion blockbuster, said last week that a fourth film is possible.
"Who knows where that little boat will lead us?" he told Reuters. "Obviously we've thought of something because there is a hint of something at the end."
Verbinski, who directed all three films in a grueling four years, said Captain Jack may have set sail for the last time with Will and Elizabeth.
"We've all felt like we've finished the story of the governor's daughter and Port Royale and ... the destiny of Will Turner," he said. "Whether there is the continued adventures of Jack Sparrow somewhere down the road, that would be a sort of start-over and would have to be a story that's worth telling."