Has Johnny Depp finally jumped the shark for good?

At some point, something happened to Johnny Depp. The shark jump may have started in 2003, with Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, but the shark has rolled over many times since. With the release of photos of him in costume as the Big Bad Wolf in Into the Woods, the Internet is facing the cold, hard truth: All Johnny Depp characters are the same now, and we are pretty much over it.

On Depp’s zoot suit-esque attire, Rebecca Pahle at The Mary Sue is highly skeptical, as is Meredith Woerner at i09, while Luke Y. Thompson compared his Big Bad Wolf costume to a furry. Depp’s wardrobe is painfully out of touch with the rest of the cast, and while he might not have made the costuming decision, it seems in keeping with his usual tendency to appear as a slightly offbeat, countercultural character. The only problem is that this is something we’ve all seen before. Depp is hardly an outlaw, despite the provocative claim made by a Rolling Stone profile on the actor.

No matter how many hats he wears, Johnny Depp’s characters are still fundamentally the same man underneath, as Kyle Buchanan noted at Vulture earlier this year in a piece examining the fact that the actor had seemed to fall into a rut, no matter what his IMDB profile says. “With each big-budget part, Depp will employ a new voice, a new hat, and some new face paint, but the more Depp labors to make himself unrecognizable, the more we recognize the tricks he uses to do so,” Buchanan argued. “Tonto isn’t exactly like Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean, but they’ve both been assembled from the same familiar toolkit.”

In fact, his tendency to play the same character over and over again has become such a cliche that even the Onion has parodied it, and it’s possible to cosplay virtually every character he’s ever played simultaneously, which is no mean feat, given his impressive filmography.

Depp longs to be weird; that comes through loud and clear throughout his filmography, from when he first broke free of 21 Jump Street to pursue his film career. At first, his oddball sensibilities proved an asset to his favored auteurs, with films like Terry Gilliam’s cult classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands, but over time, Depp’s mad methods turned into a formula.

With a flurry of scarves, dramatic makeup, messy hair, and, of course, the ubiquitous hat, Depp has smarmed his way across the screen in the bloated Pirates franchise, Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sleepy Hollow, Dead Man (which predates the long, slow slide), The Lone Ranger, and Sweeney Todd.

It’s telling that Glen Whipp of the Los Angeles Times was so startled by Johnny Depp “out of costume” in Transcendence that he felt the need to remark upon it in his review of the otherwise somewhat lackluster film: “The most surprising thing about Transcendence may well be that Depp isn’t hiding his mug underneath thick makeup or sporting some elaborately constructed hat or costume. His face is front and center on the film’s one-sheet.”

Jesse Hassenger at the A.V. Club argued earlier this year that the alleged backlash against Depp was unjustified, given that the actor had made a stunning number of box-office hits, if you were willing to overlook the films that didn’t do so well; in the grand world of averaging, his mediocre performance was apparently kind of like a C. Sure, Depp may not do so well from test to test, but every now and then he lands an A.

The problem is that Depp’s As are coming fewer and fewer now, as his imagination seems to shrink and the number of roles he’ll entertain are also dwindling. He seems to cling to Tim Burton and Helena Bonham Carter, afraid to try his luck with other producers and leading ladies. Burton, meanwhile, is perfectly content to keep casting the dynamic duo, even as they grow, over the years, less dynamic; the endless reprises of the same characters in the same roles is enough to make the Internet roll its eyes. As Burton flails for new ideas, Depp and Burton appear to be dragging each other down the creative wormhole, unable to admit that it’s time for fresh blood.

Hassenger’s defense of Depp spins erratically across the actor’s career, suggesting that his detractors are choosing to selectively erase his history in film and television, and are obstinately conflating his recent roles:

Regardless of what else can be said about The Lone Ranger, Depp’s cracked, deadpan Tonto isn’t especially similar to Jack Sparrow… The alleged sameness of his Burton collaborations gets smudged into nonsensical generalization: Are his Willy Wonka and much-derided Mad Hatter particularly similar to the angry Sweeney Todd, never mind to each other? Or it just fashionable to condemn Burton and Depp with an over-it sigh of ‘there they go again?’

Yet, it seems like Hassenger is dodging the larger issue here: The Depp “backlash” isn’t the result of people conveniently forgetting that Depp acted in a number of fantastic roles pre-Pirates, but that people are frustrated with the fact that he seems to prefer to box himself into familiar roles, and they’re simply tired of going to his movies.

Though Hassenger is loathe to admit it, Depp does have a character archetype, making some of his roles seem to blur together. It’s not just the hat, the outrageous makeup, the elaborate costumes, but an underlying current of a particular brand of weirdness that makes Depp’s roles seem formulaic and dull. J.R. Thorpe at Bustle identified the archetype: “He was the bohemian artist with the slightly greasy hair and penchant for adult fantasist films, always willing to take a risk, always ahead of the curve.” Unfortunately, he stalled out on that curve, and never progressed from there.

It’s not that roles on films like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Cry-Baby, From Hell, Donnie Brasco, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas weren’t good, because they were, and they also represented a highly varied acting range, illustrating that Depp was at least once capable of playing more than one role. Depp’s career started out dark, creepy, and complicated, as Wes Craven notes in an interview at Vulture on the history of horror. Craven, one might argue, was the launchpad for Depp’s career, and the actor has certainly come a long way from the horror and gore to arrive at his relatively tame, almost goofy roles in shows that are not aimed at complicated audiences.

Depp has fallen into an acting rut and he can’t get out; and the people around him seem determined to keep pulling him back in. His trademark weirdness has gone beyond a quirk and an asset and into something bland and predictable, the very opposite of eccentricity. As Kristy Puchko at CinemaBlend put it, “His acting canon has devolved from thoughtful and compelling portraits of unusual heroes to a collection of wacky faces, weird accents, and topped off with the racially insensitive portrayal of the insane Indian outcast Tonto. It turns out Johnny Depp is not a performer who can do no wrong.”

She argued that Depp has made the same mistake Mike Myers did, falling into the trap of banking on his fame in the hopes of making “stupid money” and reprising the roles that got him there, rather than branching out; unfortunately, he banked unwisely, and his fans are getting tired of him.

The downfall of Johnny Depp is a tragedy to watch, looking back over his older, and much better, roles. The possibility that he might sink into obscurity and be remembered only for his formulaic, phoned-in appearances is unfortunate, but he brought it upon himself. Like too many of his cohort, he was seduced by the appeal of Hollywood, the glamor, the stardom, and the big fat paychecks. Depp claims he plans to retire from acting soon, something relatively easy to do with the money he’s raked in over the years, but it might also be an indicator that he’s tired of playing the same person, and hasn’t quite figured out how to stop.

Johnny Depp has become so consumed by the same role that it’s even beginning to bleed over into the real man. Will his last film feature Johnny Depp starring as himself?

Photo via lorenjavier/Flickr (CC BY N.D.-2.0)

S.E. Smith

S.E. Smith

s.e. smith is a Northern California-based journalist and writer focusing on social justice issues. smith's work has appeared in publications like Esquire, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, In These Times, Bitch Magazine, and Pacific Standard.