Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Which, of course, it won't. "Pirates 5" is already in the works, with "Kon-Tiki" directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg at the helm  (because, ya know, they can make films at sea), and Depp, says the rumor mill, collecting something in the $100 million range for carrying on the character. But, really, there have already been a bounty of unofficial "Pirates" sequels sprinkled throughout the last 10 years, as Sparrow spawned a character template to which Depp and the studios have rigidly adhered. Whatever auteur qualities a director like Burton used to have, he's sold out as much as his once-freaky man muse, repeatedly coaching him in the same formulaic, Sparrow-like mode, with grotesques like Willy Wonka ("Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"), The Mad Hatter ("Alice in Wonderland," which is also sequel-bound), and Barnabas Collins ("Dark Shadows") reiterating the same over-the-top humor that was once mere subtext in Depp's work.

One of the more intriguing things about Depp's otherwise un-intriguing career is that he currently seems to stand as a link between Hollywood's decline of star-driven vehicles and its dependence on brand recognition. As most recently evidenced by the overall flop of A-Lister Will Smith's "After Earth," the model of banking a blockbuster on a major celeb is no longer Tinseltown's modus operandi, and pushing known products, as we learned from high-earners like "The Avengers" and "Man of Steel," is the new way to play.

This was highlighted by producer Linda Obst, who, in a recent chat with New York magazine's David Edelstein, noted that the industry's obsession with text familiarity comes down to foreign markets like China, which are currently providing 80 percent of industry profits, and want to see more of the American icons they already know and love.

Among these American icons? Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, and -- thanks to a few high-seas adventures -- Johnny Depp. This explains why "Dark Shadows," a film that performed rather poorly in the U.S., wound up second behind "The Avengers" in international sales, and why "The Lone Ranger," whose titular character isn't even played by Depp, is poised to perform well overseas too. Chinese viewers may not know or care about a resurrected sixties vampire soap opera, or a decades-old cowboys-and-Indians tale that's unequivocally American, but they know Depp's face, and they'll shell out the cash for his brand.

"Lately, it seems that even if Depp wanted to, he couldn't go back to the kind of actor he was."

Depp may contend that the "stupid money" he's basking in is "just for the kids," a catch-all excuse he could use to cover any future skepticism about his earnings, but when unsavory headlines surface, like his recent exit from the Whitey Bulger mob movie "Black Mass," it's near-impossible not to raise an eyebrow. Depp reportedly walked because he won't accept any less than $20 million a picture, a figure that would have comprised a third of the "Black Mass" budget (early word is that Joel Edgerton has stepped in as a replacement).

The worst of it all is that, lately, it seems that even if Depp wanted to, he couldn't go back to the kind of actor he was. Most of his films from the past 10 years that have strayed from the Sparrow formula, from "The Libertine" to "The Tourist," have been financial, critical, and audience failures. And even the Hunter S. Thompson-derived passion project "The Rum Diary," funded by Depp's highfalutin production company Infinitum Nihil (which, with its implications of "infinity" and "nihilism," carries grim connotations about what's to come), yielded one of Depp's poorest showings on every front.

It's deeply unsettling to think that, beneath all those daring nineties projects with true film artists, what was brewing in a seemingly incorruptible and exploratory performer was an ego the size of a pirate ship. If you make it to "The Lone Ranger," keep your eye on Depp, and watch how fully he's gotten his paycheck-pocketing routine down to a science. Grumble, grimace, quip, jump, joke, stand tall, repeat. Depp's no longer just part of the Hollywood machine, he's become a Hollywood machine.