Inverse reviews

Our Flag Means Death review: HBO Max’s pirate comedy is 2022's most surprising new show

The genre-bending pirate adventure is hard to define but easy to enjoy.

Vampires, werewolves, aliens, superheroes, pirates: There are some genres that never feel old. Taika Waititi has now had experience with all five through What We Do in the Shadows, his work with Star Wars and Marvel, and now HBO Max’s pirate comedy Our Flag Means Death. Waititi executive produced, and he directs and stars in a few episodes, but the spotlight is set on his fellow Kiwi comedy legend Rhys Darby, who brings a delightful Michael Scott energy to the real-life “gentleman pirate” Stede Bonnet.

Though the premise of a pirate farce may sound straightforward, the show morphs between a maritime workplace comedy, an action-adventure, and a love story. “I've taken to describing it as a workplace comedy as a catchall, and people seem to like that and stop asking me questions,” creator David Jenkins tells Inverse. “All these workplace shows are always about families and found families. It's a workplace that turns into a family.”

With a solid cast of characters and a rotation of big name guests, Our Flag Means Death may just become your new escape into another world.

The core of any ensemble show is, well, the ensemble, and Our Flag Means Death boasts a collection of familiar and unfamiliar comedy icons from all parts of the globe. From Samba Schutte, a correspondent for the Dutch version of The Daily Show, to Kristian Nairn, best known as Hodor from Game of Thrones, watching the crew of the Revenge is like watching the Olympics of comedy.

One of the American delegates is Matt Maher, an illustrious theater actor who plays pretentious crew member Black Pete. You probably know him better as Norex, the Skrull second-in-command who met an unfortunate end in Captain Marvel.

For Maher, his perception of his role morphed throughout the production. “We had to do a little improv in our audition, a very Office-y documentary thing where you talk about your pirate,” Maher said. “I was thinking this is just The Office on pirate ship, or What We Do in the Shadows, but instead of vampires, it's pirates. But it's not that at all.”

Just like the original Office, there’s a lot of British talent as well. One of the standouts is Nathan Foad, who plays Lucius, the only crew member who can read and write. Foad’s acting resume is sparse, so his experience working on the show is almost mystical to him. “I was just a midlevel comedy writer in the UK, and then I got this opportunity because I started posting comedy character videos on Twitter,” Foad tells Inverse. “I auditioned and I got it! What a crazy first big acting gig to get, it honestly feels like I won a competition from the back of a Pringles can.”

Rhys Darby as Stede Bonnet and Nathan Foad as Lucius in Our Flag Means Death.HBO Max

All these characters serve Rhys Darby’s aristocratic Stede Bonnet, who really existed. While most incompetent managers in workplace comedies are wildly unsupportive, Bonnet is the opposite. He’s an HR department’s platonic ideal of a boss, providing recreation, arts and crafts, and even a library for his crew. On a pirate show, that trait makes him incompetent.

No matter how many morale-boosting mixers Bonnet plans, nothing can prepare him for run-ins with seafaring bigwigs played by big names like Leslie Jones, Fred Armisen, and Taika Waititi as the dreaded Blackbeard, who the real Bonnet palled around with.

When describing the series, many cast members called it a romance. This doesn’t mean your typical love story, but something more abstract. Over the course of the series you see Bonnet fall in love with piracy, while his crew members slowly begin to see the charms of their strange captain. Even Blackbeard falls for the enticing concept of possibly hanging up his captain’s hat. Our Flag Means Death could even spark a new romance in its audience with the oft-maligned adventure comedy story.

Taika Waititi brings the terrifying Blackbeard to life.HBO Max

Pirate stories vary from genre to genre, but there’s one common denominator: No one “normal” becomes a pirate. The series uses the freedom of a goofy comedy to explore what happened in the lives of each character to drive them to where they are now.

“It ends up being this sort of very soulful show about self discovery,” Matt Maher tells Inverse, “but it’s moving through all these other genres to bind it all together.”

Our Flag Means Death premieres March 3 on HBO Max.

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