On April 22nd, a young woman tweeted about the ongoing defamation trial in which actor Johnny Depp is seeking millions from ex-wife Amber Heard over her 2018 Washington Post editorial column on being a survivor of domestic abuse. This observer envisioned a triumphant outcome for Depp — and a cinematic finale to the proceedings. In fact, she imagined that Depp might quote his own swashbuckling character from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise:
Before this person locked her account, the post received at least 15,000 likes, far outweighing several dozen negative replies. That’s par for the course on an internet that has skewed largely in favor of Depp while villainizing Heard. Twitter, Instagram and TikTok are flooded with #justiceforjohnnydepp content; the trial’s live feed is dominated by his feverish defenders; and in the courtroom itself, Judge Penney Azcarate has warned supporters to dial down their reactions unless they want to be removed. Across this coalition, from self-styled activists to a probable network of bots, the approach is the same: Bend the complex legal proceedings around a far simpler and ultimately misleading redemption narrative while filtering any trial footage through the lens of fanfiction. Depp is never just Depp — he’s a star. And this is his latest movie.
Prioritizing vibes, emotion and nostalgia over facts, at no point does anyone involved in this movement accurately describe the present situation. To read the posts, you’d think Heard was on trial for a slew of violent crimes against Depp, not being sued over a newspaper column. You might also conclude that Depp is running up the score in a climactic showdown he’s easily winning — but defamation is notoriously hard to prove, the experts say it’s a longshot and he’s already lost a similar case in the U.K.
The loyalists are left, then, with decontextualized clips of Depp on the witness stand, or listening to testimony from others. They breathlessly analyze his and Heard’s facial expressions, deciding which are phony and which authentic, trying to pick up on the subtext of each glance and smirk. Somehow, even when things aren’t going particularly well for Depp, his muttered asides become epic dunks. Meanwhile, you can always cycle back through his filmography for extra engagement.
The self-deluding quality of this stuff extends to pure fabrication. One TikTok with 1.5 million likes is a short montage of Heard and Depp in the courtroom, with the caption “Johnny Depp looking at her for a split second gives her a smile.” As noted in a top comment, however, Depp doesn’t smile once in the clip. Lower in the thread, more users debate whether a slight pursing of his lips counts as a smile, and, if so, whether he was looking at Heard or someone else when it happened.
This is the kind of scrutiny that obsessive viewers usually bring to TV and movies. It reminds you that they view this lawsuit in terms of performance, not evidence. Should Depp be a compelling enough presence, they seem to believe, the ruling will swing his way. Theatrical control is, of course, an element of legal arguments and examinations, particularly where two actors are involved. Yet Depp’s audience chooses to focus on furtive gestures so distant from the technical merits of his case as to have no bearing on the outcome. It’s the only way they have to engage with the drama without facing the likelihood that when all is said and done, Heard and Depp will be right where they were at the outset, mutually disgraced and exhausted.
The strategy Depp has pursued simply doesn’t allow for the clean, uplifting, movie-hero victory that the stan legion has in mind. A win wouldn’t necessarily translate into the hefty $50 million settlement he’s seeking, nor would it guarantee a return to Hollywood glory. In the event that he fails, his shocked advocates will be left to rage against a biased judge, or brainwashed jury, or the intrinsic unfairness of civil law in America. Whatever it takes to avoid moving on and accepting that the man — as he actually said in court — will never return as Jack Sparrow in another Pirates of the Caribbean sequel.
You don’t have to be on Amber Heard’s side to see that Depp’s online support constitutes a morass of media-addled wishful thinking. Because, for many, Depp is inseparable from the fantasy entertainment that made him an icon, they cannot fathom how he’s bumped into the harsh limits of reality the rest of us take as given.
Therefore, they’ve cast him as the wrongly accused victim who is fated to prevail despite the odds. The screenplay is written on social media, the scenes cut together from court TV, paparazzi shots and previous films. This crowdsourced movie has everything it needs, including a built-in fandom to consume and publicize it.
There’s just one problem: It’s all in their heads.