By Tom Platt. It’s been forty years since Rocky struggled its way into cinematic legend. The little film that could, very much like its underdog fighter, immediately exploded into the public consciousness and has since added five more films to the franchise, all of which were written by and starring Sylvester Stallone. This holiday season features two massive franchises jumping into their seventh respective films with a new stars, storys, writers, and directors. (You know what I’m talking about.) And with Creed, we’re not off to a bad start.
Creed is the story Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate child of the late, great Apollo Creed. After he’s pulled out of juvie, much to his surprise, by Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), Adonis struggles to make his own path in lieu of this newly discovered identity. Rejecting the lavish and educated lifestyle of a Creed, Adonis runs to Philadelphia in search of Rocky Balboa knowing that if anyone will understand the need to prove oneself, it’d be ol’ Rocko.
Written and Directed by Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station), Creed digs its heels deep into the Rocky franchise in an attempt to revitalize this well-worn story of Man v. Self. Tip-toeing a fine line of nostalgic appeasement, Coogler ends up creating a hodgepodge of elements collated from the franchise, and while it’s well-developed and incredibly intriguing, he is unable, or perhaps he is merely unallowed (let’s be serious, first-time Hollywood directors don’t come with “rights”), to create a character that stands free from the long shadow cast by his forebear.
All the major elements of a Rocky film that we’ve come to love find their way into Creed, only they come burdened with far less schmaltz. There’s the requisite motivational training sequence (inspiring music, speeches, running in gray sweatsuits, etc. etc.); in fact, everything about Creed runs so close to the franchise’s history that nearly every conversation and character motivation can be linked to another Rocky movie. Examples: Adonis is told by multiple gyms that he’s not worth a damn (Rocky), he coerces a reluctant mentor who has him chase chickens around in order to increase agility (Rocky II and III). Adonis is a self taught, inexplicably angry dude (Mr. T in Rocky III), who is afraid of destroying what he has (Rocky III), but can’t bring himself to leave the sport he loves (Rocky IV).
The list continues into more obvious elements, but these parallels come off less as a negative and more as an expected bit of nostalgia cementing Creed as another Rocky movie instead of a film that flourishes from its own strength.
The greatest disparity between Creed’s origin and Rocky’s origin is the way in which each film represents their protagonist as “coming from nothing”. Whereas Rocky was a down-and-out adult that couldn’t even get a locker let alone a trainer, Adonis both utilizes and denounces the privilege of his namesake, and, in doing so, internalizes his struggle almost immediately and to a much greater extent than Rocky ever did in the first film. While Adonis is primarily self-made, when he decides to seriously pursue his passions he attracts Rocky’s attention with the help of his name first, and with his gumption second.
As Creed progresses, Adonis’ motivations and fears become vocalized. With such large shoes to fill (he believes he’s misrepresented by a name he was given, not born with), soon enough the question of his motivation evolves into, “am I good enough?” It’s up to Rocky to stand Adonis in front of a mirror and point out that his greatest enemy is himself.
With such an internalized emotional struggle, at times it can be difficult to like Adonis as a character. However, it’s Jordan’s ability to express an intense determination and focus that sells Adonis as a character that’s meant to define, as well as motivate, a generation.
In the end, the script can’t stand on its own two feet without leaning on the heavy crutch that is Rocky. But maybe that’s okay. It seems plausible that Creed’s heavy reliance on what came before could serve as a way to unite generations of filmgoers, thoroughly inspired by a motivational story that actually feels inspiring. “Nobody’s born a champion.” That might just be enough to galvanize a whole new franchise.