Early reaction to the announcement of Creed, described more as a spin-off than a sequel to the long-running Rocky franchise, was understandably cynical. After all, Rocky creator and caretaker Sylvester Stallone had resurrected the character ten years previous, after several entries showcasing diminishing returns, to say goodbye to the most enduring character of his career—and in a final sequel that would hopefully provide some damage control to the inherent silliness the Rocky franchise had accumulated. Rocky Balboa was a fitting end to a character’s thirty year saga which saw the punchy boxer who stole America’s hearts fight from the very bottom to the very top, and then back down again. But above all else, it was just a fine film, with unexpected melancholy, beauty, and that Capra-esque goodness in which the character of Rocky Balboa has been ensconced since the first time he stepped into the ring. A lot of this trepidation following Creed’s announcement was because of its possible undoing of such a satisfying conclusion to one of cinema’s most iconic characters. Fans of the series had long seen just how wrong sequels can go, and because Rocky Balboa felt like lightning, it was unlikely that same kind of lightning would strike twice with another risky entry.
As the character of Rocky Balboa has done time and time again, we were once again very very surprised by the underdog we never saw coming.
From the duo behind 2013’s wrenching Fruitvale Station, writer/director Ryan Coogler and superstar-in-training Michael B. Jordan, comes the best entry in the Rocky franchise since the 1976 original—one that meets the beauty and drive of Rocky Balboa in every way, but also exceeds it. Creed contains real power, contained in every single piece of construct, from the unexpectedly emotional performances and sequences—including the most poignant and deeply moving training montage yet in a Rocky film—to the non-stop, unbroken fighting scenes in the ring.
Originally sold more as a spin-off—a soft reboot of sorts, which is a move many studios are going for these days, in case you haven’t noticed—fans of the franchise will be relieved to know that Creed is a Rocky movie through and through, despite being the first Rocky film not written and directed by Stallone. Though Jordan’s namesake is the lead character, and Stallone’s boxer-cum-trainer Rocky Balboa has transitioned to supporting role, nothing about Creed is ever so foreign and different that it feels as if Rocky is existing in a strange alternate film universe. If there is any film franchise that has a feeling, it’s Rocky, and if there’s ever been a sequel/reboot/spin-off that so ably captured that same feeling, it’s Creed. Even if Rocky’s story as a boxer looking to prove his worth may have come to a satisfying end, Creed proved that, though his story as the headliner and focus may be done, his life has continued outside of that limelight, and there was still a story to tell—still with conflicts for him to overcome.
One of the most rewarding things about Creed is its ability to surprise. A more-than-spiritual Rocky 7 of sorts, it not only ably beats the sequel curse, but manages to neutralize and embrace the very specific and very silly sequel that has given Creed its main conflict. Rocky IV, aka America: The Movie, has long since been considered one of the more favored Rocky movies—not because it’s good in the same sense that the original was (because ha ha, no way in hell), but because it filtered the spirit of Rocky through a heightened and cartoony conflict and achieved pure lowest-common denominator status. It was a film filled with nonstop training montages, “Eye of the Tiger,” Christmas!, and Dolph Lundgren as a Frankenstein’s monosyllabic monster Soviet boxer Ivan Drago. Rocky IV is iconic, beloved, and very stupid. Which is what makes Creed even more of a surprise. Newer audiences unaware of previous Rocky films, including Rocky IV, might not know that the references made to Johnson’s father, Apollo Creed, dying in the ring, don’t play out in their imaginations the same way they played out on theater screens in 1985. Newer audiences might picture a long, drawn out, gritty, bloody, emotionally wrenching sequence which sees Apollo dying before horrified audiences, but what actually happened—Apollo dancing around on a levitating stage with James Brown and mascots dressed as Uncle Sam, pretty much tiring himself out before he gets in the ring to be instantly killed—is, again, much stupider. That Creed manages to build such a poignant conflict with such emotional weight off such a stupid development in the Rocky series was nothing anyone could have ever seen coming—let alone it being something to celebrate.
And from there the surprises continue: Michael B. Jordan’s intimidating physical form and his dedication to the role, Stallone’s devastating turn as an aged Rocky fighting a battle of his own—in a performance even his most ardent fans didn’t think he was capable of at this point in his career—and most effective, that we can leave a theater as Creed’s closing credits roll on screen, not just having loved what we’d witnessed for the previous two hours, but billowing with that exhilarating reminder of why we love movies in the first place.
For the last ten years, studios have been looking to properties they own in an effort to resurrect them for new audiences. Though many of these attempts have resulted in underwhelming efforts, Warner Bros. continues to prove they are the king at breathing new life into old ideas, resurrecting dormant franchises like Batman, Mad Max, and now, Rocky. Creed's success with both critics and audiences ensured that Adonis Johnson and Rocky Balboa would return. But in the same way Creed successfully embodied the Rocky spirit, critics and audiences held out hope that future installments would have the humility to look past the dollar signs and avoid the same mistakes that the elder Rocky franchise had made.