Creed is simultaneously an end and continuation to the Rocky series. Here, the mantle has been passed down from Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), so you can be rest assured that there will no longer be sequels featuring an age-old Rocky coming out of retirement for one last fight. What remains of the old Rocky franchise is perhaps the biggest draw of the Rocky films as a whole, and that is, the fighting spirit portrayed on-screen. As a sports drama, the Rocky films have always relied on an emotional relationship between the audience and the film’s protagonist, Rocky, in order to deliver a compelling story which allowed audience members to grow alongside Rocky. Rocky’s wins and losses weren’t his alone but also ours. Creed continues this narrative tradition but brings in a whole new cast of characters and story, so while there is a nostalgic pull to Creed, the film is otherwise completely fresh and welcoming.
Creed is centered on Adonis Johnson, the illegitimate child of Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) and his struggles to become not just a professional boxer at the top, but a professional boxer who is free from his father’s dominating shadow. Adonis shows a penchant for fighting as soon as the film begins, with director Ryan Coogler brutally capturing a young Adonis assailing a bully; the setting is juvenile hall, and the crowd of imprisoned young boys watching and cheering the fight on will be visually echoed later by the crowd around the professional boxing ring.
Johnson’s life begins to take a turn for the better when Apollo’s wife, Maria (Phylicia Rashad), adopts the young Johnson. Fast forward nearly two decades later and Johnson has stepped up from fights in juvenile hall, to underground fights in the backwaters of Mexico. Close-up shots reveal that the same Johnson is still present and that while he has certainly grown, his fighting spirit certainly hasn’t diminished, and he proceeds to wipe the floor with his opponent. What ensues afterwards is a comedic-shot of the next day; the revealing of Johnson working a white-collar job. Dissatisfied with a desk job, however, Johnson quits in order to pursue life as a professional boxer and his journey takes him from L.A., to the gritty streets of Philadelphia, where the rough youth hopes to be trained by his father’s former rival, Rocky Balboa.
From the outset, screenwriters Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington give Creed a bit more depth than its past predecessors by way of Johnson’s personal history to Apollo and by extension the previous films. When Johnson tells his mother of his leaving for Philadelphia, Maria can’t help but berate him out of worriedness, as she fears for his life. The boxing world, with its cuts, bruises, and loss of blood, is never a luxurious one and this is a sentiment which rings ever true for Johnson, who is making the move from a wealthy upper-class life to a low-down boxer, something his more seasoned opponents don’t let him live down. Johnson’s personal stake in boxing make it more than a sport that is physically taxing but emotionally as well. For Johnson, boxing is a personal way of life that also allows him to cope with the fact that his father was never there; for others, who remind Johnson, boxing is a way of life that would otherwise mean dying in the ghetto. The warnings placed early on in for Johnson for how boxing will take a toll on his life are more than false precautions for the sake of setting up drama but are later carried out, forcing Johnson through necessary perils that push his characterization, thus, the personal growth of the previous Rocky films are here except this time around, it’s more nuanced.
Another major aspect of the Rocky films was its soundtrack, primarily the main Rocky theme composed by Bill Conti, which does return here in the form of remix and sampling. The remix and sampling of the Rocky theme in Creed is another manner in which Creed is both beholden to the older Rocky franchise while pushing the film into a newer realm. The soundtrack in Creed is one which reflects the character’s own personal taste in music and to this extent consists of hip-hop and trap inspired songs, including the main theme. The music, especially for the training montages or for Johnson’s final battle, inspire Johnson as much as they also pulse and pump up the audience as well, intertwining the experience of watching Creed with Johnson’s growth as both a person and a boxer.
While Sylvester Stallone is heavily featured in the film as a supporting character, his role in Creed isn’t one of dominance but neither is it one of passivity. Balboa still has his own inner demons to face, and the arrival of Johnson force him to reconcile with his past. In Creed, Stallone plays Balboa with the air of an old master, who quietly accepts the end of his time while leaving something behind, in this case his boxing techniques; it’s a graceful bow out for Stallone and the character of Balboa.
While Creed does employ several techniques which constantly recall the Rocky franchise, the best perhaps being one where Johnson shadowboxes his father over a projector screen displaying the iconic battle between Balboa and Apollo, Creed isn’t tied down by a force of nostalgia so much as it acknowledges its predecessors, before forging onto the future. Michael B. Jordan plays Johnson with the same air of charisma and under-dog charm that Stallone held as a young Rocky and so for Johnson, the future looks very bright.