It shouldn’t come as a surprise when Nas’ Bridging the Gap is used to symbolise the power of two worlds colliding in Creed. Superficially, it’s a training motif between a recognisable trainer and a determined boxer with a historic name. In reality, it’s a unique allegory that combines the franchise’s past with its future. But the real surprise was how Creed surpassed expectations and became an excellent film.
It’s easy to feel a sense of disillusionment when it comes to movie franchises. Sequels, prequels, reboots and remakes have become a never-ending presence in the market, driving at the heart of movie nostalgia and our emotional engagement towards the material. But suffice to say, not all franchises live up to their expectations. Imagine them as sweets in a sweet shop – sampling it is great, but too much is overindulgence! When films continually juggle the emotional connections versus the pressures of the box office, films tend to be unsatisfying, convoluted and unbalanced.
However, Creed, the spin-off successor from Rocky is a rare example where it bucks the normalised trends. Similar to the success of Better Call Saul, they’ve managed to navigate the tricky hurdle of natural scepticism and stand on their own two feet.
Franchises are often judged by how far they’ve come, but the need to evolve should not be underestimated. Why? Because time will forever be a factor and despite our attempts to preserve the comforting past, characters can end up trapped in a bubble of our fantasised stories which prevents the concept from moving forward.
Creed could have followed a similar pattern where it rolled out the nostalgia like a formulaic red carpet in a similar fashion to Solo: A Star Wars Story or more recently Halloween. But the speciality that director Ryan Coogler provides is the balanced presentation between the familiar and unfamiliar as a poetic opportunity to re-evaluate the Rocky franchise and what it means to the current generation. That might sound contentious to fans and the sense of ownership over brand properties, but Creed takes a chance to present something substantially different.
To use a boxing analogy that Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) echoes in Creed, the franchise is forced to look in the mirror, reconciled to see the self-reflection of its toughest opponent. Just like its central character Adonis (played superbly by Michael B. Jordan) and his transitioning battle for belonging and identity, the film ultimately uses that same analogy to classify itself. It doesn’t want to be some forgotten, mindless challenger. It wants to make an impact that is worthy of its place.
Most franchises are afraid to explore change, reacting in fear of upsetting the heavily-invested fandoms that studios rely on or the potential financial income. But it’s rare to see a film challenge itself on a multi-dynamic level, asking a necessary question that most franchises refuse to answer aka what is the point of this film? We’ve seen with Alien, Terminator and even Pirates of the Caribbean exercise a stale yet familiar repetition as a way to drive a story. Coogler’s vision grants itself permission to pass the torch to the next generation, allowing a new champion to rise.
This is not a Rocky V, Tommy Gunn situation – a caricature representation in understanding the pitfalls of boxing. Coogler invests massively in the cultural and societal shift of its environment and its characters. It’s a humbling theme that served him well from Fruitvale Station to the blockbuster epic Black Panther. The ability to highlight an empathetic context, taps into a new realm of possibilities that rises above stereotypes and Hollywood clichés. Jordan’s Adonis gets to be the inspirational and motivational hero. Tessa Thompson’s Bianca is not a typical love interest or someone who pedals the same line about the why a boxer shouldn’t fight. In contrast, she is a supporting figure toward Adonis, a gateway to life in Philadelphia but equally establishes her self-belief of a dream she wants to fulfil before her disability steals it from her.
Stallone’s overall contribution shouldn’t be overlooked due to the history he brings. But the fact that Creed is not a Rocky film is a bittersweet acceptance and recognition. Of course, that sounds obvious, but you’ll be amazed at how many films cynically rely on shoehorned characters and scenarios to provide validity and fan service. The difference here is the generational aspect, acknowledging Rocky exists in two worlds between Adonis’ motivation and enthusiasm and someone who is burdened by the past. With Rocky taking a backseat, Creed is able to emphasise the big picture. Franchises can stagnate and die if they persistently stick to the old ways, similar to Rocky’s initial reluctance to train Adonis. But to stand a fighting chance (like anything in life) it has to strive for progression. It has to forgive the mistakes (Rocky V) and find a new voice and purpose. As the famous on-screen boxer once said, “It ain’t about how hard you can hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” It’s an endearing statement that perfectly sums up Rocky’s reflective role and why it gave Stallone a deserved Oscar nomination.
Where Creed succeeds over other films is the universal message about what legacy means, presenting it with the same rigour and spirit that would have made the original Rocky film proud. It battles its history for recognition but comes to the eloquent conclusion that the past doesn’t define you. It can be respected and treasured but drives to shape a new chapter, hence the assured step out of the shadows. It celebrates human perseverance, always finding the courage to fight against the odds and survive the everyday struggle. Rocky may not have the fanbase numbers that Star Wars or Marvel Studios command, but Creed makes a relatable point that the franchise is more than just a boxing film.
Creed II may miss Coogler’s wisdom and panache with the directorial responsibilities handed to Steven Caple Jr., but it doesn’t stop it from being one of the most anticipated films of 2018. Creed‘s newfound legacy acts as a template for how franchises can handle the fear of its past by choosing to face the fight head on instead of resting on its laurels. On that notion, Creed II is guaranteed to be a knockout.
Creed II is out this Friday, November 30th. You can read our review here.