Flying High Now: How 'Creed' Undoes The Sins Of The 'Rocky' Sequels

Creed is a very, very good movie... but it's a perfect Rocky movie. Here is that familiar, tried and true template given a fresh coat of paint and lovingly restored by people who give a damn. If you've ever liked any of the films in this series, this spin-off is going to get your blood pumping and eyes leaking. It's the movie you want.

However, the real miracle of Creed is that isn't anything like the Rocky sequels. The follow-ups to the original masterpiece (which is one of the best movies ever made) took a turn for the ridiculous. They got silly and began to lean too hard on series star Sylvester Stallone's action hero persona. The warmth, the charm, and the honesty of the first film was resurrected for 2006's Rocky Balboa, but it's back in full force in Creed. This spin-off, which finds an aging Rocky training the son of the late Apollo Creed, is second only to the first movie, and that's because it recognizes what the first movie did so right.

Like them or not (and Rocky III and Rocky IV do offer some absurd pleasures), the Rocky sequels feel like Saturday morning cartoon versions of a genuinely great movie. Creed does the impossible: it coexists with them while avoiding everything they did wrong.

A Big Jolt of Humanity

Like them or not, the Rocky sequels often betrayed their characters' humanity. The sweet, bumbling Rocky Balboa of the first film quickly became a stone-faced action hero out to save the world from Communism with his boxing prowess alone. The layered, flawed supporting cast was reduced to cartoon characters, with Adrian, Paulie and Mick acting like cardboard cutouts of their former selves. Those later films can be fun, but they're powered by bombast. They're silly. They simply do not exist in the same universe as the first Rocky.

The beauty of Creed is that it's a very small movie. This is a barebones, human story that focuses on the men in the ring and the people in their lives. Any action in the boxing ring, any game-changing plot point, exists to to force these characters to make big decisions, learn and grow. Tonally, Creed is very much a Rocky movie, but it's the characters who transform it into its own unique beast.

Creed is, first and foremost, a portrait of Adonis Johnson. Michael B. Jordan's performance is one of quiet rage and bruised determination. This is a man at war with a father who's been dead for decades, and a legacy that has every intention of defining him before he can define himself. This is not a photocopy of the original Rocky, but it's very much a companion piece. It would have been easy for director Ryan Coogler to lean hard on Rocky imagery, to bring in that iconic score to create instant tears in a nostalgic crowd. But he doesn't. The Rocky elements are there and that classic music is there, but this is Adonis' movie, his story. Creed uses our love of the earlier films (however many that may be) as a garnish. The main course is something new. Adonis isn't Rocky 2.0. He's his own guy, and definitely product of his time and upbringing.

Back-to-the-Basics Balboa

Sylvester Stallone may win an Oscar for his performance in Creed. His performance is that good, and meta-narrative of his career coming full circle is impossible to ignore. Here is an actor who has spent so many years bending films and characters to his will and shaping characters around a familiar persona, that we've forgotten what a powerhouse he can be when he cares. At some point in his career, Stallone got so comfortable playing a type that everyone forgot what a powerful and nuanced performer he can be.

The Rocky Balboa here is the older, rougher-around-the-edges version of the character we saw in Rocky, Rocky II, and Rocky Balboa. He's an old-fashioned guy and maybe a little dim. But he's smart where it counts and he's loyal to those he loves. Stallone fills Rocky will blue-collar charm and affection. He's weathered the storm and he's been down for the count, but he always gets back up. This guy, this old man who owns a quaint Italian restaurant and visits the graves of his loved ones for extended chats, is very much the same guy who took a shy girl back to his apartment to show off his turtles back in 1976. He's not the guy who fought Mr. T.

Stallone and Coogler know that we care about Rocky, but they also know that this is Adonis' show and that Rocky must watch from the sidelines. And that's okay. As the second lead on the edge of the spotlight, the former champ is allowed to showcase layers we have never seen before, to reveal his broken heart and weathered body. Creed asks Rocky to fight, but his battle is far different than one we've seen before. We know this guy. We love this guy. Welcome back, Rock.

Careful Continuity

In the realistic, down-to-earth and thoroughly human world of Creed, the events of the most ludicrous Rocky movies still happened. Nowhere does the movie say Rocky didn't defeat Communism. Nowhere does the movie pretend Rocky V simply didn't happen. In fact, Apollo's fateful boxing match with Ivan Drago is a key plot point in Creed, although that entirely preposterous sequence doesn't align with what we see in the new film at all.

Creed walks a very fine line in being respectful to the fans who love the sequels (and there are a bunch of you) and those who can't help but roll their eyes when they think about Rocky sharing the ring with Hulk Hogan. The tone may be classic Rocky, but the movie refuses to undo continuity. This isn't one of those irritating reboots that picks and chooses which movies it wants to consider canon. To Creed and Coogler, it all happened. It's all history. What the film chooses to recall, and what you choose to remember, are vital parts of the experience.

Plus, how the film handles the biggest unanswered question in the entire Rocky saga is nothing short of perfect.

Noteworthy Adversaries and Allies

Creed is going to finally transform Michael B. Jordan into the movie star that fans of The Wire and Friday Night Lights have known he was destined to become. It's going to get a lot of movie fans re-evaluating Stallone once more. However, the movie exists beyond these two actors and the bench is strong.

As Bianca, Adonis' downstairs neighbor and eventual love interest, Tessa Thompson is a revelation. Smart and tough and vulnerable, she's not just another Adrian. She's an artist, a successful musician whose relationship with Adonis is born out of respect and mutual attraction. She has agency – Coogler never reduces her to just another face cheering on our hero in the big final fight. This is a tricky part to play and when you think of the boxer's girlfriend in a boxing movie, you probably have a very specific image in your head. Bianca does not match that mold. Her dynamic with Adonis messy and real and genuinely moving because it refuses to sugarcoat their relationship.

Similarly, the film's villains are given more dimensions than you'd expect. Hell, they're not even villains. They're not setting out to specifically destroy Adonis or Rocky. They're not out to crush Democracy. They're not cartoon characters. They're fleshed out just enough to let you understand that they have a reason to fight. Like Adonis himself, the men he faces in the ring didn't get here by chance or luck. They're here because they earned it and they have something to fight for. By lending even the supporting cast a shred of humanity, Creed becomes a more nuanced and satisfying film.

It’s Not About the Fight…

Creed has everything you know you want. It has training montages and visceral boxing matches and stirring moments that get the heart thumping and the tears welling. However, at its heart, the movie is literally about everything else.

It is a character-driven examination of Adonis Johnson, an amateur boxer who gives up a life of wealth and comfort so he can confront his inner demons. But it is also about how he finds family in the man who called his father a friend. It's about how he meets an extraordinary woman who pushes him to be better man. It's about how a young man learns that he's never going to escape the shadow that he lives in, so he he must learn how to make it his home.

Above all, it's a movie that's about never giving up a fight, never surrendering, and never settling. Adonis could have coasted through life. Rocky could have lived out his remaining years until he passed away. But they meet and they inspire one another and change each other's lives. Creed is a movie about your two families: the one created you and the one you build.

It all leads to boxing in the end, sure, but the journey is universal.

Coogler places these themes in a recognizable Philadelphia. Not since the first movie has the city felt so important to the fabric the film. You can feel the chill in the air, smell the cheesesteaks cooking, and appreciate the city at its best and its worst. The naturalism that made Fruitvale Station so powerful is present here. You are defined by where you put up stakes and Rocky is Philadelphia – down on its luck and imperfect, but never truly down for the count.

And most importantly, Coogler never forgets the race of his characters. It's refreshing to see a major movie like this, the spin-off from a major franchise, not shy away from having a cast that is predominately black. The world sees Adonis and Bianca differently. The world they inhabit is right next door to Rocky's world, but it couldn't be more different. Creed embraces its characters' culture and makes it a part of who they are without making a huge deal out of it. It's quietly remarkable, and yet another choice that gives texture to a film that could have easily coasted.

… But That Fight Actually Means Something

It may not be about that fighting, but Creed delivers the goods on every bout. Coogler puts his camera in the ring, keeping the combatants in close-up while never losing sight of the fight choreography itself. These bouts may never reach Raging Bull levels of pain and anguish, but you do feel every punch. For the first time in several movies, boxing looks like it actually hurts.

Coogler and his cinematographer, Maryse Alberti, use the fights to showcase some bravura filmmaking. One match is shot entirely in one long shot, selling just how fast and brutal the entire experience is without ever feeling flashy. Other matches are more nuanced in their presentation, as flashbacks and even the occasional vision invade reality to drive something home. These scenes aren't just guys punching in a montage – they are intense experiences that earn your fist-pumps and cheers and tears.

This is what happens when a filmmaker is allowed to provide nuance to his characters in a boxing movie. This is what happens when a filmmaker cares about his craft enough to remind us that when athletes sweat and bleed, they are in genuine pain. Creed is a triumph of a movie, a knock-out, if you'll pardon the pun. It is a skilled director taking a beloved franchise and saying "I've got this."