Revisiting 'Creed': Nature, Nurture, And One Of The Best Movies Of The 21st Century So Far

Creed shoulders the legacy of six prior Rocky films but it blazes its own path, establishing a concise mission statement in its opening scene. Set in an LA juvenile correctional facility, in which young Black boys are lined up like adult prisoners, the Ryan Coogler-helmed sixth sequel introduces us to a young Adonis Johnson (Alex Henderson) as he beats down a fellow detainee. Adonis comes from a background of fame and celebrity — his father, Apollo Creed, died before he was born — but he's been raised in a world of violence and invisibility, a world from which Apollo's wife Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) hopes to rescue him. When the widow first meets the orphaned child, his fist remains clenched, always on guard. But when she offers him a home, and the kind of love that had evaded him all his life, he relaxes his hand.

This is the world of Creed. It inherits both the violence of the ring — a more glamourous violence, albeit one whose effects are still deadly — and the violence of SoCal streets, to which Oakland native Coogler had at least some proximity (it's worth noting that his father was a counselor at a juvenile hall). It's a world where Adonis' two lives must remain separate, the incompatible paradigms of a privileged son who has a fancy desk job and resides in a mansion, and a boy in search of some form of identity as he takes on cheap fights in Tijuana over the weekend. He wants to fight, certainly, but on some level he needs to, in order to reconcile being the nexus of two violent paths. The call to masculine showmanship is what got Apollo killed in Rocky IV, a toxic machismo Adonis would've inherited regardless (or rather, would've been raised with). Apollo's absence, however, results in violence born of survival. Which one is Adonis truly a product of, he wonders?

Who is Creed?

The burning question of nature-or-nurture is externalized early on, when Adonis, now an adult played by Michael B. Jordan, scrolls through his YouTube history and re-plays the second fight between Rocky and Apollo. As he stands in front of the projected footage, images from decades ago are beamed onto him like a brand — his family history made tangible, layered on top of him — but as he shadowboxes alongside the footage from Rocky II, its own editing is used against him.

Where the rapid cutting was once used to create continuum, Adonis' presence splits the cinematic illusion like a prism, as it hops back and forth between fighters. In one moment, Adonis punches alongside Apollo, embracing his legacy. In the next, he rejects it, fighting Apollo himself.

The film, too, faces a similar dilemma. Tasked with being both the seventh Rocky and first of several Creeds, it bore the unique responsibility of balancing new and old, in ways that neither departed too much nor felt too antiquated. And it is, by every measure, a fantastic Rocky sequel too. The series has always dealt with the toll time takes on "manly" men — Apollo wouldn't have jumped at the thought of fighting Drago were he not also facing a ticking clock — and the series prior two films built on Rocky the celebrity in order to deliver us Rocky the increasingly dysfunctional parent.

Rocky Returns

Rocky himself, a returning Sylvester Stallone, mourns; death is so normal to him that he keeps a folding chair up in the cemetery tree. His wife Adrian, for whom he named his restaurant, passed between the events of Rocky V and Rocky Balboa — films in which Rocky struggles to be a father — and now his best friend Paulie is buried beside her. "Everything I got has moved on," Rocky tells Adonis shortly after his terminal diagnosis. "And I'm here." It's a performance for which Stallone rightly earned an Oscar nomination, and one that aligns with his real-world pain; his son Sage, who played the character's son Robby in Rocky V, passed shortly before Creed was made. (Stallone was reluctant to partake, but it was Coogler who convinced him)

In Rocky's first meeting with Adonis, he tells the young Creed how it was time that defeated Apollo, the same opponent that comes for Rocky in Coogler's film. There's an indignity to the champ's struggle in Creed, as he vomits and spends time in a chemo chair and rapidly balds — Stallone wanted the character's wave goodbye in Balboa to be his uplifting swan song — but the series' legacy is also one where this can be the only conclusion. Because as much this is a boxing franchise, it's also a series about aging and the temporary physical form.

Adonis, after all, is mortal too. Like musician Bianca (Tessa Thompson) with whom he shares a tender romance — when he stumbles upon her performing at a club, he's enveloped by her art — and whose own passion contributes to her progressive hearing loss, Adonis' obsession with finding himself through violence is self-destruction. Upon hearing that Rocky, his newfound father figure, may also leave him, and he lashes out against Bianca's musical headliner, who calls him "Baby Creed," after a man who left Adonis by following the same path he now finds himself on. Apollo, of course, isn't around to take the blame, so Adonis can't even project his anger without it spilling back on him in some form.

It takes being knocked out in the ring, the same way his father was killed, before Adonis is able to see Apollo clearly — he literally envisions him in this moment during the climax, a vision Rocky arguably helps him see. Being gifted trunks that say "Creed" and "Johnson" is certainly a signifier of dual acceptance, but his struggle with duality is about more than just a name. What does it mean to have everything, and yet, have nothing? His opponent Ricky Conlan (Anthony Bellew) taunts him by labeling him an overnight success, which isn't untrue given his name, despite his attempts to hide it. And yet, the world he comes from is not the world of his father, and his inheritance (both nominal and material) is incidental, rather than lovingly passed down.

Fathers and Sons

Adonis is surrounded by fathers and sons who function in sync. Pete and Leo Sporino practice alongside him at Mickey's gym. A father-son boxing duo trains Adonis at Front Street. Even Little Duke (Wood Harris), whose late father Tony Evers (Tony Burton) trained Rocky and Apollo, inherits his father's LA gym along with his legacy; where Adonis' battle with his father's projection is erratic, archival footage fades Little Duke and Tony's images on top of one another. These duos are, in every way, aligned, and it takes some time before Adonis and Rocky are able to sync up the same way — when they do, punching speed bags side by side, this comes as the victorious climax to a training montage (a staple of the series). It's a memorable image, one that sticks out further during a following montage when Rocky is absent due to his illness. Adonis punches the bag alone; the framing remains the same, leaving an emptiness beside him where his father figure once stood.

Each montage in the film is purposeful, beginning with the first time Adonis and Rocky train. It's fittingly set to "Bridging the Gap" by rapper NaS and his jazz musician father Olu Dara, who sing of both their individual stories and the long musical and historical legacies from which they come. The film's final montage, to Ludwig Göransson's orchestral remix of Philly rapper Meek Mill's "Fighting Stronger," re-creates the heightened sense of adrenaline during Rocky's run up the steps of Philadelphia Museum of Art. The film even drapes Adonis in a similar grey tracksuit. But where Rocky completed his run up the now iconic stairs, Adonis completes his beneath Rocky's window, as if in tribute to the champ amidst his battle with cancer, flanked by Philly youth atop motorbikes and ATVs; as much as this is Rocky's world, it's a young Black man's world too.

Coogler's first film, Fruitvale Station, is the story of a father (the real-life Oscar Grant, played by Jordan) snatched from his daughter by police violence. His third feature, Black Panther, features Jordan as an Oakland native whose father was taken from him as he fought for Black liberation. The "missing father" is an ugly stereotype thrust on Black children, often framed as racial irresponsibility, but its real-world equivalent stems from oppressive systems wherein death or incarceration lead to abandonment. Creed picks up the pieces of Rocky films prior in order to tell one such story, in which despite his celebrity father, Adonis is subjected to the harshness of America's prison industrial complex from an early age. Fittingly, it's when he's behind bars — after his assault of the musical headliner — that the cycle of sadness giving way to anger (giving way to further sadness) rises to the surface, as Jordan wrestles with his warring emotions.

Winning the Fight

The anger Adonis feels, like the anger so many men feel, is his coping mechanism to deal with abandonment, and it's in his teary eyes that Rocky is able to recognize Adonis' pain. Adonis never had a father to teach him how to channel these emotions; not until Rocky at least, who tells him to stop blaming his father for dying. Whether it's his blood or his environment that compels Adonis to fight, the fight is his outlet to deal with an aggression that he can never and will never be able to take out on Apollo. So when Adonis drops his emotional guard again, with Rocky in his corner during the final fight, he's finally able to articulate why being abandoned fills him with rage.

It isn't really about Apollo. It was never about Apollo, nor any anger directed towards him. It's about whether or Adonis is worth sticking around for — a sadness expressed through throwing hands — which he isn't able to admit this to himself until Rocky thanks him for giving him a reason to stick around. After searching haphazardly for self worth in the Creed name and in the Johnson name, after fighting against an identity that both made him feel worthless and yet gave him his only shot at worth, and after admitting to himself the very thing that Rocky has been telling him all along — that his toughest opponent is himself — Adonis wins.

He loses his fight to Conlan, no doubt, but Adonis' victory happens in that corner with Rocky Balboa, in a moment of self-actualization.

The first time we see Adonis lose in the film, he's knocked out by Danny "Stuntman" Wheeler (Andre Ward) early on in the film, and the camera tumbles to the floor alongside him. During the climax, the camera stands up with him, locked in on Jordan's determined expression. He isn't just standing to fight, he's standing to prove his worth. To prove that whether it's his name or his upbringing, his blood or his foster homes, his legacy or his struggles, that whether he was brought into the world by love or by accident, he belongs here.

"I gotta prove it," he tells Rocky. "I'm not a mistake." Cue Bill Conti's classic Rocky theme, signaling victory.