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.

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