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.

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