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Non-Review Review: Creed II

Creed II is a much better sequel than Rocky IV deserves.

At the heart of Creed II is the grudge match that fans of the franchise had been anticipating since the core concept of this “legacy-quel” series was first suggested. Adonis Creed in the ring against Viktor Drago. The son of Apollo Creed squaring off against the son of Ivan Drago, a generational rematch of the bout that cost Apollo Creed his life in Rocky IV. Adonis Creed is haunted by the name that he inherited from a father that he never met, and so it seems only reasonable that his film series would circle back around to allowing him closure on this.

A Rocky Road Less Travelled.

There is an irony in all of this. One of the central themes of Creed was the challenge of this spin-off movie franchise existing in the shadow of the original beloved Rocky series. Co-writer and director Ryan Coogler rose to that challenge, and created one of the great franchise success stories of the twenty-first century. As a result, it occasionally feels like Creed II is not so much fighting to escape the shadow of Rocky IV as much as it is wrestling with the weight of Creed.

Creed II is a solid and sturdy sequel to Creed, although not a superior one. It isn’t necessarily the sequel that Creed deserves.

To the Viktor, the spoils…

Ryan Coogler did not return for Creed II. The director had moved on to working on Black Panther at Marvel, a demanding project that would never have left enough time to oversee a fast-tracked sequel to Creed. More than that, many directors struggle juggling a single sprawling beloved film franchise, and so it would have been impossible for Coogler to properly develop Creed II while still ensuring that Black Panther received the necessary level of attention. So directorial duties on Creed II went to Steven Caple Jr.

Caple was chosen by Michael B. Jordan and Ryan Coogler to take over the project. He has a filmography that is not too different to that of Coogler when he directed Creed; a well-reviewed independent film and a collection of shorts. In some ways, Caple is perhaps even more qualified than Coogler was at the time, having also worked in television. There is a certain strain of argument that directing a franchise film is comparable to directing contemporary television, explaining the leap that directors like Alan Taylor or the Russo Brothers have made at Marvel Studios.

Punching the clock.

Caple acquits himself very well. Indeed, Caple is very consciously aware that he is working in the shadow of Coogler. In its early sequences, the film is practically playful; Caple sets up sequences that mirror Coogler’s distinctive stylistic sensibilities on Creed, only to slyly subvert them. The first boxing match in Creed II introduces Viktor Drago to the audience, with Caple consciously avoiding the guerilla style that Coogler employed during Adonis’ first boxing match in Creed. It is not shot in a long take or in a manner that suggests handheld independent cinematography.

Similarly, the next sequence brings the audience back to the familiar characters of Adonis and Bianca from Creed, right before a title bout. Again, Caple plays with audience expectations about his stylistic sensibilities, teasing a long take as he follows Bianca around back stage. The sequence looks like it might play out as one of those ostentatious long takes in the style of that memorable first boxing bout in Creed, but Caple has Bianca pull back from the ring and then switches to a more conventional mode of editing. Caple understands that he is not Coogler, and makes it clear.

Lighten up.

Still, there is a sense that while Caple is a steady pair of hands with a solid understanding of the demands of this sort of film-making, a clear eye and a strong sense of the rhythms of visual storytelling, there is also a sense that something is missing. As cheekily and as playfully as Caple acknowledges Coogler’s absence, and his refusal to commit to a feature-length imitation, there is a sense that something is missing and that it cannot easily be replaced. Then again, Coogler is a one-in-a-thousand director; it is churlish to fault Caple for “just” being a strong director.

Creed II has a number of very interesting ideas. In some ways, it feels like a logical extension of the original Creed, most obviously in the way that it allows Adonis to develop as a character. His relationship with Bianca is allowed to grow and develop over the course of the film, which allows the film to spend time with the winning duo of Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson. Even beyond that, the film consciously leans into the iconography of Creed, including the return of “Max’s” restaurant that was so key in Creed and the name “Johnson” on Adonis’ boxing trunks.

Father of Drago.

Most overtly, the film continues to update the core anxieties of the Rocky series for the new millennium. Rocky was very much a product of the seventies in terms of its portrayal of an uneducated working class man trying to keep his head above water in a squeezed economy at a time when it seemed like social institutions were collapsing. Creed and Creed II understand that today’s young men wrestle with broader existential questions of identity, of trying to contextualise themselves in a world that is already oversignified and overstuffed.

Adonis is not economically pressured in the same way that Rocky was, and is not fighting the same demons. Instead, Adonis is grappling with his relationship to a father that he never knew, but who has shaped his entire identity. When Bianca wonders why the Dodge Challenger means so much to Adonis, he explains, “It was the only thing my father ever left me.” That includes the “Creed” name, which Adonis had to claim and earn for himself. There is a listlessness to Adonis’s life, a search for deeper meaning.

Fighting his corner.

There is a sense that Adonis is struggling to fill something inside himself that is, by its nature, immaterial. When his mother reminds him that he is world champion, he responds, “Then how come I don’t feel like it?” Before the opening bout, Rocky challenges him to decide to whom he is trying to prove himself: to the world or to himself. Adonis does not hesitate. He is trying to prove something to himself, to make sense of something profound and difficult to articulate. Creed II understands the differences facing young men forty-odd years removed from Rocky.

Indeed, one of the big appeals of Creed was the way in which the film understood the passage of time and applied it to the story that was being told, to understand that the world itself (and all the people in it) had changed since Rocky first ran up and down those steps. Creed II also understands this, perhaps most notably in it return to the Cold War politics of Rocky IV, as Ivan and Viktor Drago conspire to restage that iconic bout between Russia and the United States from that late entry in the original franchise.

Fools Russia in.

Of course, there is a certain contemporary relevance to the idea of restaging the Cold War antagonism between Russia and the United States. Russia is a topic of national interest in contemporary American politics. However, Creed II understands that the dynamics have changed, that Russia is not the same as it was (and that Ivan is not the same as he was) in 1985. Creed II subtly shifts the dynamics between Ivan and Viktor to suggest contemporary tensions between Russia and the United States.

Ivan and Viktor feel “humiliated” and emasculated by their Cold War defeat. Resentment plays a major part in this dynamic, a fear that they have been passed over in favour of their American rivals. “Here, you are hero,” Ivan explains to Rocky during an early conversation. “In Russia, nobody will touch the name Drago.” This might reflect the same anxieties that reflect so much of contemporary Russia’s antagonism towards the United States, a sense that Russia is not as respected as it should be in international affairs.

Red scare.

Along those lines, it should be noted that Ivan and Viktor both cannily exploit social media and publicity as part of their war against Adonis. Adonis first hears about Viktor’s challenge when it is broadcast on television. By that point, it is a fait d’accompli, as the public expects Adonis to accept the match. When Ivan meets Rocky face to face at the deli, he seems surprised that this is the first that Rocky has heard about the challenge that was issued. Later training sequences involving Viktor emphasise the role of photographers, the importance of image in this particular battle.

Similarly, there is something interesting in the journey that Adonis has to take in order to prove himself worthy of standing up to Ivan. The nationalist overtones of the Creed and Drago match are much less overt in Creed II than they were in Rocky IV, which is probably for the best. Nevertheless, Adonis has to move out west and train on the desert frontier, as if he might claim some of the continent’s rugged resilience as his own. Taking Adonis out into the desert for training, Rocky explains that, “This is where old fighters go to start over, to be reborn.”

Boxed in.

At the same time, Creed II also works very well in terms of its core character dynamics. There is something very clever in the way that the film focuses on the Creed and Drago families. In fact, reflecting the theme of contemporary blockbuster franchises like Guardians of the Galaxy or The Fast and the Furious, family is a strong central preoccupation for Creed II. This is especially true in the film’s handling of Ivan and Viktor Drago. “That kid was raised in hate,” Rocky explains of Viktor, and what the audience sees of his domestic life supports this.

While there is a solid argument to be made that Creed II might have done better to spend more time with Ivan and Viktor. Nevertheless, the film very effectively and very quickly manages to sketch a portrait of family tragedy. There is something incredibly melancholy in Dolph Lundgren’s performance, as he looks around the deli that Rocky owns and reflects, “Nice photographs.” He pauses. “None of me.” Rocky very briskly acknowledges, “Yeah. We don’t want to remember that.”

What goes a round.

Early sequences of Creed II find Ivan and Viktor flying to Philadelphia and realising how readily Rocky is venerated by the local population; the tourists running up and down the steps, the statue at the museum. There is a sense that Ivan Drago was brushed aside the moment that the end credits rolled on Rocky IV. He is a supporting character from an earlier film franchise, returning after thirty odd years, driven by bitterness and frustration at being forgotten. After all, if the son of Apollo Creed can get his own franchise, surely Ivan Drago deserves a shot?

There is something very clever in all of this, with Creed II effectively focusing on the lingering trauma of supporting characters who suffered as a result of Rocky Balboa’s heroic arc across the six films in his own title franchise. After all, Apollo Creed was never the hero in his own story. Creed and Creed II are effectively films unpacking the aftermath of the decision to kill off a prominent supporting character in order to motivate Rocky to defeat the big bad Russian at the end of Rocky IV. As such, Creed II asks whatever happened to that big bad Russian.

Drago’s den.

There is some small meta-textual suggestion of a reckoning in all of this, an acknowledgement of how casually characters like Apollo Creed and Ivan Drago were discarded in the Rocky franchise, without any real thought given to them as characters with their own agency and their own priorities. They were stepping stones for Rocky Balboa on his heroic journey, nothing more. Creed II suggests a very bleak perspective on these sorts of narratives, pointing to Rocky IV as a trauma with after effects still felt three decades later, even though Rocky himself was largely oblivious.

Creed obviously represents an important broadening of the perspective of the Rocky franchise – especially in terms of race – but Creed II occasionally feels like a clever use of modern cinematic franchising to ask broad existential questions about agency and narrative. After all, in this image-driven era, what are people but narratives? Early in Creed II, boxing promoter Buddy Marcelle talks about the importance of narratives in determining identity and legacy. Creed II is about Adonis Creed and the Drago family trying to assert control of their own narratives.

A nice ring to it.

This gets at what might be the biggest single issue with Creed II, and the major problem that holds it back from measuring up to Creed. Very simply, the film has no real idea what to do with Rocky Balboa himself. The movie is thematically about these two families that were torn apart as a result of their collision with Rocky, which suggests that Creed II might have worked better without any direct involvement from the title character of the franchise that spawned it, that the story might unfold most effectively with his absence keenly felt.

Instead, Sylvester Stallone remains a major part of Creed II. The actor co-wrote the script, and is second billed on the poster. Rocky himself is one of the most beloved icons in American popular culture. Despite the fact that Creed was written in such a way that the sequel could quietly retire the character, it would be hard to justify writing Stallone out of one of his core creations. However, because Creed II is a film about the characters who have had their lives smashed against his arc, Rocky cannot play a strong narrative role in Creed II. He must exist largely as a witness.

If at first you don’t succeed, try angle again.

So Rocky cannot drive the central narrative, the generational clash between the Creeds and the Dragos. As a result, he drifts through the film. A major recurring character beat in Creed II consists of his repeated efforts to get the local city authority to fix the lamp outside his town house, perhaps a winking acknowledgement of the difficulty to find something for Rocky to do without eroding Adonis’ agency or his arc. Rocky does get an eventual pay-off on his own familial arc, but it feels almost an afterthought. There is never a question of “if” the pay-off will come, only “when.”

This is a minor issue, but it does speak to a looseness in the plotting and structuring of Creed II that was simply absent from Creed, and even Rocky Balboa. It seems fair to acknowledge that Creed II is a solid and worthy entry in the Rocky franchise, and appreciably above the average quality of the series. However, it does suffer from the fact that it is following the two best films in the entire sequence. Creed II is a clever and effective film on its own terms, but it is not the game-changer that Creed was nor the affecting coda that Rocky Balboa was.

Creed certainly floored critics.

Creed II makes both Rocky IV and Creed better films. It improves Rocky IV by building a convincing emotional arc from a piece of goofy eighties Cold War propaganda, plumbing surprising character depth from the broadest possible character choices in one of the franchise’s wildest entries. Creed II enriches Creed by demonstrating that cinematic magic that often difficult to quantify and impossible to duplicate, underscoring just how incredible Creed was. Creed II is a well-made and smart film. It says a lot about Creed that this still feels a little disappointing.

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