Creed II is a cracking successor to Coogler's previous film and the Rocky series as a whole, due greatly to Stallone returning as screenwriter after learning some valuable lessons from the first Creed.
(WARNING: Spoilers for the end of Creed II below.)
The original six Rocky movies are a fascinating display of Sylvester Stallone’s strengths and weaknesses as a filmmaker. They’re visceral and emotional and clearly very personal; they’re well plotted and paced, with a sharp understanding of archetypal characters and conflict. But they’re also emotionally crude, self-centered to the point of parody, lacking nuance and rely heavily on narrative shortcuts. Most troublingly, Stallone’s archetypal characters flirt with (sometimes tumbling right into) racial caricature and xenophobia. The movies can be exhilarating and impossibly entertaining, but also ugly and uncomfortable.
When Ryan Coogler made Creed in 2015, he crafted a love letter to the Rocky series that honored its core of good-hearted populist filmmaking, while also managing to fix some of those troubling racial dimensions. Released in 1976, Rocky is a brilliantly crafted crowd-pleaser that also (intentionally or not) traded in on some Civil Rights-era backlash stereotypes in the telling. There is a racially problematic element in the story of the conflict between the hardworking downtrodden every-white-man and his once in a lifetime match with flamboyant disrespectful black man. By centering a Rocky movie around Apollo’s illegitimate son Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), and structurally making it almost an exact remake of Rocky, Coogler is asking fans to transfer their affection and allegiance to the very different Adonis, and what he represents. It takes the inspirational self-empowering spine of the Rocky movies and erases the racial stereotypes that can make it an uncomfortable modern watch.
Co-written by Stallone, Creed II continues the trend of reexamining some of the original films’ core values, finding new ambiguity and depth in what could easily be a binary good guy/bad guy winner-take-all boxing match. He didn’t write the screenplay for Creed (the first time someone other than Stallone wrote a Rocky movie), but his return to the series as a writer demonstrates not just his support in the new series, but his willingness to change and grow as a writer in ways that challenge decades old worldviews and habits.
Stallone is a ferociously talented person, but his cinematic worldview is narrow – his work is almost always ultimately about himself, and his dedication to himself. Other people are either acolytes or antagonists. There’s rarely a sense of a larger world outside of his protagonists and organizations tend to exist to persecute or shun him. Stallone is always playing a cop who’s one step away from suspension or worse because he doesn’t play by the rules. Consider the town that runs him out in First Blood or the government that abandoned POWs in Vietnam in Rambo II; he’s always an unappreciated outsider who is proven to have been right all along. It’s hard to imagine any of the characters in the original movies existing as individuals outside of their relationship with Rocky. None of them have any real interests or identity outside of Rocky and his world. Apollo comes closest, but even he is still defined in relation to Rocky – opponent, trainer, object of vengeance. In Creed, Apollo is shown to be a person with his own legacy separate from Rocky – not just in terms of his family, but in the larger world, he’s referred to on an ESPN show as possibly the greatest boxer of all time and Rocky is just mentioned as Adonis’s trainer. That sense of autonomy extends to other characters in the Creed movies, most significantly in Adonis’s love interest Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a musician struggling with hearing loss; or Tony “Little Duke” Burton (Wood Harris), the son of Apollo’s (and then Rocky’s) old trainer Duke. People in the Creed movies have jobs and parents and children, they are part of a larger community that they care about that cares about them.
In that same vein and, and more crucially to the plot, Creed II re-contextualizes the role of the antagonist in the world of these films. In the previous series, Rocky’s opponents always embody a fear that Rocky must overcome, reflections of his existential anxiety about his place in the world. In Rocky, Apollo is the establishment who refuses to give Rocky a serious chance, and in Rocky II he’s the weight of expectations once Rocky has established himself as a credible talent. Clubber Lang is the hungry upstart that threatens the contented champion and Rocky IV‘s Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) is the challenge from the global stage. Finally, Rocky’s opponents in V and Rocky Balboa represent the fear of aging and obsolescence. Stallone does a good job of infusing his opponents with menace and dread and they make for useful antagonists in terms of presenting Rocky with a memorable villain to knock down but they’re more monsters than people. One gets the feeling that they poof out of existence like a video game character once Rocky defeats them, their purpose served.
In Creed II, Ivan Drago returns to the screen a broken man who lost everything when he fell to Rocky. Stripped of his prestige and abandoned by his wife and friends, Drago has spent the intervening decades raising his son and training him to be an even more ferocious fighter than his father ever was. Ivan is destitute and desperate to regain his stature and to provide for his son the glory that was denied to him. His son Viktor (Florian Munteanu) is a unique villain in the series because he isn’t fighting to achieve anything for himself – he seems more interested in living up to his father’s expectations and helping him to reclaim his old glory.
For Creed II, Stallone and his co-writer Juel Taylor offer a rich, compelling dynamic between the Dragos – Viktor feels his father was unfairly punished for simply losing a boxing match and wants to avenge his father’s loss, which links him with Adonis. Both lost their fathers in some way to the other’s mentor – Ivan killed Apollo, while Viktor lost Ivan to his obsession with Rocky and the life of comfort and acclaim that was taken from him. There’s also a very human tension between the Dragos, as Ivan openly pines for his old Good Life, and Viktor is frustrated by his father’s desire to return to the world that so casually threw him away. But the Drago’s live in poverty and squalor, they share a small one bedroom apartment where Viktor has to sleep on the couch, they work during the day and fight at night. What father doesn’t want his son to have a measure of comfort and for his talents to be recognized and celebrated on as large a stage as possible? To call Ivan two dimensional in Rocky IV would be a stretch, the Ivan of Creed II is a surprisingly complex person, not exactly ever heroic, but far from evil. By the same token, Viktor is shown to be both a fierce competitor and an overwhelmed child, sometimes in the same scene.
The result is a final match where the audience finds itself sympathetic to both fighters; this tension gives the climax of Creed II a tension and emotional ambiguity that is unique to the series. While we want to see Adonis win, we’re not sure we want to see Viktor lose. In Rocky IV, Rocky knows that Apollo can’t beat Ivan, but he doesn’t throw in the towel because his best friend doesn’t want to suffer the public humiliation of losing a fight by forfeit. It’s a decision that haunts both Rocky and the series from that point on; it’s the characters largest failure and greatest regret. In Creed II Ivan is able to do for his son what Rocky couldn’t for his best friend. He recognizes that his son is going to lose to Adonis, but is too proud and determined to stay down, so he ends the fight. This is another remarkable moment for Stallone to not only allow to happen but to actively take part in writing, the man who used to need to be the best at everything allows his (arguably) greatest opponent to do what he could not.
After Ivan throws in the towel and forfeits the fight rather than have his son take any more punishment, the camera keeps returning to Ivan and Viktor – a father trying to console a heartbroken son who’s furious with him for not letting him go the distance. The monster Ivan Drago – who in Rocky IV said of Apollo, “if he dies, he dies” – has become a sympathetic father, willing to absorb his son’s rage and disappointment. Finally, while traditional Rocky films end when the fight does, Creed II continues for a bit afterward to tie up a few loose plot threads. One of those lets us return to Viktor and Ivan back home, training together. It’s a small thread that doesn’t take up much screen time, but it’s almost as rewarding as Adonis’s journey because it’s unexpected.
Thanks to the previously binary world of the Rocky movies, audiences have had Feelings about Ivan Drago for thirty years. By returning to him and allowing us an opportunity to reconsider those feelings and give him a measure of grace and humanity that he was denied all those years ago, Stallone’s growth as a screenwriter allows Creed II to continue the work of its predecessor. Now, the world of Rocky is a more interesting and inclusive place, complicating the black-and-white world of the original series with some fascinating shades of grey. You may not be able to teach an old fighter new tricks, but Stallone manages to pull a few surprises out in the last round.