Critic’s Notebook: Internal battles within the ‘CREED’ films

James Cole Clay//Film Critic

The ROCKY franchise, as a whole, is a celebration of overcoming insurmountable odds with triumph and braun. But as far as CREED II is concerned, it’s about personal triumph with a dollop of how its titular character, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), is overcoming his teetering form of toxic masculinity. Truth be told, there are no easy answers for this. Some (rightfully so) find the sport of boxing used as a thematic playground to endorse using barbaric violence to work out your feelings.

However, the ring has four sides, and there are other perspectives that can bring value to these films, which are essentially “weepies” – There’s no denying that aspect.

In the first CREED film, Adonis’ adoptive mother, Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), bemoans how she used to have to carry her husband, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), up the stairs after a fight. He was so battered and bruised that there were pieces of him that can never be fixed, and not just of the physical kind. She feigns her support for her late husband and adopted son, but there is vehement disapproval in her words. Behind the egos of all the men in these film are the women – Rashad, Tessa Thompson (as Adonis’ girlfriend/fiancée) and Talia Shire (as Rocky’s wife, Adrian, in the original ROCKY films) – who offer support even when their other halves are being pig-headed. 

Michael B. Jordan stars as Adonis Creed and Tessa Thompson as Bianca in “Creed II.”
(Photo: Courtesy of Barry Wetcher/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures)

CREED II deals with the aftermath of ROCKY IV, which saw Apollo Creed killed at the hands of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). It’s a struggle of fathers and sons, resentment towards power, and finding out what is important in the wake of (excuse the expression) life itself. And, as we go through life, it’s important to give and feel love for others. But what is moving about this story, in particular, is how Adonis learns to care for his family while not losing sight of his own convictions. (Something this writer finds extremely difficult each and every day.)

There’s a scene between Bianca (Thompson) and Adonis, after a pivotal beating, where he’s so caught up in his own plight that Bianca only becomes a sounding board for him to discuss his career. Adonis says to her, “I was afraid I couldn’t live up to [my father’s] expectations.” She retorts: “You don’t think you got your validation?”

The key word there is validation. That’s something we all seek in our partners, our careers and from our peers. But what Adonis doesn’t realize is we have to validate ourselves each and every day. Bianca has a burgeoning career in her own right (and a disability), but she keeps moving with every pothole life gives her. She’s a rock, a stronger partner than Adonis could imagine being. But these films are about growth and listening.

That’s a powerful moment about how difficult it is to balance the waves that life throws at us while maintaining the truest sense of one’s self. Adonis is flawed; he has the emotional perspective of a high school athlete, just demoted to junior varsity. However, he’s a person, to quote Bradley Cooper’s character in A STAR IS BORN, “longing for change” – change in his emotional capacity, change in his feeling of inadequacy that leads to those toxic behaviors. It’s not a perfect depiction, but it’s a real fine place to start.

Films that operate in dualities tend to be ripe with thematic material. And while the ROCKY films are by no means breaking convention, they exist on a higher elevation. In fact, they are quintessentially the anti-American dream.

Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) and Adonis aren’t looking for a perverted version of TMZ-like fame. They aren’t looking for Lamborghinis, or making it rain. These are characters (and films) in search of emotional truth. The plot structure may be simple, but the path to peace seems impossible when you have been afflicted with the drive to meet unrealistic expectations. It’s an addiction that comes close to an eruption. For anybody who has ever wanted to achieve something great, whether it be finishing a marathon or writing an article on Thanksgiving morning, there has to be a driving force that lurks inside that says you’re not doing this for anybody but yourself – and that’s OK. That’s why these films succeed with the same formula: the quest to find yourself is a lifelong search, and a story that can be told time and time again. Having a partner is two halves of a whole, and you can’t be whole unless you take care of your own convictions.

Although the romance in the first ROCKY hasn’t aged well (with Rocky coming off a bit scary towards Adrian in her pet store and him creeping around corners), the couple seem to be stunted when it comes to human connection. To be honest, it gets off to a weird start. But that love does grow and develops into a ho-hum romance for the ages. Its surface level charms have worked on audiences for decades. With Bianca and Adonis, there are blueprints on how to navigate a modern romance while keeping your own pursuits at the forefront. Life happens to this couple throughout the first two films, things they wouldn’t ever dream of happening, both good and bad.

CREED and CREED II find a legacy through making mistakes. It’s messy, and we don’t always bring out the best parts of ourselves. The trick is to breathe, listen, open up, and, as Rocky says to Adonis in a moment of crisis, “In the ring, you got rules. Outside, you got nothing. Life hits you with all these cheap shots. People like me, we live in the past. You got people that need you now.” And knowing that is half the battle.

CREED II is now playing nationwide.

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