A greater quantity of cinema than mere commerce required has made its way into Creed, a movie that resists its self-imposed destiny for a long time before settling down to being the black Rocky VII. All the landmarks of the franchise eventually fall into place, from the front steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to the crushable hat atop Mount Rocky itself, the folkishly wise noggin of Sylvester Stallone. You wouldn’t expect ambition to flood these long-eroded narrative canyons; but then Creed has the distinction of being the first movie in the Rocky series not written by Stallone, as well as the second feature, after Fruitvale Station, to be directed by Ryan Coogler, a young African American with a serious case of Scorsese envy.
He has found enablers: Irwin Winkler (who produced not only Rocky but several of Scorsese’s films), Maryse Alberti (a great cinematographer with her own ties to the master), and Michael B. Jordan, the endlessly resourceful star of Fruitvale Station, who was prepared to go the full De Niro in training for his new role. With the cooperation of these colleagues, Coogler has carried off some astonishing set pieces in Creed, including a two-round prizefight shot in a single, continuously mobile take. The scene would have been impressive had it been only a stunt; but like all true acts of cinema, it’s more. It demonstrates the ceaselessness of a boxer’s effort and courage in the ring, while confirming that Jordan’s physical achievements are real.
The most fascinating aspect of Creed, though, is not this surplus of filmmaking but the central character. Working with co-writer Aaron Covington, Coogler has conceived a story that focuses less on Rocky Balboa than on the newly invented Adonis Johnson, the unacknowledged son of Rocky’s original antagonist, Apollo Creed.
Judging from the interviews Coogler has given, this appropriation of the Rocky characters and situations is in some measure a high-end exercise in fan fiction. When Coogler was a kid in Oakland, he apparently watched the Rocky movies over and over with his father. From these simple, visceral pleasures, shared in love, sprang the aspiration to make a Rocky picture of his own. But Coogler’s introduction to the series must have come in the early years of this century, which complicates the motive. How many new releases at the time featured black male characters with the power and flash of Apollo Creed? How keenly might a teenage Ryan Coogler have ached to fill that gap—maybe by taking over a white man’s franchise and retroactively making Carl Weathers, rather than Stallone, the hero?
To do so would have been to change history. From their inception in 1976, the Rocky films projected an ascendant myth about privileged African Americans lording it over white ethnic workers who had nothing to show for their labor but their scars. To its credit, the franchise never developed this social hallucination into full-blown race hatred; by 1982, Rocky and Apollo were fast friends. But given the patriotic battle in Rocky IV against a monstrous Soviet fighter, and the contemporaneous spillover of Stallone’s persona into the figure of the poor, betrayed Vietnam War veteran John Rambo, the Rocky series became imagistically inseparable from Reaganism as an appeal to white Americans’ fears, resentments, and fantasies of omnipotence.