“Time takes everybody out… time is undefeated.”
Late in the film Creed, the seventh and latest installment of the Rocky series, the titular character’s life flashes before his eyes. This is Adonis Creed (played with natural wit and grace by Michael B. Jordan), the son of the late Apollo Creed. The montage is something each audience has seen before, the past reflected directly before an inspiring moment in the present. Ryan Coogler, the director and co-writer of the film, seems to be aware of this familiarity. Uncharitably, one could call much of Creed reductive. Yet Coogler appears to be on to something here, as the series of images ends with one not from this film.
The last thing Adonis sees before he triumphantly rises from the brink of defeat is an image of his father. In this moment Creed is in conversation with not just itself, and the Rocky heptalogy as a whole, but the very notion of legacy and time. The film returns to these qualities again and again, narrowing in on the ways in which history will always feed into the present and the future. What gives the movie its conviction is an understanding that history is complex, and must be celebrated and ignored in equal measure.
Look at the most direct example of the past weighing down on a character in this film. Adonis’ entire journey exists in relation to his father’s, a great man who died before this son was even born. Bianca (Tessa Thompson), Creed’s girlfriend, recommends that he use this name. At times he agrees. In other instances, he grows enraged at the mere mention of his father’s legacy, a shadow from under which he desperately yearns to escape. Creed’s central conflict boils down to reconciling the past enough to be able to live with it while distancing oneself enough to create a distinct future.
This notion is not lost on Rocky. In one of the film’s best scenes, he visits the grave of his late wife Adrian and friend Paulie, sliding out a folding chair and propping open a newspaper. This feels like a ritual, a quiet one developed by a person who has garnered too many ghosts to simply ignore. Then he pauses, before he begins to recite the day’s headlines. He looks out, and the next time we see him, he’s agreed to train Creed. Throughout the film, he continues to deal with this sharp division between the past and the future.
That comes to a head when he’s diagnosed with cancer and calmly declines chemotherapy. He’s broken, and hollowed out to some extent. He’s fought enough rounds and he’s ready to tap out. Here’s where Creed gets into the truly great material, the stuff that makes it one of the year’s best studio pictures. Beyond legacy, though intricately tied to the subject, the film is captivated by the ways in which the human body breaks down over time. Cancer is simply a manifestation of the years that Stallone wears on his face, like the endless rings in a tree trunk. Rocky’s weariness and resignation work like symptoms of time more than anything else.
Though all boxing films deal with physical destruction to some extent, Creed is acutely aware of the dangers inside the ring. Each section of the story brings some element about to remind Adonis of his father’s death, which occurred after he simply could take no more. That was a defeat of pure mechanical failure, the pieces of the whole no longer cooperating enough to give their host enough air to breathe. Then there’s Bianca, a musician slowly losing her hearing. Like nearly everything in Creed, this sounds like a blatantly melodramatic device too obvious for its own good. Yet, also like nearly everything else in Creed, Coogler manages to instill it with a humanistic verve that cuts past the obvious signs to the beating heart below (it helps that Thompson is among the most gifted young performers working today).
Within each of these three stories is the potential for defeat, and ready excuses to languish in the face of eventual demise. But this is an underdog sports tale underneath everything. So Coogler utilizes the tools of the genre to give a wounded power to each decision made. Bianca’s defiance doesn’t read as a cheap rah-rah attitude. She’s well aware that someday these decisions will no longer be left up to her. For the moment, though, they are, and she’ll best use this time while its available. The same goes for Adonis, and the ways in which his journey inspires Rocky. Someday, the heart will stop beating and the lungs will no longer breathe and the brain will cease operations. These are the detached, medical truths of life. You can lie down and surround yourself with the inevitability of grief. Or you can fight. I’ll let you guess which side Creed lands on.
All of this could work quite well on its own, a story of triumph over self-doubt and fear. Instead, what makes Creed so powerful is the continuum it exists upon. Six films predate this one, a story that began nearly forty years ago. Signposts that have existed since the initial Rocky film remain steadfast: the turtle, the bouncing ball, the rippling blows to the torso. Stallone’s age is ever-present, in sharp comparison to the man of 1976. Coogler uses all of these elements not as cheap ploys to garner fan appreciation, but as a way of cohering this particular universe. The talk of legacy and creaking bodies are backed up by the history of the series. The shorts that Adonis receives, matching his father’s red, white & blue aren’t (just) easy pathos. They mean something to the story Coogler is telling. Creed uses the history of the franchise to make a film about history and its numerous gifts and burdens.
Another sequel to an elderly franchise took a different route to success earlier this year. Mad Max: Fury Road has fewer direct signifiers of the works that came before (though some, like the tinkling music box, concede nostalgia). Instead, that movie chose to subvert audience expectation by messing with the importance of its eponymous character. Max, as has been noted by many others, is nearly relegated to a supporting role in his own film. This works to expound on the nature of power structures and feminism, and any number of other themes George Miller manages to bake into a two-hour car chase. Where Creed leans into previous installments to find weight, Fury Road peels out of those assumptions to find a unique, equally powerful voice.
What these two sequels share is a knowing appreciation of the past, though they play that component at vastly different volumes. Both variations, though, are preferable to the other main franchise technique of 2015: an overbearing look at what comes next. Avengers: Age of Ultron isn’t a terrible film, filled with a number of sequences that pull off the intended awe-factor. But it’s a complete mess as far as working within a larger, overarching story of prophecy and impending doom. Thor’s botched journey into a weird little pool of water is an especially absurd concession to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. This has become the standard for so many properties today, each piece functioning, at least in part, as a commercial for whatever comes next.
Because of this, it’s even more inspiring to see the American studio system eek out successes like Creed. That’s to say nothing of the joy of seeing a mid-budget film with a person of color in the lead role triumph critically and at the box office. And Coogler’s artful direction would be welcome in any mainstream release, regardless of its relation to a pre-existing cinematic series. All of this, working in tandem, is what makes Creed so refreshing and nuanced and welcome in any cultural climate. But what makes the work feel vital, at this point in time, is the acknowledgment that “franchise” doesn’t have to be a four-letter word. Instead, in the right hands with meaningful intention, a series can pull from what came before and create something vivid and new.
When Adonis and Rocky ascend the famed steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, they look out at the view and assess their lives. They both arrive at a positivity that was out of reach before they met, and found something new within each other and themselves. By digging into their pasts, they arrived at a thrilling new outlook. That optimism holds true for the film that houses them; a stirring climb towards tomorrow.