Creed: the Best Swan Song for the Rocky Franchise

Creed Would Be the Best Song Song for the Rocky FranchiseOver the weekend, I watched the 2015 hit Creed. This is not surprising. Since I saw the first Rocky in early 1977, I’ve been a fan of it. That first film remains a great cinematic accomplishment. Although utterly genre, John Avildsen’s direction makes the film seem almost cinéma vérité. It was the first film to make major use of the steadicam — but primarily for financial reasons. Thus, it adds to the film rather than distracting as it did in many films to follow, most notably Goodfellas. The acting was exceptional, and the script establish Sylvester Stallone as one of the best genre writers in Hollywood.

I was almost as happy with Rocky II. Although Stallone directed it, he did his best to imitate Avildsen. I remember going to see Rocky III on opening day and being crushed. It was clear at that point that any art in the Rocky franchise was gone and that it was now commodity. Rocky IV was an offense of epic proportions. Even without getting into the politics of it, the casting of Dolph Lundgren was rediculous. Rocky V is an odd film. It is Stallone’s weakest script, but it manages to succeed more than it deserves with the return of Avildsen as director. Finally, Rocky Balboa managed to charm, but the boxing was ancillary and even more unbelievable than usual.

Creed Is a Reboot

I just don’t think Creed could have been a hit four decades ago, which is all the more reason it makes a fine bookend to the Rocky franchise.

Creed is distinct in many ways. Primarily, it is a reboot — essentially a remake of the first film. It is the only one in the Rocky universe in which the title character does no boxing. Unlike all the other films that you could say were Stallone’s, this one is writer-director Ryan Coogler’s. (It was co-written with Aaron Covington.) And there is much to like about him. I think he has a fine career ahead of him. But Creed is hardly a great film, even though only the original Rocky is clearly superior.

The biggest problem with the film is that it tries to do far too much in what is, after all, a simple genre picture. The film is based on the same “give a nobody the chance of a lifetime” plot that the original was based on. I have no problem with that. But I’m not sure how a writer could create a story based on that kernel and then expect us to take seriously the chemotherapy treatments of the trainer. But more than that, this is a film that is cluttered with too many subplots and a lead character that doesn’t have much in the way of a personality.

Creed Washes Racist Tint of Original

Still, I’m very glad the film was made, because it makes up from what I always saw as a problem with the first film: its implicit racism. By this, I’m not talking about the film itself. Rather, I’m talking about what I discussed in Zulu and the Racism We Bring to It. I simply don’t think that Rocky would have been a hit had the races of the fighters been swapped. That’s just a fact of American life. Maybe its more accurate to say that the problem is ethnocentrism: whites want to see a white man win — especially in the mid-1970s — when whites in the US were still in their migration from the cities to the suburbs to escape the “horrors” of busing.

Creed does manage to reverse the races of the characters. And it does it effectively and affectingly. Just the same, Tony Bellew as the “bad” British boxer Ricky Conlan isn’t quite the threat that Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) was. Creed was a stand-in for the ultimate white terror: an intelligent and powerful black man. In fact, that’s one of the high points of the original movie where Creed is working on his various business dealings while we watch Rocky punching raw frozen beef on the television.

Let Creed Be the Franchise’s End

I find it impossible not to see Creed in political terms — and very positives ones at that. The first was a huge hit, and I just don’t think Creed could have been a hit four decades ago. And it makes a fine bookend to the Rocky franchise. Unfortunately, a sequel was in development and may become a film. I doubt that Coogler would be much involved, given he is finishing Black Panther and seems generally of a mind to make films of some substance.

My hope is that Creed is the end of the franchise. It is the way to go out. What would a sequel offer us anyway? It would almost certainly be a combination of Rocky II and Rocky III. Adonis Johnson (Michael B Jordan) would marry Bianca (Tessa Thompson). And Rocky would die — but probably much later in the film than Mickey (Burgess Meredith) did in Rocky III. And Creed would become the champion. I just can’t see it being anything but filmmaking by the numbers.

Creed would be the best swan song for this very uneven franchise. I dearly hope that it is.

3 thoughts on “Creed: the Best Swan Song for the Rocky Franchise

  1. Well, I’ve watched all the Rocky movies and you are spot-on about the unevenness in screenwriting, production and quality of the films. That said, I just don’t see Creed being the swan song to the Rocky franchise for two main reasons. First, if Creed was about giving “a nobody the chance of a lifetime” as you put it, then a befitting–though hackneyed–ending to the franchise would be Donnie getting the win over Conlan, and not the other way round, as was the case in Creed. Second, at the end of Creed, Conlan tells Donnie that he’s the future of the light heavyweight division; something I believe was purposefully said to set the tone for another sequel. Plus, if the franchise was able to flesh out some meat out of the skeletons of Rocky IV and V for new sequels, I don’t see how or why the corporate bigwigs would fail to capitalize on the modicum success of Creed for another sequel.

    • As for the reality of it: there was talk of a sequel, but I can’t find any indication that something is in any kind of production. I would think they would do a sequel because Creed made a lot of money. That’s just how the studios think. I’ve written that Scandal is likely the worst film I’ve ever seen, but had it made money, they certainly would have made a sequel. And there may well come a Creed sequel; there may just be delays in getting the two leads back together or something.

      But I think you are missing something in the structure of Rocky and Creed: the happy ending is not defined by the win. In Rocky, the happy ending is if Rocky can go the distance and prove that he’s not just a bum like everyone thinks. In Creed, the happy ending is proving that, as it says on the poster, “Your legacy is more than a name.” And that line that Conlan says does set up a sequel in a film-as-commodity way. But as a work of art, it makes any further films unnecessary.

      The truth is that Rocky should have been a one-off. Stallone said that what he wanted to show in the film was a man at the very apex of his life — that everything after that would be less. And he was glad that the film ends with a freeze just as his head starts to tilt down. The second movie totally destroys that idea of the film. I still think it’s quite a good film. But I do think the first film was a work of art. The rest were mostly commodity, but that Creed probably has the most art — but still, nothing like the first. The first towers over the others like it’s in a different universe.

  2. The point about Creed making a lot of money and the franchise doing as sequel because “that’s how studios think” is the main idea I was trying to put across. As for the happy-ending, well, I am glad that you have shown me a different perspective because I didn’t look at it that way. And going the distance rather than a win for the main character makes plenty of sense, as opposed to how I initially looked at it.

    Oh, and I am definitely in agreement that most of the Rocky sequels were a waste of resources and time, artistically-speaking, maybe with debatable exceptions of Rocky II and the Creed. But then again, it’s always hard–not impossible though–to replicate or outdo the pure art of any first masterpiece, and that’s why the first Rocky still stands as the best of them all. I guess that’s more or less the same point James Fillmore made in Don Quixote where he appreciated other versions and translations of the Novel, but still regarded Part I of Don Quixote as “thoroughly satisfying” and the best of them all.

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