'Creed II': The Peril and Appeal of Fan Service

Creed II Still 2 - Publicity - H 2018
Barry Wetcher/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures/Warner Bros. Pictures
Two longtime Rocky viewers ask if this should be Sylvester Stallone's swan song.

[This story contains spoilers for MGM's Creed II.]

The following is a spoiler-intensive conversation about Creed II that pits The Hollywood Reporter contributors Simon Abrams and Steven Boone against each other for the sake of thinking about how they thought about this particular movie. (Don't read that sentence three times fast; once is more than enough.) Creed II continues the story of young World Champion boxer Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) as he and his romantic partner Bianca (Tessa Thompson) plan a future for themselves, with co-writer and co-star Sylvester Stallone in tow as Rocky Balboa, Adonis' mentor. Those plans are soon interrupted when Viktor Drago (real-life boxer Florian Munteanu), son of Ivan (Dolph Lundgren, playing the man who, in Rocky IV, killed Adonis' father Apollo Creed), challenges Adonis to a high-profile fight. In the spirit of Thanksgiving weekend, here is Mr. Boone and Mr. Abrams' consideration of why they enjoyed Creed II, but also agree with much of their peers' insightful criticism. Mouth guards in, touch gloves and don't forget to kiss — let's get ready to ruuuuumbleeeee!

Simon Abrams, Son of Joe the PlumberCreed II is, for better and worse, a movie co-written by Sylvester Stallone. I'm normally reluctant to talk about a movie like this in auteurist terms, because wow, how far up my butt can we go? But it's right there on the film's surface and in ways that are so obvious that it seems like Stallone's personal fingerprints have been blown up to nigh-mythic fan service proportions. Case in point: Look at how director Steven Caple Jr. talks about Creed II in this revealing interview with ScreenCrush's Matt Singer. In that discussion, Caple talks about callbacks to RockyIIIIIIVV and BalboaCreed II is consequently (and thankfully) an affectionate, hard-to-resist sampler platter of Stallone's fetishes and hang-ups, everything from the way Rock proposes to Adrian in Rocky II to the way that some of Creed II's fights mirror the fight choreography from Rocky III and Rocky IV.

That said: While I personally thought that Caple's direction is largely responsible for making Creed II's Stallone-isms work (more on that in my last riposte), I also understand and agree with the spectrum of responses that this particular kind of fan service — as well as its macho context, the boxing-movie formula that Stallone helped to establish (or maybe just entrench) — has inspired. Caple, Stallone and co-writer Juel Taylor's blend of Rocky tropes makes Creed II cinematic comfort food, which arguably makes Creed II the perfect Thanksgiving film. You binge on a mountain of callbacks despite knowing that you're overdoing it, but, uh, hey, isn't that the reason for the season? Or something?

OK, OK, I'll supplement my mildly conflicted Stallone love with quotes from my favorite Creed II reviews. Our mutual amigo Odie Henderson, who gave Creed II a three-star (out of four) review for RogerEbert.com, is very upfront about his reservations. He got me good when he wondered if Rocky fans (like himself) were partly responsible for Creed II's generic nature: "Stallone the actor is on loan from Rocky, but Stallone the writer comes straight from Rocky IV. By 1985, the hunger that drove him to create the character of Rocky Balboa had since taken on a cynical, by-the-numbers laziness. Some of that laziness infects the screenplay Stallone co-wrote with Juel Taylor, and I wonder if Rocky fans like me are partially to blame."

But wait, there's more: With characteristically clear eyes, Henderson talks about how Rocky IV's political subtext (as corny as it may be) is conspicuously missing from Creed II's Creed v. Drago Redux fight: "Back in Reagan’s era, Americans weren’t going to root for the Russians ... so this set up a begrudging conundrum amongst racists like the one felt back when Joe Louis fought Max Schmeling. As cheesy as Rocky IV is, it still had a political conviction." 

Sean Burns, another Stallone-loving mutual friend, had a similar thought in his mixed-to-positive review for North Shore Movies. Just look at this beauty of a concluding paragraph: "It was slyly (sorry) subversive of Stallone back in 1985 to put Carl Weathers’ swaggering, showboating Apollo Creed in an Uncle Sam outfit and place him alongside James Brown, both 'Living In America' as two black and proud icons sayin’ it loud against the Soviet menace. I wish Stallone still had that kind of nerve, and I really wish he’d confronted head-on just how much of his target audience right now would probably root for the Russians over a black millionaire heir from California. That’s the kind of movie that might break you."

These on-point criticisms are enough to make me second-guess how much I enjoy Creed II's fan service. Feel the exhilaration of this sentence-long body blow from The New Yorker's Richard Brody: "The previous installment in this franchise reboot, starring Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Creed (the son of the late Apollo Creed), reconsidered and revised the Rocky mythology; this sequel shamelessly indulges it." I can't go that far, but still, oof, it stings — nay, it burns (sorry, Sean)!

But while I nodded along as I read all of the above-cited pieces (including Singer's interview), I have to say: The best piece of Creed II criticism that I've read has to be Candice Frederick's Cosmopolitan piece. In the space of one paragraph, Frederick speaks to an uneven power dynamic that has always been a big part of Stallone's legacy: his habit of explicitly admitting that he and his stand-ins don't have all the answers, but also never know how to believably empower the people that they love without remaking them in his image. Creed II isn't concerned with the fragility of the aging male ego: It's a barely reluctant celebration, as Frederick points out in her spot-on reading of the Adonis/Bianca relationship: "It’s pure selfishness that drives Adonis to ignore his family’s concerns. At one point, while trying to convince Bianca what abandoning this fight would do to him, he tells her that she wouldn’t want anyone to steer her away from what she’s passionate about, either. Mind you, this is a woman who put her singing career on the back burner for a bit as she carries his baby — while he runs off to fight and leaves her sick with worry. These are the sacrifices women are expected to make that men often refuses to even consider. And don’t even get me started on the scene when Adonis is watching baby Amara for a few hours while Bianca returns to the recording studio and he CAN BARELY HANDLE IT. She starts fussing, as babies do, and his only response is to go to the boxing gym so that he can mellow out — and takes her with him. Oh Adonis, you’re fine and all, but at some point you’ve got to adhere to the needs of the women in your life, including your daughter."

I love that; I had similar thoughts about how Bianca and Adonis' renewed, supposedly fortified partnership is represented with her singing for him (much like James Brown did for Apollo) as he steps into the ring to fight Viktor Drago. That's what a partner is supposed to look like? More like a hype-man, not to mention another fan-service-friendly callback to Rocky IV. Frederick's piece perfectly complements Henderson's, since her criticism is well-tempered with praise: "The fight scenes are appropriately intense and amazingly choreographed, and the performances are all solid, making it an overall enjoyable experience. Still, I wonder what it would have been like had if Creed II had a bit more heart, and not just thrown that word around."

Now then: I've set the table, and will soon explain why I think my proverbial cup is half-full this time out. But you, my friend, have got a veritable buffet of quotes to choose from. Fill your plate, let's do this.

Steven Boone, Son of a Preacher Man: As much as I enjoyed Creed II, these reads by Burns, Brody and Henderson that you Cliff Noted me are collectively richer and more imagination-tickling than the movie itself. I agree with the general sentiment that Creed II is a transitional film, a la Rocky II. As with Sly's originals, this franchise is getting sleeker and slicker even as it holds fast to a simple, sentimental core. (Meanwhile, Henderson's "Clobber Lang" prediction and conflating Dolph Lundgren with Ethel Merman put me on the canvas.) Frederick's Cosmo review also gets at what makes this film run and stumble at the same time: As the movie starts, we see Adonis has not grown much. He's benefited from the love of a wise and patient woman; from Rocky's mentorship and the life-changing experience of helping Rock beat cancer ... but in Creed II, he greets every new milestone and curve with the bewilderment of an adolescent hothead. At times, the film feels less like Creed II than a hasty rewrite of Creed's first half. Donnie's mother, wife, trainers and ol' Rock handle him as gingerly as they would his newborn. The prospect of Donnie losing Rocky as a confidant and trainer is treated as a potential Mike Tyson/Cus D'Amato severing of the apron strings.

That's good for drama, I guess. Nobody's perfect, and the "daddy issues" that Frederick points out can be a valid basis for some spectacular character growth. But it just doesn't ring true at this point in the Creed saga that Adonis (especially played with a wary intelligence by Jordan) would be so blinded by insecurity and self-pity that he would act as impulsively as he does in the film's first half. But then I remembered that this episode was co-written by Stallone, author of the legendary "Hey, woman!" scene in Rocky III. In that scene, always-shouting nemesis Clubber Lang (Mr. T) baits Rocky at a press conference by making a pass at Adrian: "Why don't you bring your pretty li'l self to my apartment and I'll show you a real man." Chiseled, bespoke-tailored Superstar Rocky goes apeshit and lunges at him. The wry, pudgy Rock of the first movie probably would have just said something to make Clubber look profoundly silly, maybe something about his feathers and mohawk. He and Adrian would have shared a chuckle over it. (The more interesting (and no less race-baiting) idea in that scene being not that Rock's manhood is challenged but that, per Mickey's disgust, the new challenger represents the death of class and professionalism in the sport.) Rocky Balboa prime, uneducated and punchy though he be, is very emotionally intelligent. Much of the chemistry between Rocky and Adonis is founded upon that intelligence, the unspoken understandings. But this film is largely caught up with the priorities of '80s Rocky, of status and dominance. (Somebody should let Stallone make one of those Fifty Shades of Grey flicks.)

For managing this traffic of ideas, Stallone tropes and fan wish-lists, Caple is automatically as heroic as Coogler was handling the Creed and Black Panther properties. As I suspected, that interview you linked to confirms that Caple's personal way into the material was the Adonis-Bianca relationship and its resonance with the Rocky-Adrian romance; newlywed jitters and pregnancy titters. Caple takes up some of the Coogleresque (Coogly?) social agenda that Burns noted in Creed, in this case, as Henderson puts it, letting "Black love" occupy at least as much central screen time as the training montages and fights. I also spy a passionate defense of hip-hop swagger in sports, not as mere egoistic trash talk and preening but something in the spirit of both Muhammad Ali and WWE: unapologetic showmanship and personal expression for those who started (or are still at) the bottom. When Adonis enters the Drago rematch arena with his wife singing him down a gauntlet of synchronized lasers, I could imagine ol' Mick rising from the grave just to complain about the state of boxing.

I want to hear your "half-full" complaints, but also about the fun. We saw this movie with a packed house of vocal fans, a crowd cool enough to laugh when a dude yelled, "Get yo' ass up!" at Adonis onscreen, then face down on the canvas.

Abrams: Henderson's jokes about Ethel Merman and "Clobber Lang" are two of my favorite jabs, too. Though I am also really grateful (see what I did there?) for the belly laughs you gave me with the phrases "Coogly" and "a gauntlet of lasers," not to mention the image of Stallone directing Fifty Shades of Grey.

I also agree with much of what you said, with the exception of the Rocky III comparison (re: race-baiting and Clubber Lang). I think you need to follow that comparison through to the end: Rocky does inevitably fight Clubber Lang. There are two key words in that sentence: 1) "Lang," because we're not on such familiar terms with the character to call him by his first name (which in turn speaks to the issues of class and race that you smartly bring up) and 2) "inevitably," because that's just what Stallone movies do. I think it's telling that Caple says, in his interview, he was so starstruck when he first met Stallone that his first thought was "That's Rambo!" I also thought of Rambo when I watched Creed II, though partly because Rocky IV will forever be tied together with Rambo II in my mind (and not just because they came out months apart from each other in 1985. Rambo II was somehow the bigger box office hit that year, even though Rocky IV came out in time for Christmas, which I think says a lot about that film's pitch and ideal audience.

Still, I think it's important to think about Rambo when you think about Creed II, especially if you're already thinking about what's missing from this new sequel's grudge-match narrative, a story that's firmly rooted in fuzzy nostalgia. Just look at Ivan Drago and his son. I clapped along with our rowdy but mostly enthusiastic crowd when Mama Drago showed up (sorry/not sorry, but I'm a big fan of Brigitte Nielsen's very own 1985 success story, Red Sonja). I also like Baby Drago's fight scenes, since Munteanu is actually a trained fighter and the boxing scenes are, in fact, choreographed in a stirring way (I give Caple the lion's share of credit for realizing this particular aspect of the film's Stallone-y vision). I even liked seeing Ivan Drago sob a little; his first "Break him" command wound me up but good (I groaned at the next one, though).

But what's missing from Creed II is a two-fold thing. Ivan Drago (again, note the full name) is the enemy that Rambo fears he might have become had the American military-industrial complex (that he comes to mistrust after serving in Vietnam) kept using him. Ivan Drago is, in Rocky IV, a Frankenstein's monster that viewers are eventually asked to pity. He is chilly and aloof whenever he's not flat-out antagonistic (which is often). Ivan Drago's brutality in the ring (with Apollo) makes him an obviously loathsome villain, but Stallone also goes out of his way to show his opponent receiving steroids (IRONY ALERT) and using advanced computer technology. Ivan Drago is a machine designed to kill good people and that makes him...well, maybe not antiheroic, but certainly pathetic. See Ivan Drago break down in the ring after he loses to Rocky: Ivan's tears make him sympathetic in the Rocky canon, or maybe just soft enough to be human. Stallone has always tried to concede that government institutions (like the ones that made Rambo and Ivan Drago) are equally exploitative of working-class men with feeling 'n' stuff.

But that leads us to the final part of our discussion, the part that I feel will either make or break Creed II (ha ha ha, I said "break"): a consideration of the film as a men's weepy. I think Henderson's right when he says that the film works as male-oriented melodrama, but I also think there's room for criticism, too (as Henderson himself writes). 

Would you care for seconds, Mr. Boone? The playing field is yours.

Boone: I agree that Stallone's (the screenwriter) warrior characters tend to fight for self-determination versus "the game" that wants to use them only for profit, policy or propaganda. That's what Rocky, John Rambo (full name!), the Dragos and the Creeds have in common. It's just that in 1985, the anti-Communist "game" took precedence in Hollywood escapist cinema, while the capitalist greed of boxing promotion got a relative pass. This time around, all the pawns and palookas get permission to cry, or at least well up.

So we get Adonis cradling his baby daughter, Rocky hugging his estranged son, Drago pardoning Ivan's defeat. Whether or not you, the viewer, cry along probably depends on how close to home the whole toxic masculinity/daddy-issues thread strikes. That's because Creed II mostly has characters talk out the subtext, rather than dramatize it.

The most emotionally effective sequence for me was the brutal first bout between Adonis and Baby Drago. Caple moves the fight along efficiently but suspensefully, cutting away to Rocky watching on TV from his empty Philly restaurant. There's something terribly sad about that long shot from behind old Rocky's back in his empty bar, staring up at the screen and coaching desperately to no one. It hinted at a bluesier, less efficient movie — but I'll stop my own impotent screen-coaching right there.

Abrams: I think you just hit on (ho ho ho) why I ultimately like Creed II: It really is the cinematic equivalent of diner food. Sometimes, you want diner food. The problem isn't that it's diner food, but rather that diner food — as the de facto form of pop cuisine — can feel oppressive. Still, sometimes a greasy spoon is just a greasy spoon. I don't mean to be dismissive of Creed II's critics; all of the pieces that I quoted from are right-on in my book. But since this is a column where we think about how we think about movies, I have to say: I felt Creed II (slightly) more than I thought about it. So my reading of the film should probably be filed under "Understandable, But Not Commendable;" I await and accept your judgment.

Still, I think that you hit on (OK, OK, I'm backing away slowly) why I liked Creed II, though because I like a good pun and because I can't stop myself from getting in my own way...what were we talking about — oh, right, your paragraph about the boxing scenes. Or one boxing scene. I like the boxing scenes in general, but I think they are a great example of how Caple, as you noted, takes the film's melodramatic Stallone-isms and realizes them in dynamic enough ways. I often cheered with our audience, and not just because I wanted an excuse to cheer aloud in public: I was genuinely moved by Creed II's fight choreography. There's something about boxing movies that brings out the best in action movies; maybe it's the ring's small space, the sentiments that viewers attach to the sport, the set geometric pattern of the fighters' movements...something, something. Whatever it is: Creed II works in the ring, also because the film's two dueling leads work well together: Munteanu is good here in ways that he is not elsewhere in the film, and Jordan is typically charismatic as hell. I wanted to believe in them both and was given ample reasons to do so. 

Moreover, I like the way that Caple helps Stallone to announce: "OK, kid, you got me — I now genuinely believe in you and am fully in your corner." Look at the way Rocky sits thoughtfully at the edge of the boxing ring, with his li'l Creed jacket and everything. Look at the way that he fidgets with his hat and tells Adrian's tombstone that he needs to let Adonis shine without fully withdrawing. Heck, look at the scene where Rocky gawps at his grandson when he finally breaks down and visits his biological son. This is Stallone realizing, in his own time, that just because he's now an old man doesn't mean he's already a dead man. It's his way of accepting that he doesn't have to fade away just because his characters aren't only his characters anymore. Stallone is — as decades of set reports, profiles and interviews have shown us — a control freak when it comes to his image. But Creed II appears to be his way of clearing a path for the next Rocky, only he had to do it his way: by co-authoring Creed II's script (screenwriting has always been a source of Stallone's vanity and genius, even before he was nominated for an Oscar for Rocky's screenplay). Thankfully, Caple and Taylor gave Stallone's self-loving swan song enough muscle to leave a mark.

Boone: Sly's Diner will remain open as long as he lives, just like Clint's pub. Like Eastwood, Stallone has been saying goodbye but lingering in the doorway for 25 years. If he does manage to fully let go of the reins next time around, we may actually get to see something that's not just crudely satisfying, but also surprising and new.