Expectations can be a tricky thing. Take for instance, carrying the name of a champion. It can feel like a burden that one has to live up to, whether one is ready or not. It sets the bar unreasonably high right off the hop and can muddy the genuine achievement – like being the child of a Nobel Laureate, or musical icon. Likewise, there’s the expectation that comes with being part of a checkered movie franchise. Thoughts coming in can be that of a studio cashing in; of a once proud tale being driven even deeper into the ground.
But what happens when the child becomes the champion? And what happens when the franchise gets revived?
Such is the story of CREED.
Adonis “Donnie” Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) had a rough boyhood. Never knowing his birth parents, he was bounced around from group home to group home until one day a woman walks into a juvenile detention centre offering to take him in. In introducing herself, she reveals that she was married to Donnie’s father before he passed away, and that his father’s name was Apollo Creed.
Seventeen years after that first meeting, life has drastically changed for Donnie. He now has a high-paying job in a financial firm, and has been living comfortably under his foster mother’s roof for some time. He also takes weekend trips down to Mexico to chase his true passion; to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a boxer. One day, he resigns from his high-paying job, and confesses to his mother that he wants to go pro as a boxer.
Having already lost one man in her life in the ring, she is understandably less-than-enthused.
After striking-out finding a trainer in Los Angeles, Donnie travels across the country to Philadelphia: the site of his father’s most famous match. It’s there that he seeks out an old man who was once a local legend and now makes a humble living running a restaurant. The man is Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), and Donnie is hoping his father’s name might stir something in Rocky and convince him to be is trainer.
While Rocky agrees to help him only in the most general of ways, Donnie becomes close with his downstairs neighbour Bianca (Tessa Thompson). Listening to her music, and seeing the way she has risen above her own limitations inspires something in Adonis – even if he still won’t cop to his father’s surname, hoping instead to make it on his own merit.
Soon though, in the wake of his first pro fight on home soil, the cat is let out of the bag. His identity as a Creed is laid bare for all to know, and that leads opportunity to come calling. The Light Heavyweight Champion, Pretty Ricky Conlon needs an opponent for a big-ticket fight in England, and in a move evocative of Balboa’s own career beginnings, offers the title shot to Donnie – a relative unknown.
The title shot is there for the taking. How Rocky and Donnie plan to fight the fight, and make peace with their individual pasts, will determine how they take it.
CREED is about trying to outrun a ghost and measure up to a legacy. So many of us have a piece of our past that looms large over our shoulder. It could be for better, it could be for worse. It could be anything from a feeling of inadequacy to a moment of truth we cannot seem to shake. For those affected by these legacies and haunted by these ghosts, dealing with them day-to-day can be a fight within itself.
You can push, and you can run, and you can do dedicate every ounce of your desire to pushing past these obstacles. However, the truth of the matter, as Rocky points out, is that any time one looks in the mirror one is reminded of these very obstacles. How are you supposed to beat an opponent that one carries along every step of the way?
What the cast and story structure of CREED seem to conclude is that the only way to win such a fight is to embrace it with both arms and wear it like a badge of honour.
For Donnie, this means both putting aside his pride, and understanding that he is his father’s son. He doesn’t want any favours, doesn’t want to draw comparisons. The path he wants to walk is that of reverse-nepotism, where doors that could be opened on his name alone are welded shut from shame. Donnie doesn’t want to face the awkward conversations – and worse yet, prompt the whispers – that revealing his identity would bring about. So instead, he goes about it the hard way…taking a much harder road to boxing success, and carrying a heavy burden of shame on his back.
What people like Donnie don’t realize – what they fight to understand – is that it doesn’t matter how they arrived into this life. They are here now, and what happened in the past holds no bearing on what they make of their own future.
For Rocky, this means embracing his highest high and staring hard at one of his lowest lows. His days of strutting about Philadelphia are long gone. His fedora is far more rumpled, and his gait is much slower than it once was. While there are many back in his home gym that would bend over backwards for his tutelage, Rocky is hampered by embarrassment and prefers to stay away from a ring…even if it would help many other fighters like Donnie. What’s more, in Donnie, he’s reminded of his greatest opponent in the ring, and the man whose life he could have saved.
It can be difficult for former champions to live up to their former selves, but it can be even more difficult for any ordinary human to be reminded of their worst mistake.
It’s the way this film grafts so many of these conflicts into its narrative that makes it so wonderful…but that too begs one final question:
If this film speaks to the part of us that is trying to outrun the past, and we all know what happened in the past, how can the film possibly expect to succeed?
How can it hope to stir our emotions and make our hearts swell when we can look into the past and see precisely where it will take us? Quite simply; it succeeds by honouring its past. It takes the hero we once idolized, and has him look at us and say that he believes. It grafts elements of that hero on to a scrappy new protagonist, making us care for him the way we once cared for his corner man. It makes the past the present, and makes us believe that it will lead the way to a better future.
It appeals to our heart – where those ghosts hurt us the deepest, but where the emotion of witnessing one rise above it all swells the most. It’s the place where the courage to rise above ghosts and legacies is strongest, and where even a million to one shot seems like odds in our favour.