While watching Creed II, the sequel to the first Creed, I had an epiphany: I just don’t care. I don’t mean that I didn’t care about Michael B. Jordan, a great actor who plays Adonis Creed. I mean I didn’t care about Creed II itself — in much the same way that I didn’t care about the original Creed back in 2015. Many people loved Creed, considering it a thoughtful, emotionally engaging refurbishing of the Rocky franchise. Me, I thought it played into the conventions too easily — essentially, it was an old Rocky movie with a new actor. Creed II is more of the same, which made me realize that, to a degree, maybe the problem isn’t the movies. Maybe the problem is me. It’s time I should finally admit something to myself: I hate Rocky movies.
Okay, hate is probably overstating it. The first Rocky, which won Best Picture, is very good. But it created a formula, and for the last 40 years Sylvester Stallone and others have been milking that formula to make increasingly worse Rocky movies. To be sure, Creed and Creed II are several steps up from, say, Rocky V, but at their core, they’re still dumb Rocky movies.
On one level, there’s an automatic-pilot pleasure to watching a Rocky movie. As played by Stallone with lovable-dumbbell charm, Rocky is a regular guy with a good heart. He has a dream — to be the champ, or to win back his crown, or to get a shot at redemption, or whatever specifically is happening in that particular Rocky movie — and so he’s always positioned as the underdog worth rooting for. The film’s formulaic narrative suspense is easy to get sucked into:
Will people count Rocky out?
They sure will.
Will he have to train vigorously to get back into peak physical and mental condition?
You know it!
Will he ultimately triumph, proving that he hasn’t just defeated his opponent but, also, the internal obstacles holding him back?
C’mon, man, of course he will — this is a Rocky movie.
As someone who’s loved sports all my life, I completely understand the allure of Rocky movies. Even with most mediocre sports films, I have no problem getting swept away when the main character’s team beats the other team during the big contest at the end. Sports are exciting! They’re full of emotions and drama! Sports movies are exactly the same, and I never tire of that rush of watching people do amazing things on the court/diamond/field/rink/track.
So why do Rocky movies leave me cold? I think it’s partly to do with their cookie-cutter nature. But it’s also because of Stallone. When the first Rocky came out, he was a struggling actor who wrote a script about a struggling boxer, and you could sense that he played this character as a way to work through his own insecurities about maybe never amounting to anything. That bit of autobiography gave Rocky its heart. In subsequent years, Stallone became one of Hollywood’s biggest movie stars, but I can’t say I have much affection for anything he’s made since. A string of forgettable 1980s action movies, plus the Rambo films, then the occasional attempt to be a serious actor (Cop Land), then the late-career resurgence thanks to The Expendables … it’s a deep résumé, but not an especially artistically rich one.
If that last statement offends you, then you’re probably more inclined to love Creed and Creed II than I did. These films are meant to focus on Adonis’ journey, but there’s also a lot of Rocky in them since he plays Creed’s trainer. It’s obvious why Adonis would seek out the Italian Stallion: Rocky and Adonis’ father Apollo Creed were best friends. But Rocky doesn’t exactly fade into the background in the Creed movies — they’re very much about chronicling Rocky as he reaches the end of his life, reflecting on the fact that his loved ones, especially his beloved wife Adrian, are gone. But even that theme’s not particularly novel for this franchise: Rocky’s aging has been a plot point since around Rocky IV, and it’s always been based around the filmmakers’ assumption that you really, really care about Rocky. But I just don’t — and these movies insist that I have to.
It’s telling that my favorite parts of Creed and Creed II have nothing to do with training montages or what goes on in the ring. I like all the other stuff where Adonis is spending time with his girlfriend Bianca (the always-great Tessa Thompson). Their relationship is so lived-in and nuanced that the movies come alive when they’re hanging out and talking. But there’s only so much room for that in a Rocky movie — Creed’s gotta fight somebody, after all, so he can prove that he’s overcome his demons or whatever.
Creed II, which Stallone co-wrote, solves this problem in a pretty silly way. It turns out Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) has a kid, Viktor (Florian Munteanu), who’s an incredible boxer — and now, he wants to have him square off with Adonis. It’ll be like Rocky IV all over again! (Seriously, they should have called this movie Rocky IV II.) So not only does Adonis have to go through the motions of preparing for the bout, he also has to go through another round of dime-store-psychology therapy sessions during his training with Rocky where he unlocks some deep anxieties in order to be emotionally ready for the fight. (Creed II doesn’t feature the line, “Your greatest opponent is the person staring back at you in the mirror,” but I’m pretty sure at least four other films in this franchise have.)
To say that the dullest moments in Creed II are the Rocky-iest elements is probably ridiculous. (Would you take anyone seriously who said, “Yeah, I like these Star Wars movies, but why do they have to always have lightsaber battles?”) After all, the franchise conventions are what you’re paying to see. But around the time that Adonis stepped back into the ring for a second go-round with Viktor — he lost the first fight, and now he needs a shot at redemption! — I mostly found myself staring at the mechanics of plot conventions slowly grinding away. It’s strange to be 42-years deep into a thing that means less than nothing to me. But don’t weep for me: Imagine how it must feel nowadays for people who don’t care about superhero movies.
Here are three other takeaways from Creed II…
#1. There’s an art to a training montage.
Team America: World Police made fun of lots of action-film conventions, but one of the best bits is when they spoof training montages with the song “Montage,” which helpfully explains what, exactly, a montage does plot-wise. (Sample lyrics: “Show a lot of things happening at once / Remind everyone of what’s going on / And with every shot you show a little improvement / To show it all would take too long.”)
At one point, the singer declares, “You need a montage / Even Rocky had a montage,” and of course, the training montages in the Rocky films are ground zero for this kind of sped-up narrative short cut.
Looking at the different training montages in Rocky movies, it’s remarkable how slick they got over time. Here’s the iconic one from the first film, which was directed by John G. Avildsen and scored by Bill Conti, who composed the iconic song “Gonna Fly Now” specifically for the sequence.
“The director asked me if I could provide him with about a minute and a half worth of music so he could cut together a montage,” Conti later recalled, but that soon ballooned as the sequence got longer and longer. The rest, as they say, is musical history. (Amazingly, “Gonna Fly Now” became a No. 1 hit on the Billboard charts.)
In subsequent Rocky films, which were directed by Stallone, the training montages became more and more intricate and outlandish. By the time of Rocky IV, the montage was practically telling the film’s story in miniature: On one side, you had Rocky working with the most primitive training techniques, while on the other you had super-fancy Ivan Drago using all his evil Russian steroids and advanced technology.
As director Robert Rodriguez has said, the Rocky training montages are “almost like musical arrangements,” and the later montages in the series start to feel like self-contained music videos. (Between Rocky movies and Flashdance, mainstream films were heavily indebted to MTV’s rising popularity in the 1980s.) They do seem a bit dated now — an easy target for a film like Team America — but that didn’t stop Creed and Creed II from doing them without apology. And if you’re wondering if Creed II’s epic desert training sequence is a reference to the snowy montage in Rocky IV, you’re not imagining things. Director Steven Caple Jr. admitted as much in a recent interview:
“I think we’ve seen many montages, especially in the Rocky movies, and then what we wanted to do was take it out of the snow and bring it into the desert. What is he lifting there, what can we lift here? Those kind of elements to, you know, have a nice little homage to Rocky IV, yeah, where he was in the desert.”
It’s not quite the same without Rocky IV’s cheesy 1980s synth music, though.
#2. The ‘Creed’ movies are a good reminder that sports media personalities are dumb.
In some films, the fictional characters will turn on a real-life talk show or cable news program to learn some valuable piece of information. (One of the cleverest examples — and most ethically dubious — of recent times was Wolf Blitzer’s super-meta appearance in the latest Mission: Impossible film.) It’s meant to add authenticity — “Hey, I watch Conan! I know that show!” — but the gimmick can also underline how silly so many television personalities really are.
That’s especially true of sports talking heads, who tend to be more photogenic and “intense” than they are thoughtful or interesting. Creed and Creed II feature a few recognizable media personalities who, through their actual programs, comment on Adonis Creed and his development. It’s helpful exposition so that non-boxing people can understand the stakes. But for the rest of us, it means being subjected to Max Kellerman against our will.
In Creed, we watch a segment of Pardon the Interruption where hosts Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon discuss Adonis Creed and whether he can live up to his famous father’s legacy. As someone who’s only recently gotten into PTI — I’m a sucker for the sight of Wilbon looking ridiculous as he rifles through his litany of “get off my lawn” rants — I was actually impressed how faithful the Creed segment was to the actual experience of watching the show. Tony is the reasonable one, while Wilbon kinda comes off as a dope. (Sadly, I couldn’t find footage of this segment online, but I have to hand it to Reddit posters, who pointed out that the episode’s list of discussion topics would work just as well now as they did back in 2015.)
This brings us to Kellerman, who in Creed II appears alongside his HBO cohost Jim Lampley as they do play-by-play during Creed’s bout with Drago’s kid. I find Kellerman symptomatic of these kinds of bozos I avoid on ESPN. He talks in a declaratory way that’s meant to sound authoritative. Mostly, it just feels performative and exhausting.
Are the Creed movies subtly suggesting that part of the anguish of being a champion boxer — beyond the physical demands, emotional toll and almost certain permanent brain damage — is that you have to be around idiots like this all the time? Sure feels like it. Could be worse, though: At least Dan Patrick hasn’t put in an appearance yet.
#3. Let’s quickly recap how everyone who was part of the ‘Fantastic Four’ debacle is doing today.
In a short time, Michael B. Jordan has gone from rising star to major A-lister thanks to the Creed films and Black Panther. Before those movies, though, he had another high-profile project that crashed and burned. Remember the 2015 reboot of Fantastic Four, which got terrible reviews and did very little business? Before word started leaking out that the film was a disaster, it seemed a promising launching pad for a group of young actors and a hot new director. Alas, Fantastic Four flamed out.
But how are its four stars and filmmaker doing now? Did they survive the carnage? A quick overview:
- Miles Teller (Mister Fantastic): With acclaimed turns in The Spectacular Now and Whiplash, Teller seemed poised for stardom. But since Fantastic Four, he’s scuffled. He was long attached to La La Land, written and directed by Whiplash filmmaker Damien Chazelle, but either bolted or was passed over for Ryan Gosling, depending on whom you ask. And while he’s done good work in the recent dramas Thank You for Your Service and Only the Brave, neither film made a dent at the box office. Don’t feel too bad for him, though: He’s going to be in the long-awaited Top Gun sequel.
- Michael B. Jordan (Human Torch): All’s good with Jordan. Soon, he’ll be reuniting with director Ryan Coogler (with whom he made Fruitvale Station, Creed and Black Panther) for Wrong Answer, based on a true story of a group of Atlanta teachers who started a test-cheating ring. That could be a major Oscar movie — and Jordan’s in the awards conversation this year for a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role as Killmonger in Black Panther.
- Kate Mara (Invisible Woman): Mara had a steady career before Fantastic Four, perhaps most famously appearing on 24 and playing a savvy reporter who beds Frank Underwood in House of Cards. She’d also done a ton of films, including We Are Marshall and 127 Hours, but the expectation was that the Marvel movie would be a big stepping stone. That didn’t happen, although she’s been good in everything from The Martian to Chappaquiddick since.
- Jamie Bell (The Thing): Bell’s been famous for almost two decades now: The English actor was the child star of Billy Elliot. But it’s always a challenge to make the leap from kid actor to adult actor, and Bell has done it rather successfully, working with Steven Spielberg, Lars von Trier and Clint Eastwood by the time Fantastic Four came into his life. That movie would have made him a bigger box-office draw, but its commercial failure curtailed that possibility. I think Bell will be okay, though: He’s next going to be in the big Elton John biopic Rocketman playing John’s longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin. Also, he and Kate Mara started dating because of Fantastic Four and got married last year.
- Josh Trank (Fantastic Four director): Not that long ago, Trank seemed like the next big thing. Off the success of his clever 2012 low-budget thriller Chronicle, which costarred Jordan, Trank was in high demand, signing a deal to reboot Fantastic Four and helm one of the standalone Star Wars movies. Everything was looking great … and then reports surfaced that Trank’s Fantastic Four set was a total disaster. According to people who spoke with The Hollywood Reporter, he trashed the rental house where he was staying during the shoot, and while he was on set, he “holed up in a tent and cut himself off from everybody.” Word of his bad behavior subsequently got him booted from his Star Wars film, although Trank insisted that his original cut of Fantastic Four was really great, even though no one will ever see it. So, that was the end of his Hollywood career, right? Nope, next year, he’ll be releasing Fonzo, about Al Capone, who’s played by Venom star Tom Hardy.
So, all in all, everybody ended up okay after Fantastic Four. Except for all of us who had to watch it, of course.