Creed II isn’t Creed. Co-writers Sylvester Stallone and Juel Taylor know it. Director Steven Caple Jr. knows it. We, the audience, know it.
As the eighth movie in the Rocky series and the second in the story of Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Jordan), Creed II also serves as a direct sequel to the infamous Rocky IV, where Rocky (Stallone) defeated the Soviet Union’s most powerful boxer, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), as revenge for the death of his friend and rival, Apollo Creed (Donnie’s father).
The first Creed set itself apart from the overall Rocky franchise as a soft reboot of sorts. It acknowledged itself as part of that storied cinematic legacy but made the heart of the Rocky franchise work for its own scrappy ethos. Creed II is about that legacy. It isn’t the lightning bolt of the first film but it has a power all its own.
The weight of legacy drives Creed II. The film picks up a few years after the first, with Donny claiming the World Heavyweight Championship. The end of the first movie was similar to the first Rocky, with Creed going the distance but not winning his big fight. That loss is in the rearview mirror. He celebrates his new status by proposing to Bianca (Tessa Thompson), but their new life together is put on hold when the Dragos come to Philly and request a match. Donnie, a hothead, can’t say no to the opportunity. Rocky disagrees.
The trailers for Creed II advertise the big fight match Donnie and Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), the son of Ivan. “It’s Shakespearian,” an announcer exclaims within the film itself. Sure. Even within the narrative, the bout between Creed and Drago is seen as a cash-in, a marketing gimmick. But somehow Creed II is just smarter than that. It isn’t Creed, and it knows it, unpacks it, gains its strength from it.
In the first film, Donnie wanted desperately to earn the right to his surname. The bastard son of heavyweight legend Apollo, Donnie knew there was something more for him that could only be found in the ring. Being the champion creates new questions for him: He’s already won. He’s Creed. What next? For what does he fight now? It’s a question he asks himself and a question Stallone must have had to seriously ask himself when writing a sequel to what could’ve been the rousing epilogue to his signature series. Stallone ultimately settles on answers familiar to the franchise — family, love, that sweet, sweet corny stuff.
Donnie’s journey to his new mindset is fun to watch, but wouldn’t be half as powerful if the film didn’t feature enough father-son relationships to feel like a dissertation: Apollo / Donnie; Rocky / Donnie; Rocky / Robert (his son from previous films) and, of course, Ivan / Viktor. In Rocky IV, Drago is a cartoon villain: ‘roided to the max, mostly silent, evil. Here he’s a deeply human man whose loss in 1985 destroyed his and his family’s reputation. Viktor, his only son, has become his road back to legitimacy — regardless of the cost.
Watching Rocky and Ivan deal with their issues as old, over-the-hill men would mean absolutely nothing if we didn’t care about Donnie and Bianca, so thank god for Jordan and Thompson, whose careers have both skyrocketed since the first movie.
Whatever else Creed II succeeds at, retroactively adding real weight to elements of Rocky IV may be its most unexpected accomplishment.
Creed II isn’t Creed, and thank god it didn’t try. The first, written and directed by Ryan Coogler, is as close as we’ll probably ever get to another visionary playing with Stallone’s toys. That’s fine! The first is a raw, personal movie. This one is mythmaking, taking the emotions that guided its predecessor and blowing them up to epic scale. It’s a movie that dives head-on into what it means to carry on a legacy and to create your own.