So most of us are doing this thing where we fall in love with Creed and then freak out about it and gush about it. It’s pretty cool and fun. Definitely one of my favorite things about 2015 movies.
One of the reasons I think Creed’s working so well and affecting so many people is that it’s not just plot. Like, Southpaw was something like 10% plot, 1% water, and 89% depressing as fuck. Creed is concerned with things like characters, subplots, development, mise-en-scene, annnnnnnnnnnd my favorite thing! Theme!
That theme? Identity issues! From its title, to its dialogue, to its plot points, Creed makes sure we know the movie is about Adonis Creed having identity issues.
There are four moments in this thematic development that I’m in love with. Why do I love them? Because they go beyond just being plot points, they’re moments that merge plot, image, and theme, to do what only cinema can do: [insert something smart here].
Little Kid Adonis and The Body Language Moment
Before the title card, in the film’s opening sequence, we have Little Kid Adonis fighting at juvy. At this point in his life, Adonis has no idea who his father was. His biological mother is dead. He fights all the time.
After his fight, a woman comes to see him. During their conversation, Little Kid Adonis is all seething angst. He won’t face the women. His tone is angry. And he keeps one fist clenched the whole time. That is until the woman tells him his father was Apollo Creed, and she’s Apollo’s wife/widow. She asks Adonis if he wants to live with her. At this point, Adonis relaxes his fist. We even have a close up of the hand so we don’t miss it.
The hand gesture is obvious. I know, I know. It’s not some grand cinematic moment of mise-en-scene subtly.
But it captures the entire character tension of Adult Adonis. He’s a sweet guy that has anger issues. He doesn’t want to be as angry as he is. But he is. Even though Little Kid Adonis unclenches his fist, that doesn’t banish what’s gnawing at him. Throughout the movie we watch Adult Adonis continue to struggle with issues of who he is and if he’s good enough. He’s still a trembling fist.
So Little Kid Adonis’s fist being closed and then opening, that moment seems really cliche, but it’s actually pretty deep because it’s a physical representation of the plot we’re about to watch: Adonis’s learning to stop fighting who he is. That’s a high-level technique that most movies don’t employ. We see it in the opening to Fight Club. The film starts in Jack’s head, with the chemical processes, the synapses firing, blood cells, etc. It’s really micro and dark. We travel through that internal-scape until we exit through Jack’s skin. And that’s really what Fight Club is about: Jack getting outside his own head.
Angsty Adult Adonis shadowing boxing a video projection
Rappers and poets often reference rappers and poets that were famous before them. For example, T.S. Eliot in his poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” has these lines of supreme social anxiety:
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;
That is not it, at all.”
That was 1920. The line about squeezing the world into a ball? That’s referring to these lines from 1650s “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell.
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
Marvell’s poem is about a guy trying to convince a girl to have sex. It’s very confident, using the language that 1650s poets used. Trust me, in 1650 women loved dudes saying, “Hey baby, lets you and me act like amorous birds of prey.”
Eliot wanted to show his chops by referring to Marvell, but also wanted to contrast his work against Marvell’s, to highlight the timidity of Prufrock by turning the lines of a confident work into the lines uttered by an awkward, awkward man. It’s beautiful. This isn’t just allusion or reference, it’s not just a shout out, it’s an artist using someone else’s work to give their own more depth.
Check out what Kendrick Lamar did with Jay-Z.
Jay-Z’s track “Thank You” has:
I was gonna kill a couple rappers, but they did it to themselves
I was goin’ do it with the flow, but they did it with their sales
In “King Kunta”, Kendrick says,
I was gonna kill a couple rappers but they did it to themselves
Everybody’s suicidal, they ain’t even need my help
We see Jay’s lines sticking to the game and business. Kendrick’s entire album is about violence, so when he says he was going to kill a couple rappers, he was being literal. And that means the idea of the rappers being suicidal: that was literal too. So he takes a clever yet superficial Jay-Z line and made it societal commentary on violence in black culture. Where Eliot took Marvell’s confidence and made it awkward, Kendrick takes Jay’s bragging word play and makes it depressing and real.
Movie plots are very capable of doing the same thing.
A famous example is The Untouchables riffing on Russian revolutionary film Battleship Potemkin. In the original, we see the military as terrifying and the reason the baby is knocked down the stairs and it doesn’t end well for the baby. In Untouchables, the federal agents are the reason the baby is knocked down the stairs, but they save the baby the way good guys save babies. By alluding to Potemkin, Untouchables gains depth of purpose. Is it comparing Russia to America? Is it making a statement about federal agents? Or maybe it’s just an homage that has no meaning. I don’t think there’s a right answer, but there’s at least something to discuss!
We have a visual clue from the Force Awakens trailer that Episode VII will have a moment that riffs on Apocalypse Now.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens:
Before Adonis moves to Philly to go all-in on becoming a professional boxer, he has a night watching one of the matches between Apollo Creed and Rocky Balboa. Because his mom is wealthy, they have a fancy projector. So the fight’s projected onto the wall. The image is huge.
Adonis is, at this point, like anyone else. He’s someone sitting in front of a screen, watching a match between Rocky and Apollo. One of the matches from Rocky or Rocky II. But then, tired of watching, too caught up in studying the fight and his urge to box, Adonis gets up. Standing in front of the projection, Adonis mimics the fight. He throws punches as Rocky or Apollo throws a punch. He moves as they move. He’s trying to be like Rocky and Apollo. He wants to be as good as Rocky and Apollo.
What elevates this moment, for me, is the fact that the fight is now projected onto Adonis. So it’s not just him watching it on a TV screen or something. He’s standing in front of the projected image, which means the image plays on Adonis. I can’t begin to tell you how awesome I think that is. The entire point of this movie is to transition the Rocky franchise from Rocky to Adonis. That’s why it’s called Creed. So this moment of the Rocky/Apollo fight projected onto Adonis is a physical manifestation of that purpose. It works as a visual representation of the transition that’s taking place.
The moment also gets into the theme of Adonis figuring out who he is. At this point, he isn’t a great boxer. He isn’t a champion. He’s still scared of being his father’s son. He still doesn’t want to use the name “Creed”. There’s still a complex, painful relationship he has with his father. We’re watching him imitating being a great box, imitating being a Creed. It’s not a sad scene, but when you stop to think about it….it is sort of sad.
Adonis Goes Super Saiyan and The Philly Kids on the bikes
In the first Rocky, Rocky has a training montage that has the micro-narrative of the people of Philly rooting for Rocky. They cheer Rocky as he runs down the street, the kids chase after him. He’s embraced by the people of Philadelphia.
That idea of being part of Philadelphia is one of the subplots of Creed. Rocky says a few times that Philly is a place for fighters. That there’s something about the city that makes fighters great. When Adonis first arrives, he’s an outsider. He’s from LA. He’s never had a cheese steak (the fool). He’s nicknamed Hollywood by the derisive boxers at Micky’s old gym.
Adonis has to earn his spot in Philly. I’m not sure how successful this sublot actually is. But the payoff is the scene with Adonis running down the street and the biker kids rolling with him.
This culminates in Adonis stopping before the gym, roaring, striking his chest, calling out to Rocky who’s smiling from a second floor window, while the biker kids surround Adonis and cheer with him, all of this in slow motion while intense rap music plays.
I actually like this scene. The music. The intensity. Though part of me thinks it’s melodramatic, but whatever. What wins me over is the fact that it’s not just there for a “nice moment”. It’s there to complete the idea that Adonis has shed his “Hollywood” persona and is now part of Philadelphia. It’s a way to, again, give an intangible theme a physical form. The same as the fist, the same as Adonis boxing in front of the projection.
This is why I’m a fan of Creed. Not just for the action, not just for the characters, but for the subtle ways the film merges theme, image, and action.
The Final Fight
At the end of big, climactic fight, Adonis doesn’t win. He comes close. But, like in Rocky, the hero loses by judges’ decision. Yet, like in Rocky, the hero has won the respect of the crowd and the world. The entire arena chants, “Creed. Creed. Creed. Creed. Creed.” I think someone has the on-the-nose dialogue of Adonis saying something like “Adonis has earned the name Creed.” That makes Creed as much of an origin story as Batman Begins or Thor or Iron Man or Untitled Marvel Project 57 to be released May 2022.
This moment is the payoff of Creed’s identity-driven theme.
The tension and fear that Adonis has felt because he’s always been unsure if he’s good enough to be his father’s son, to be a Creed? That’s over. He can relax. This pays off on the fist clenching/unclenching.
The desire to be as good as Rocky and Apollo, to be like Apollo, that desire we saw externalized by having Adonis shadowbox while a Rocky/Apollo fight’s projected onto him? That’s desire’s realized. Adonis has had the fight. He’s thrown the punches. The crowd cheered for him.
This also pays off on the moment where Adonis is on the couch, where he was, for a brief time, the same as the rest of us: someone who watched Rocky and Apollo fight on their TV. Except he went from being like us to being like them, in the ring while we cheer on. He’s no longer on the outside. He is the franchise. I’m really pumped sitting here reliving the movie. I need to go run. Or punch something. Or punch someone. Or just go watch Creed again. Or get ice cream. Mm. Ice cream.