The release of Black Panther this week need not only be marked on the calendars of Marvel super-fans. It’s good news for fans of director Ryan Coogler’s previous output, and not just because he’s brought along a great actor, Michael B. Jordan, from his earlier films. Black Panther will be Jordan’s third collaboration with Coogler, following 2013’s excellent Fruitvale Station, and 2015’s Creed. While this Rocky sequel-cum-reboot gifted Coogler a higher profile than his more modest feature debut was able to garner, he did far more than piggyback on an existing legacy. In short, One Room With a View loves Creed, and here’s why.
Coogler reinvigorated the Rocky franchise by conceiving a film that requires no previous knowledge of the saga (if only Marvel would try this tactic). Miraculously, it’s not weighed down by exposition, flashback, or the baggage of previous instalments. Coogler deftly weaves backstory (crucially not too much) with fresh character development for both new faces and old. The presence of Sylvester Stallone grounds the film within the Rocky legend without leaning on it, as does the connection to Balboa’s friend and fighting rival Apollo Creed. But instead of putting an aging Rocky (and Stallone, for that matter) back in the ring like Rocky Balboa (2006) and the copycat Grudge Match (2013), Coogler broke new ground for the franchise’s narrative, helped to establish a star, and brought Rocky to a whole new generation.
Michael B. Jordan is Adonis “Donnie” Creed – illegitimate son of Apollo – and a newcomer to Philadelphia, professional boxing, and the world of Rocky Balboa. As well as a means of telling a new story, this provides a route through the movie for younger audiences who didn’t grow up with the Rocky films. In terms of story and style, Coogler brings his trademark character-driven sensibility without disappointing in the gym or in the ring. Creed is a boxing movie after all, and Coogler gamely delivers the prerequisite dynamically-edited and well-soundtracked action.
In fact, on paper, Creed doesn’t sound like anything special. An underdog rises. A former hero ages. He acts as reluctant adviser, then loving mentor, to the newcomer. So far, so post-2000 Clint Eastwood. There are several training and fighting montages. Our protagonists grow closer. The stakes are upped, both in and out of the ring. What elevates Creed above other 21st century boxing movies is its superlative character writing and acting. It is therefore perhaps a contributing factor to the recent renewal of interest in the sports movie subgenre represented by last year’s Jawbone and Paddy Considine’s forthcoming Journeyman. Both are British boxing flicks that seemingly aim to reinvent their predecessors in grittier contexts.
The British low-budget realism that permeates Jawbone is actually anticipated in Creed, despite its Hollywood scale and star-studded cast. The film’s climax and the high-stakes fight that will make or break Donnie’s chances of a boxing career take place in, of all places, Liverpool. (This also makes Creed an interesting precursor to the mashup of British mundanity and superstardom in Paul McGuigan’s recent Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool).
In casting Jordan, Coogler allowed the actor’s sensitivity – which also shines in Fruitvale Station – room to breathe while also enabling him to convincingly embody a boxer’s physicality. Donnie isn’t just a fighter; he’s a living, breathing man. Some of Jordan’s best work in the film is in scenes he shares with Tessa Thompson, who portrays Donnie’s neighbour and love interest Bianca. The character of Bianca is a fascinating addition to a film largely focussed on male ambition.
Although Creed, in one of its more clichéd moves, does make much of Rocky’s physical decline (again, this is Eastwoodesque), it does provide the fresher complication of twenty-something Bianca living with a degenerative hearing impairment. This disrupts and complicates a potentially simplistic portrayal of male aging as physical decline paired with increasing wisdom (the latter expressed in Rocky’s mentoring of Donnie). In addition, a character who could have been just another ringside girlfriend is fleshed out in her own right. And such is the strength of Tessa Thompson’s performance that it makes her BAFTA Rising Star Award nomination look a few years too late, particularly as Creed was preceded by an even more impressive lead appearance in Justin Simien’s Dear White People.
Coogler’s Creed may not be a total reinvention, but it’s a recalibration for a new age and a new generation that nevertheless keeps its arms wide open to longstanding Rocky fans. Perhaps that’s a compromise between a rehash and something truly original, but it may also be the best a new director can do with an existing franchise. Coogler’s evident respect for the Rocky canon likely helped instill Marvel bigwigs with the belief that he’s a safe pair of hands to take on a slice of the precious MCU. Thankfully for us, he’s far more than that. Forget Creed II, let’s see something new from Coogler. Bring on Black Panther.