When Creed was released in 2015, it faced a myriad of obstacles. How would it successfully reinvigorate a beloved 40-year-old franchise that had been sitting idle for almost a decade? What should it do with the main character defined by boxing, that can no longer box? How would it introduce brand new characters and stories but still honor the legacy of everything that came before it? The combination of Ryan Coogler, Sylvester Stallone, and Michael B. Jordan came together flawlessly to resoundingly answer all of these questions and knock down all of the obstacles that stood in their way.
With Creed II, director Steven Caple, Jr. was staring at arguably greater challenges. As with any sequel, this film needed to build upon the newly-established characters in meaningful ways that would continue to resonate with audiences. The element of surprise was going to be harder to come by in the sequel. It could not turn the Rocky franchise on its head in ways the first Creed did. And the biggest challenge of all arose from the decision to steer the story directly into the heart of Rocky nostalgia for many fans — Rocky IV — by revisiting Ivan Drago. Thankfully, Caple, Jr. has crafted a sequel that continues the journey for our beloved characters while honoring the franchise in a way that hasn’t quite been seen before even from Coogler’s Creed.
Fans of the Rocky saga will immediately recognize the thematic parallels between Creed II and previous movies. There is the pacing of Rocky II which focuses more on the main character’s development outside of the ring through self-exploration and family relationships. Adonis’ journey as it relates to boxing is more akin to the hero’s quest archetype Rocky experiences in Rocky III. And then there are the obvious connections to Rocky IV that serve as the foundation for the story and is explored throughout the entire film. But for those that aren’t as well versed in Rocky lore, these themes are still very relatable since part of what makes the franchise so successful is its ability to connect with audiences on core emotional levels that are familiar to everyone.
In a refreshing shakeup to the Rocky formula, the writers of Creed II opted to move away from the one-dimensional bad guys of previous films and instead delivered multi-faceted villains that border on anti-heroes. Ivan Drago is infamously (and intentionally) shallow in Rocky IV, but in Creed II, both he and his son Viktor are fleshed out as characters with true emotional depth. This gives them significance to the story that matches their counterparts, Rocky and Adonis. In turn, the audience finds itself in a situation where for the first time in the entire series, they may not be entirely sure what outcome they want in the inevitable final clash between Viktor and Adonis.
Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone continue to develop an on-screen relationship that feels like the most poignant of the entire series. Jordan’s raw, non-verbal emotional moments hit hard at just the right times. Stallone’s take on the aged Rocky filled with sage advice seems to be the most perfect form of the character that is approaching its natural, inevitable conclusion. Tessa Thompson and Phylicia Rashad are cast perfectly as a melded Adrian 2.0. The two combine to be the modern embodiment of the phrase “behind every great man, there is a great woman” — a staple of the Rocky films. And while Dolph Lundgren and Florian Munteanu aren’t given a lot of dialogue, they deliver it poignantly and support it with interactions that add weight to the strained family dynamic of the Dragos.
Though the film feels like it is missing a bit of Ryan Coogler’s Midas touch in some areas (filming of boxing scenes, emotional resonance, and dialog strength), Steven Caple, Jr. has delivered a very worthy sequel that can be enjoyed equally by fans of Creed, Rocky, and newcomers alike. Creed II may not be the knockout punch the first film was, but it is a successful title defense for a franchise that it is the undisputed champion of sports movies.