Ryan Coogler’s Creed was a masterful return to a well-worn franchise. Written and directed by the budding auteur, the 2015 film succeeded in a number of important ways, including radically shifting the series’s problematic racial dynamics and making its star Michael B. Jordan one of Hollywood’s few bona fide leading black men. By interrogating one of film history’s most persistent foundational myths, Coogler orchestrated a kind of narrative coup, using one of Hollywood’s favorite white saviors as the springboard for a renewed story about redemption, loss, and legacy. But despite its own individual merits, this year’s sequel, Creed II, fails to quite live up to the potential of its predecessor, and Coogler himself seems to be the essential missing ingredient.
To be clear, the film (directed this time by Steven Caple Jr.) is far from bad, and those looking for an exciting sports film will be more than satisfied by its buzzy momentum. The performances throughout are mostly still as solid as ever. The chemistry between Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) and Bianca (Tessa Thompson) is electric but tender, and the progression of their relationship is one of the movie’s true delights. Jordan brings a dizzy, panicked energy to his scenes with Thompson that reveal Creed’s ever-present need to impress her. It’s a sweet shorthand to impress upon the audience that despite his new successes, he continues to regard a disabled black woman as worthy of a well-considered romance. The scenes between Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) and Adonis are also bustling with true tenderness, rare moments of sentimentality between straight male characters not weighed down by the looming threat of gay panic.
But the story itself feels aimless and dry. After all, the entire plot disappears if Adonis simply chooses not to be baited into a one-sided bout with aggressor Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), son of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the very boxer who killed his own father Apollo Creed in the ring. Instead, he predictably leads with his ego and suffers injuries that nearly end his career. When Viktor and his father Ivan issue their challenge to Adonis, it is clear that they have nothing to lose but the match, making them desperate and dangerous, a fact that Rocky explicitly states. But for Adonis, the Heavyweight Championship and a new happy family are not enough; the chance to right what he sees as a historical wrong is too alluring for good sense to prevail. The threat to his masculinity spans not one, but three generations.
It’s doubly unfortunate then that Creed II’s villains are its weakest link. Ivan and Viktor Drago exist mostly as ciphers onto whom Adonis can project his unresolved issues with his father. The two men are walking Russian caricatures; taciturn, lethal, and dead-set on breaking their American foes. In the 33 years since Rocky defeated him in the ring, Ivan has fallen on hard times, shunned by his country and his wife and left to raise his son alone, training him with abusive precision to avenge his shameful defeat. Viktor himself is a beast of a man, a thick-necked Jamie Dornan lookalike towering over Adonis and withstanding heavy blows with frighteningly sure footing. Ivan is the ever-present drill master, pushing his son to be a stoic, emotionless machine, all while pining over his own lost glory.
Strangely, the film doesn’t seem to realize that Viktor is this film’s Creed—an upstart underdog saddled with a legacy he never asked for and fighting like hell prove to himself worthy of a name he didn’t choose. Both men are actors in a decades-long stage play, and their much-touted fight is the rising action of a final act for which they’ve both written different endings. Both are simply doing as the rigid rules of masculinity require: defeating their foes through violence. The problem is that none of this is ever fully articulated at any point during the film, rendering the Dragos’ eventual concession in their rematch abrupt and unearned. There’s nothing in the narrative to indicate that Ivan would ever have this specific change of heart, especially not to protect the son he has been using as a human battering ram to acquit his own ego. Nearly every single male character in the film is living in the shadow of a single Soviet-era boxing match, desperately trying to rewrite history. It’s daddy issues all the way down.
The Dragos aren’t the film’s only issue. Despite a clear attempt to course-correct, Creed II still renders Adonis’ girlfriend Bianca in two dimensions. Creed was rightly critiqued for sidelining its charismatic love interest, especially after going through the trouble of casting the dynamic Tessa Thompson in the role. Audiences left the first film enticed by Bianca’s story and empathizing with her frantic race to fully realize her music career before degenerative hearing loss rendered her totally deaf. Her character was beloved but lacking, despite the clear potential for a more substantive story. While Creed II makes a sincere effort to right that wrong by giving Bianca more to do, it does so in a way that largely takes her out of the main narrative. There are no real stakes for her story that don’t tie directly into Adonis’ well-being. While Bianca’s musical pursuits get a lot more screen time, they feel tacked onto the story as an addendum to the film’s real narrative arc.
For the most part, Bianca’s role is to be Adonis’s supportive partner and later his fiancée and mother of his child. She’s given no family that is not his, and no backstory that isn’t a gesture at the already established music career. It’s hard to believe that in a time when the black maternal mortality rate has dominated news coverage, there would be no real engagement with Bianca’s fears of giving birth, her desire to have her own family nearby, or just the complications of juggling her blossoming career with motherhood. Her hereditary disability is also treated like a creeping tragedy afflicting her child. Their daughter’s deafness is presented as a struggle Adonis has to overcome rather than simply a fact of her own life. It was a strange choice given the lengths the first film went to to show how Bianca’s deafness had changed and improved her experiences with music. Being deaf brought richness to Bianca’s life, not sorrow.
But in the end, Creed II’s biggest sin is that it feels strangely blind to the long historical arc that it steps into, despite a narrative that tackles that history head-on. Interactions between characters that should be bursting at the seams with decades of tension feel perfunctory and stilted. Instead, motivations are disseminated through clunky exposition. This is a film that requires homework. Viewers unfamiliar with the Rocky franchise (admittedly the odd exception) are left spending much of the runtime piecing together the resentments and rivalries of the characters onscreen. Sadly, Creed II misses that magical spark that made Coogler’s previous film crackle with new possibility and promise. Adonis Creed is the establishment now. His real fight was only ever with himself.
Creed II is currently playing in theaters
Cate Young (@battymamzelle): smugsexual, thundercunt hagbeast.