As a son, to know one’s father is to know the weight of expectations. When we are children, we set those expectations ourselves. Our fathers are giants to us and invariably we wish to be like them. As we grow older and reach adolescence, our views of our fathers become nuanced, we see the good and the bad and begin to weigh them against each other. It is at this time, that whether the good outweighs the bad or vice versa, we first notice the eyes of others. We realize that they too are measuring us against our fathers. And realize that for good or for ill, they expect us to be like them. To reach the same heights, sink to the same lows, to succeed or fail to the extent that our fathers did. And any divergence from this expectation is noted and remarked upon. As we become older still we start to truly weigh the legacy of our fathers and be they sinner or saint, hero or commoner, it is at that point that the legacy can become suffocating. We define ourselves in their shadows and measure our successes and failures parallel to their own, failing to realize that the most important step along the way to becoming our own person is the step we take outside of said shadow and into the light. It is the point where we learn to both embrace their legacy, and accept that for good or for ill, we are not bound by it. Ryan Coogler’s masterpiece Creed, is a film about this journey. It charts the journey of Adonis (Donnie) Creed (played brilliantly by Michael B. Jordan) as he struggles with the legacy of a father he never knew.
At the outset of the film we find a young Donnie fatherless and alone, and one would find it hard to argue that he is better off for it. No, having never known his father, and with his mother dead, we find Donnie, in the system, getting in fights, and heading nowhere fast. In one moment his whole world changes, when he is taken in by Mary Anne Creed, and introduced to the legacy of his biological father, the legendary boxer Apollo Creed, who died in the ring before Donnie was born. The next time we see Donnie, we realize that he has dove into his father’s world. While working at a securities firm by day to appease Mary Anne, at night he drives across the Mexican border to participate in bar room boxing matches. Wanting to commit himself totally to the sport, he resigns from his job without telling his adoptive mother. That night, in one of the most powerful scenes in the entire film, Donnie queues up footage of his father’s second fight with Rocky Balboa. As the fight begins to play on the projector, he rises and places himself in front of the image of Rocky on the screen and begins to throw punches. It is here we see the struggle within Donnie laid bare, as he strikes out at the memory of a father who was never there for him. The contradiction within Donnie however is still strong as he cannot seem to decide whether he is running towards or away from his father’s legacy. The next day he visits the Delphi Boxing academy, trying to sign on to train at the very gym in which Apollo got his start, yet is denied and humiliated by the head trainer, and by the gym’s star boxer. Seeing no future for his boxing career in LA and still chasing and struggling with the ghost of his father, he catches a flight to Philadelphia hoping that perhaps there, under the tutelage of his father’s greatest rival and closest friend Rocky, that he might finally be able to find himself.
As the story unfolds in Philadelphia it appears that Donnie may be discovering who he is for the very first time. He falls in love with Bianca, a singer who lives in his building, and begins to train with Rocky. However, signs of the conflict within him occasionally break through. Donnie cannot seem to decide what if anything he wants to do with his father’s legacy. While he has picked up the sport that made his father rich and famous, and has sought out his greatest rival as a coach, he actively hides who he is from everyone else, including Bianca, choosing to go by his mother’s last name of Johnson and referring to his dad as simply “some boxer”. He claims that he has eschewed his father’s name because he doesn’t wish for the leg up that it would provide him, but the reality lurks beneath the surface. He is scared of the expectations that come with the name, and angry at the man who gave it to him, struggling with being the illegitimate son and potential shame of a great man. He hates his father because he never knew him, but desperately seeks a connection that can never truly be found.
His attempts to hide in the end are fruitless however after the trainer and father of a defeated opponent leaks his story to the press, turning his world upside down. He cannot run nor hide from his name or the expectations. Suddenly the world knows who he is, and views him as a curiosity, a question to be answered. Out of this comes an opportunity, as the Light Heavyweight Champion of the world, British fighter “Pretty” Ricky Conlan, in need of a final prize fight before he goes to prison on gun charges, offers Donnie a fight on the largest stage. With this fight however, comes risk. Donnie in order to take the fight must fully embrace and shoulder his father’s legacy, taking on his name, and with it, the risk of being a disappointment. Rocky is wary, he’s seen this story play out before, and knows that Conlan simply views Donnie as a payday and a sure thing. Eventually they accept the bought, but it is at this point that things begin to spiral for Donnie.
While helping Donnie train, Rocky is diagnosed with cancer, and without telling Donnie chooses to forgo treatment. When Donnie finally finds out, it shatters his world. Having never met his real father he is now faced with the prospect of losing Rocky who has become a father figure for him. This sends Donnie into a spiral and brings every last ounce of anger and frustration roaring to the surface. After punching the headliner at one of Bianca’s performances, Donnie finds himself “enjoying” an overnight stay in a jail cell. It is when Rocky comes to try and pick him up that we finally for the first time realize the full range of what Donnie is feeling. Rage, at his father for dying before he was born and at Rocky for not stopping the fight that killed him, sadness and self-pity for the hole that left in his life, and crippling self-doubt, as he is unsure if he is worthy of the name he now bears and whether or not he is anything beyond it. In this moment it must be said, Sylvester Stallone truly shines as Rocky. He takes all of the anger and frustration that Donnie throws at him before sorrowfully looking him in the eye and telling him that it’s time to forgive Apollo, that it’s time to get out of the shadow and let the hurt and the pain go. When the two decide to fight together, Donnie attacking his training and Rocky his cancer, it is one of the most powerful moments in the entire film and you can finally see the burden begin to lift off of Donnie’s shoulders for the very first time. He is beginning to embrace who he is both in and out of the context of who his father is.
Everything in the film leads up to the big championship bout with Conlan. All of the training, all of the drama, everything in the story converges at that moment. The fight is the final barrier, not just between Donnie and his legitimacy as a professional boxer, but between him and the peace that he needs. It has become the final step in his journey of realization and self-discovery, the moment where he is able to not only prove himself worthy of the name Creed, but to prove that he can stand without it. The moment where he accepts and embraces his father’s legacy but consciously choose to forge one of his own, and oh boy is it brilliantly executed.
In the moments before the fight, Coogler introduces yet another of the many callbacks to Rocky, as Donnie receives a package from Mary Anne containing a pair of American Flag boxing shorts just like those his father wore in his fights with Rocky. There is however, one key difference between these shorts and those. While like his father’s shorts this pair has the name Creed stitched across the front of the waistband, it is the addition of the name Johnson to the back that truly elevates the moment. The trunks literalize the theme of the story, as they show Donnie both embracing his heritage, while simultaneously committing to his own path.
The fight that follows is one of the greatest in cinema history, and when Coogler finally drops in the opening trumpet line from the famous Rocky theme “Gonna Fly Now” it is one of the most triumphant moments to appear on screen in quite some time. But it is the moments in between and after the fighting that are what truly make this film great. As Donnie sits in his corner awaiting the start of the final round, Rocky momentarily considers throwing in the towel, only to be stopped by Donnie uttering one of the most powerful and heartbreaking lines this writer has ever heard. “I have to prove it”, he says, “that I’m not a mistake”. In that moment everything seems to stop as Donnie has finally laid it all on the table, the force that drives him. He like Rocky before him, simply has to know if he has it in him, but more specifically he has to prove that he is worthy of his name. Then in the moments after the fight, which mirror the Rocky vs Apollo fight from the original movie, a reporter asks Donnie the question that he has spent his whole life contemplating “if he (Apollo) were here tonight, what would you want to say to him”. His reply, that “I’d just tell him that I love him, I know he didn’t leave me on purpose, and I’m proud to be a Creed” is heartwarming and lets the audience know that he’s finally taken that final step out of the shadow and let go of the demons that dogged him. He has embraced the legacy behind him, and turned his attention to the path before him, a path that he will pave, and a legacy that he will forge.
At the end of the day, it’s a step every son must take. The moment where we let go of the weight of trying to live up to or run away from who our fathers were, and embrace who we are. The moment were we choose to make our own life and our own name, and shape a legacy that we can in turn hopefully one day pass down ourselves. Earlier on in the film Mary Anne tells Donnie in reference to his father: “You are part of him, but you don’t have to be him”. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but in the end, it’s one of the most important ones we ever will.