Spoilers for Rocky III & IV, Journeyman (2017), Southpaw (2015), Creed (2015) and Creed II (2018)
When we talk about equality or diversification, we generally use said phrases in reference to aspects such as the job market, politics, criminal justice, etc. The big picture areas so to speak. However, it’s a shame that we don’t make the same effort to diversify our sportsmen and women. Specifically I speak mainly of class differences (though I won’t deny there are racial and gender issues as well).
Take the sport of golf for instance. While there are a few golfers that have come from poorer environments (such as Vijay Singh or Lee Trevino); the large majority are individuals who were raised in middle to upper class backgrounds.
The reason for this is quite simple: The higher the financial investment needed to train, the more affluent the sportsperson has to be. So if we were to take a look at sports such as tennis, polo, sailing or dressage (which apparently is a sport!); it’s easy to see why a healthy bank account is generally necessary for beginners.
On the flip side of this are the sports for the disadvantaged and the poor. The sports that don’t require massive amounts of upfront investment. Football, basketball, wrestling, and of course, boxing are all the usual suspects. But, at least in popular culture, it’s not too far off the mark to say that boxing is the epitome of “coming from nothing.”
The Rocky series, The Fighter (2010), Cinderella Man (2005) and many, many more have taken the “rags to riches” storytelling path. While it’s true we occasionally get a movie about a boxer at the top of his game, the story will often find a way to bring the character back down to his (metaphorical) knees. For example, Journeyman (2017) had Paddy Considine’s character suffer a serious head injury; while Jake Gyllenhaal’s Southpaw (2015) had him lose both his wife and child.
While the Rocky series has illustrated this underdog aspect to various degrees over six movies (and a semi-reboot in 2015’s Creed); the most recent entry in the series, Creed II, seems to have somewhat done an about-turn. Rather than the elevation of the underprivileged, Creed II is instead about the domination of the rich and how they deserve to stay in power or at the top of their sport.
2015’s Creed is quite obviously a tale of the little guy. Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), who has spent much of his childhood in youth detention centres, needs to make something of himself and wants to prove to the world that he is just as good as his father, Apollo (Carl Weathers). And even though Adonis fails to win against his opponent, Ricky Colan (Anthony Bellew); the announcer in the film makes it clear that “Conlan won the fight, but Creed won the night.”
Three years later however, Creed II starts with Adonis at the top of his game, having just won the World Heavyweight Championship. He is clearly a famed and wealthy man, able to easily purchase an expensive living space in Los Angeles. As such Creed II needs to topple the tower of Adonis in order to build him back up again; and this is capably illustrated by his first loss to Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu).
This, by itself, isn’t that unusual of a storytelling technique. After all, the exact same thing happens in Rocky III when Rocky has to take on Clubber Lang (Mr. T). The problem is that Viktor and his father, Ivan (a returning Dolph Lundgren) are presented to us as clear underdogs with absolutely nothing to their name. Not only has the family name taken a dive after the events of Rocky IV; but wider Russian society has shunned them to such an extent that the family’s matriarch, Ludmila (Brigitte Nielsen), has abandoned them.
Because of such a drastic fall from grace, it’s totally understandable that Viktor and Ivan would want to take on Adonis and Rocky. Not only would such a fight earn them enough money to move out of their dilapidated home; but it would increase theirs chances of being accepted by their neighbours, their country, and perhaps even allow Viktor to rekindle a relationship with his mother.
In what world are these bad people? In what world could this duo be considered antagonists? Sure, the film tries to make Viktor seem “bad” when he cheats in the first fight against Adonis. But you know what? If my mother’s love for me was entirely dependent on winning a boxing match, I sure as hell would be cheating left, right and centre to make sure I win! In other words, Viktor is just too damn sympathetic to stand as an effective antagonist.
Don’t get me wrong, lots of movies have sympathetic antagonists. In fact, to be a truly great movie, an antagonist usually has to be sympathetic because we as an audience must understand why they commit terrible acts to achieve their goals. Magneto in the X-men movies or Koba from the Planet of the Apes franchise are grand examples of sympathetic antagonists that you understand, but would never support because the crimes they commit (murder and attempted genocide) are so beyond the pale.
But Viktor? What crime has he committed? What dreadful sin is he guilty of? He was born into a world that, pretty much from birth, identified him as the son of a failure; and by association he was a failure too. How can we, as human beings, not identify with that? Haven’t we all felt like failures and outcasts at some point in our lives? Are we not all Viktor?
It is amazing that Creed II, the eighth installment in the Rocky franchise, fails in such a spectacular fashion. For lack of a better description, Adonis has become the undeserving and prideful rich boy that traditionally would be the antagonist. It ends up being impossible to emphasise with him. Even worse is that Adonis never truly has any good reason to go through with the fight with Viktor. He clearly doesn’t need the money and he already has the fame and prestige. Even if he were to lose the fight (as Ivan did 30 years earlier), Adonis won’t lose his partner (Tessa Thompson), his home, or the respect of his friends and country.
That’s why the final fight is so heartbreaking. On one side we have a wealthy man who won’t give up because of his pride; while on the other we have poverty-stricken and emotionally hurt person trying to make something of himself. And who loses? The poor guy! All of the above could have been acceptable if Viktor had won. But no. The film ends with the rich prideful man remaining rich and prideful (and celebrated for it!); while the downtrodden individual is forced back to the shithole from whence he came.
For a film series that’s meant to inspire hope, Creed II instead enforces the idea that the browbeaten and the oppressed deserve nothing better. That those who struggle the most have no right to improve themselves at the expense of their “betters.”
And if that isn’t a metaphor for 2018, I don’t know what is.