Creed rocked my nuts off. It was exciting, it was charming, it had the best onscreen romance I’ve seen in recent memory and one of the best performances of Sylvester Stallone’s entire career. It was everything that the Rocky movies were always supposed to be, now with 85% less Rocky. I’m certain that there will be a lot of discussion over the coming weeks about where the film lands in the Rocky canon and the way in which it ties back to previous films; although its plot structure is almost completely mirrors the first Rocky and its plot is most directly impacted by the events of Rocky IV, I found myself musing that Creed in fact shares more with Rocky V, the most abhorred movie in the Rocky canon (when it is even remembered at all). Though a financial disaster and an embarrassment of filmmaking, Rocky V provided the spine and muscle for Creed’s story, to the extent that Creed can almost be considered a spiritual sequel to one of the most maligned movies in any film franchise.
Rocky V starts with Rocky losing all of his money, retiring from boxing and moving back to Philadelphia, where he meets the tragically named Tommy Gunn, a young brawler with a hair-trigger temper who came to Philly from Oklahoma to train under the legendary Rocky Balboa. Rocky takes him under his wing, but things go to shit and Rocky ends up kicking Tommy’s ass in an alley after their relationship deteriorates. Creed starts with Adonis “Donny” Creed, a young brawler with a hair-trigger temper, willfully abandoning his life of wealth and privilege to move to Philly from Los Angeles to train under the legendary Rocky Balboa. Rocky takes him under his wing, and while there are some bumps things mostly go awesomely, and the last fight gets to be the fight from the Rocky movie everyone liked, wherein Donny essentially transforms into the new Rocky.
You can see how Creed in many ways appears to be Rocky V as seen from the position of student rather than mentor. When you strip away the fact that one has likable performances, great music and riveting fight choreography and the other is a movie where a bully refers to the character as “Stallone” and the editor just fucking left it in, the two movies travel down very similar roads. But with that in mind, the main question becomes: what separates an Adonis Creed from a Tommy Gunn? Is it charisma, or the fact that one has a name that’s cool-stupid and one has a name that’s normal-stupid, or is it their race and the differences in their upbringings as the viewer is meant to perceive them?
All of those things are of course factors, but none that matter so much as this: Adonis Creed tried to be Rocky’s son and succeeded; Tommy Gunn tried to be Rocky’s son and failed. From there the twain shall never again meet.
The scene that ties these two movies together is a brief one: when Donny moves into Rocky’s apartment, he notices a picture of Rocky and his son Robert on the dresser. Rocky explains that he and his son are distant; they talk every so often, but the West Philly lifestyle was too harsh for Robert and he ended up moving to Vancouver with his girlfriend as soon as he could. Rocky’s tone is understanding if a bit forlorn in the scene, but the implication isn’t hard to notice: Robert was weak, and he abandoned his father to move to a weak place for weak people. This is a natural story endpoint for the character as we see him in Rocky V; he’s pushed around by his schoolmates all the time, betraying his formerly pampered lifestyle at every turn, and the half of the noises he makes that aren’t him being punched by a bully are him whining about his present circumstances. Robert was an obvious casualty of Shitty ‘90s Movie Kid syndrome, and somehow Rocky never forgave him for it, not really.
And though it must have seemed tempting to completely emotionally check out to focus on his protégé Tommy, he couldn’t bring himself to go the distance and make him his new surrogate son; Robert was still young, after all, and he could still change, maybe. But with one foot in and one foot out, his full attention could be given neither to Robert nor Tommy, and while he managed to mend his relationship with Robert (at least for the duration of the film), Tommy drifted into darker waters, never having been given the chance to be “raised” by Rocky the way he could have, leaving him first to spit in his creator’s face at his first chance and then to be punished for it immediately, broken and crippled in an alley, a craven pretender to a throne he never really had a chance at holding.
Donny, then, fits comfortably into the role of the son that Rocky never really got to have, the role that neither Tommy nor Robert were ever able to fill. Like Robert, Donny went from riches to rags, but it was by his own choice, driven by his own sense of purpose and nobility: not once is he heard to complain about his ramshackle apartment or Rocky’s taxing training methods. Like Tommy, he carries a brutal temperament and his fighting technique is initially rough and sloppy, but his honorable upbringing prevents any urges towards betrayal or any comfort with his baser nature. Donny, if anything, is shockingly loyal, carrying out every silly exercise without complaint and even going out of his way to “save” Rocky from his lymphoma when Rocky himself desires no such compassion be shown to him. Though he fulfills the narrative role of a son, Donny’s friendship and support is more akin to that of Paulie or Adrian than any of the young men Rocky has had previous experience as a role model for. Adonis Creed is all the most rewarding parts of Rocky’s old life rolled into one man: young enough to be sculpted, with the heart of a champion and the loving reliability of an old, dear friend. If this was Rocky’s gold standard all along, how could poor Robert or Tommy have ever hoped to live up?
The tragedy of Tommy Gunn is really that he came from the wrong place and arrived at the wrong time, an angry hick whose hero was too split between being a father and being a trainer to give him everything that he felt he needed. We can extend this to say that, by contrast, the beauty of Creed is that it is the right movie for the right time. Though they explore similar themes and have similar arcs, Rocky V showed up with a low budget, bad acting and worse dialogue, whereas Creed carries with it the talent of its up-and-coming young director and the privilege of being given a big push from a pedigreed studio. In film, as in all things, the bare components matter far less than the whims of time, the blessing of the gods, and, of course, who your daddy is.
Christopher M. Jones once wrote a comic about dogs people liked a bunch. He ostensibly does other things too. You should follow him on Twitter.