Creed (2015)

2018 #242
Ryan Coogler | 133 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Creed

Somehow, it took me a while to realise Creed was a Rocky movie. I remember hearing about the film; hearing its story of an underdog boxer taking on the world champion being compared positively to Rocky; and then beginning to hear kind-of-like-rumours that maybe, in fact, it actually featured the character of Rocky, and was, therefore, technically, a Rocky movie. Goodness knows what gave me that impression, because not only is Creed a Rocky movie through and through, with a major role for Sylvester Stallone’s character, but he’s on the bloody poster — and, in international markets, there’s a bloody big tagline emphasising how it’s a Rocky movie. Eesh. And all of that matters because, while there are a lot of things to like about Creed, I think my favourite was that it’s a proper Rocky movie.

The film introduces us to Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, born after Creed was killed in the ring (see Rocky IV for more on that). Adonis grew up in juvie, getting into fights, until Creed’s wife (Phylicia Rashad) adopted him and raised him as her own. So Adonis was raised in the luxury life Creed’s legacy left them, and is now successful in a cushty office job, but inside burns the fire of a fighter. Quitting his job to make a proper go of it, no one in LA will train him, thinking he’s a rich kid just wanting to trade on his daddy’s legacy. Determined to make a name for himself, Adonis heads to Philadelphia with the intention of being trained by his father’s best friend, legendary boxer Rocky Balboa (Stallone).

Creed and Balboa

Creed partly sets out to be its own thing, focusing on Adonis rather than Rocky (when you boil it down, the film actually has a similar plot to the much-despised Rocky V), but it doesn’t forget to be a proper instalment in the Rocky saga too, picking up on things from previous films (the restaurant; Rocky visiting Adrian’s grave) and moving them forward (where Paulie is; where Rocky’s son is). It’s unobtrusive for newcomers (it plays as character beats rather than overt references), but it’s satisfying for fans to feel that connection, that respect for the material. Creed sets out to tell a grounded and somewhat gritty story, like the original Rocky, but, as Matt Zoller Seitz put it on Twitter, the film pulls its “existence from what’s probably the dumbest and most cartoony of the Rocky movies. There are overt references to all 6 Rockys in the first Creed. No cherry picking. It’s all canon.”

That influence extends to the whole shape of the film, which follows the Rocky formula: the underdog getting a shot at the big league; a hero who’s fighting to prove himself more than to win; the training montages; the simultaneous love life and/or personal storylines… It’s clearly a new story about a new generation, emphasised by the details of how co-writer/director Ryan Coogler constructs and crafts the film, but it also sits very comfortably as the seventh Rocky movie.

As with any film that fits a genre template, it’s in the nuances that we find differences. For starters, Adonis’ route to the ring is a bit different to the norm. “Rags to riches” is a storyline we’ve seen a hundred times, but here’s a guy who has a lavish lifestyle, who could just trade off his father’s name if he wanted, but who has to find a way to prove himself in spite of that. It’s not just a personal demon: we’re shown that this is a world where only that “rags to riches” path is seen as authentic. It comes up several times throughout the film, but not least before the final fight, when Creed’s opponent taunts him with the fact he comes from such a background, that he’s more like Rocky than Adonis is. Of course, the net result to storytelling is the same: Adonis has to prove his worth to his doubters, and to himself.

Adonis and Bianca

In a featurette on the Blu-ray, Coogler says that “at the core of these movies, they’re really relationship dramas with an action sequence at the end.” I couldn’t’ve put it better myself, and Creed continues that tradition by seeing Adonis hook up with Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a musician with problems of her own. According to Thompson, “Ryan really wanted to show a girlfriend character in the context of a sports movie that was complicated, that had her own life and own dreams.” I think that’s noticeably the case: her role in the film is obviously primarily defined in relation to Adonis, because this is his story, but she’s a rounded character with more agency than just “the love interest”. Depending how you view things, I think there’s an argument to be made that the Rocky films have often tried to give this depth to “the love interest”, i.e. Adrian. When we first meet her in Rocky she’s shy and quiet, which can come across as ‘secondary’, lacking depth or independence, but really it’s just a personality type. Adrian certainly changes and grows as the films go on, becoming more confident and forthright. Even compared to that, Bianca is more independent, more ‘modern woman’, driving the back-and-forth of the relationship as much as Adonis.

Rocky himself also gets a significant personal subplot, which allows Stallone to give a powerful performance — and, as it turned out, an award-winning one, which is impressive (and probably unprecedented) for the seventh outing of a character. The film draws on Rocky’s past to show us a guy who’s kind of content with letting life go — the love of his life is dead, his best friend is dead, his son has moved away, so why keep going? — but is given reason to fight again by a new family. I did think it was lacking a bit of Rocky’s charming naïveté, the occasional misspeaks or what have you (except for one bit about ‘the cloud’), but it’s been replaced with a genuine lived wisdom that does still feel like Rocky.

Training hard

Coogler, in just his second feature, demonstrated he really knows what he’s doing. Perhaps the most striking part of the direction is that he chooses to use a lot of oners, with none more effective than covering the entirety of Adonis’ first pro fight in a single take. We stay in the ring with the boxers throughout, up close alongside them, following the fight almost from their perspective, with the noise of the crowd and the shouts of the trainers moving around the room if you’re watching with surround sound. It depicts an entire two-round match this way, and it’s a genuine single take (they shot it 13 times, with the 11th being the one used). It’s a very different and effective way of presenting a fight, but it’s more than just cinematic theatrics: to quote Scott Collette from Twitter, it’s “one of the smartest sequences in modern filmmaking. Coogler puts us into the ring and, in withholding an edit, he conditions us to trust in and rely entirely upon Creed’s skills and training to get us out, and he rewards that trust. In doing so, Coogler buys himself the freedom to edit the shit out of the final match. No matter where he cuts […] we never leave the ring. We’re always with Adonis because he’s the only one who’s shown us that he can get us through it.” That’s bolstered by another oner just before the climactic bout, in which Coogler makes us a member of Adonis’ squad: it begins in the quiet locker room, with Rocky’s prematch pep talk and a little warm-up, before the camera follows along as they walk down the tunnel, putting us in the middle of the team, all the way into the arena, the sound of thumping music and a baying crowd gradually growing, and it doesn’t end until Adonis is actually in the ring, ready to fight. Again, it’s all about aligning us with Adonis and his crew, emphasising how much we’re connected to him and his fate.

The way Coogler and composer Ludwig Göransson use the famous Rocky theme is neat too: they hold it back, hold it back, hold it back, so that when it finally hits, just that burst of score makes for a triumphant moment. But then it’s not allowed to take over: Adonis may have been helped by the Rocky legacy, but this is his story now. Neither Adonis the fighter nor Creed the film exist purely by leeching off nostalgia.

Gonna fly now

And yet, as I said at the start, my favourite thing about the film is that it is a Rocky movie. But, importantly, it’s the way it doesn’t just indulge in references, but actually seeks to develop on the Rocky story — on everything that went on in the previous films — that makes Creed one of the very best in the series. To quote Matt Zoller Seitz again, “Creed is the ultimate Rocky movie, because all the other Rocky movies are somehow contained within it.” I feel wrong enjoying Creed the most out of the Rocky movies — like I’m just going for the most recent one, as if new = best — but the major reason I loved it so much is the way it has reverence for and builds on the past. As a standalone movie, it’s more-or-less equal to the best of the original Rocky films; but as specifically the seventh film in the Rocky series, it stands atop that 40-year history to add extra weight to everything. By itself, Creed is a very good 4-star movie, but its respect for the legacy tipped me over the top.

5 out of 5

Creed placed 19th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

Creed II is in UK cinemas from tomorrow.

Black Panther (2018)

2018 #23
Ryan Coogler | 134 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA / English, Xhosa & Korean | 12A / PG-13

Black Panther

Black Panther is not the first superhero movie to star a person of colour in the leading role — not by a long, long shot. But it does look set to be the most successful. In part that’s down to its association with the MCU (the last time one of their movies grossed under $500 million was the first Captain America, 13 movies ago), but it’s also due to a general underrepresentation of non-white heroes right now — Black Panther may not be the first, but it may be the most mainstream. It also won’t hurt that it’s a very good action-adventure movie in its own right, and one that feels especially fresh thanks to tapping into an under-utilised cultural milieu.

Picking up shortly after the events that brought the title character into the MCU (as seen in Captain America: Civil War), the film begins with T’Challa, aka Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), returning home to be crowned king of his country, Wakanda. A scientifically advanced African nation, with incredible technology fuelled by its deep reserves of the extraordinary metal vibranium, Wakanda has kept its abilities hidden from the rest of the world, who believe it’s a third world country of farmers. However, T’Challa must face forces from within and without who think Wakanda should play a greater role on the global stage — in particular long-time enemy of the state Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and his new partner in crime Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), who wants to rule Wakanda and then the world.

The name's Panther. Black Panther.

A villain who wants to rule the world? Black Panther doesn’t spell out his goal quite that bluntly, I don’t think, but that’s what it is. It’s just one of several clues that this is, in many ways, a James Bond movie… only one where James Bond is a black African king with superpowers. The film’s whole structure is more Bond than Marvel, though: most obvious is the gadget-explaining Q scene, but then it becomes a globetrotting adventure (the film sets significant sequences in California, Nigeria, London, and Busan (though they don’t get there by train, thankfully)), complete with undercover operatives, a casino, car chases, and a plot with significant geopolitical elements. I’m not claiming you can map this one-for-one onto the Bond template, but the inspiration (consciously or not on the part of the filmmakers) is certainly there. One Letterboxd user described it as “The Lion King meets Skyfall”, which might sound pithy but is also surprisingly accurate — and Skyfall in particular, not just any old Bond film; but there we’d be getting into spoiler territory, so I’ll leave that for you to think about yourself after you’ve seen the movie.

An even more significant influence, for numerous reasons, is African culture. Much has been made of the film having a predominantly black cast (aside from (to use an already well-worn joke) a couple of ‘Tolkien’ white guys), but it fully embraces that too. It isn’t nominally set in Africa with faces that happen to be of a different colour to the blockbuster norm — African traditions, designs, and ways of life have been woven throughout the film. Are they real ones the filmmakers co-opted or were they just inspired by the iconography of the continent? I don’t know. Does it matter? I don’t think so. It’s a different flavour on the blockbuster stage, and that adds freshness to just about everything.

African culture, real or imagined

For one, it helps the film to look beautiful. It’s colourful without being cartoonish, the vibrant palette coming through via costumes and locations in a very real way. Design is naturally a big part of this — make-up; costumes; however the production design department breaks down across locations, sets, props, etc, etc. They were obviously able to cut loose, finding inspiration from different places to usual (i.e. Africa) and imagining a whole alternate world, similar to ours but a bit more Sci-Fi.

There’s the light, too — this is frequently a gorgeously shot film. Not just the quality captured by DP Rachel Morrison (who made headlines recently when she was Oscar nominated for Mudbound), but also the shot choices and editing — it’s filmic, whereas too many Marvel movies look like TV but with a humungous effects budget. Director Ryan Coogler stages the action well too. Across the board, the visuals don’t feel so generically “Marvel”, while also not forcing themselves so far outside the house style that it doesn’t feel like A Marvel Movie. Put another way, it’s probably not that radical, but it is fine-tuned.

The music is oftentimes striking as well, with Ludwig Göransson’s score and various songs* mixing different styles for a heady but effective blend. In fact, the music occasionally achieves a feel or atmosphere that I don’t think Marvel’s usually-generic soundtracks have reached before, and not necessarily ones you’d expect.

Suited up

The film is rich and fresh in plenty of other ways too. The story is loaded with varied thematic concerns: there’s politics, both on the world stage and internal; the battle between tradition vs modernity; the pros and cons of both isolationism and being open to the world; issues of colonialism and its aftereffects (and the morality of a possible reversal thereof)… Obviously race is a factor as well, but in specific ways rather than some kind of generic “hey, look, black people can do this too!” I feel like there are many different things to read into and out of this film — numerous facets that could be focused on either singularly or in various combinations — and that, actually, the film would reward such a close reading, rather than falling apart when put under a microscope.

Yet another thing it juggles well in this mix are the characters and the performances behind them. There are a lot of people to get to know here, but they’re all so effectively sketched that most are interesting, likeable, or memorable (or all three) within just a few moments. The film may be called Black Panther and he may be the central hero, but he’s not the only strong, capable, heroic figure here — far from it. Indeed, another aspect that will surely generate plenty of discussion is the film’s strong female roles. The Q figure, currently at the forefront of all Wakanda’s incredible technology, is T’Challa’s younger sister (Letitia Wright); the army (or security service? I’ll confess to not being 100% on Wakanda’s military structure) is made up of women, led (of course) by a female general (Danai Gurira); their best spy is also a woman (Lupita Nyong’o); and the Queen Mother (Angela Bassett) is a powerful figurehead who gives strong advice.

Sisters, doing it for themselves

The film doesn’t make a big to-do about all this — it doesn’t boast about how well these women are doing, or have people try to “put them in their place” only for them to overcome it — it just gets on with them being awesome. Obviously the race aspect is going to be the most talked about thing here, at least initially, but I’d wager Black Panther is second only to Wonder Woman in its foregrounding of exceptionally capable female characters in the superhero genre… and, considering how many of them there are in this, one might argue it surpasses even that. Although the lead’s still a bloke, so…

Said bloke is an interesting lead character. He’s often quite quiet and thoughtful, very different to the wisecracking action men who typically lead Marvel movies. I’d guess he’s going to get on well with Captain America come Infinity War because they both have that stoic intelligence. It means that Chadwick Boseman doesn’t have the easy likeability of jokes to fall back on, as has so benefited… well, all those other Marvel leading men. But quiet strength is its own reward, if slightly slower burning, and T’Challa is ultimately a very engaging hero. On the other side of the equation, Michael B. Jordan’s villain is one of Marvel’s rare strong ones — in fairness, something they seem to have been improving since everyone pointed it out. While Erik is unquestionably a bad guy doing bad things, he has an understandable motivation, and Jordan even makes you feel for him a bit by the end.

He just can't wait to be king

Marvel Studios have often talked about trying to mix other genres into each of their movies, to try to add some much-needed variety to the familiar superhero movie formula. On the whole I’d say the effect is minimal — I’m always minded of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which they tried to push as a ’70s-style political thriller, but which I thought was still very much a superhero movie with a dash of political thriller in the mix. Although maybe that’s enough. Anyway, Black Panther is once again undoubtedly a superhero movie in more than just the literal sense that it’s adapted from a comic book about a superhero, but this particular mix of varied influences — some familiar (it’s not the first movie to imitate Bond), others less so (African culture in an action-adventure blockbuster) — does make it feel genuinely different to the norm.

I know some people say this every time the studio releases a new movie, but it probably is Marvel’s best film to date. Nonetheless, I was going to give it 4 stars again; but the more I think about it, the more I feel like it’s time to break my duck and make this the first Marvel movie I’ve given:

5 out of 5

Black Panther is in cinemas pretty much everywhere now.

It placed 12th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

* I’m sure there was a “songs by” credit, but I can’t remember the name and it doesn’t seem to be in any of the credits lists online. ^