The Rocky formula is well-worn almost to the point of self-parody, but it remains satisfying: The audience is given an underdog fighter; this could be either Rocky himself (Sylvester Stallone) or, in the case of the two Creed films, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the son of fallen boxer Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers).
The audience is then shown a rival fighter who is higher up on the boxing food chain or is shown by his words or actions to be wicked. Apollo Creed was arrogant, and no one believed Rocky would present a credible threat. Clubber Lang was a bully. Ivan Drago was a Russian — which was bad enough at time — who also killed Apollo Creed.
The antagonist of the first Creed film may have been forgettable, but director Ryan Coogler was able to make Adonis Creed’s search for self-respect compelling enough to stand on its own. There was another boxer in that final fight, but Adonis was really boxing the ghost of his father and his own sense of worthlessness. Creed wasn’t shy about this.
The good guy always wins in these films, even if “winning” in this series means pushing yourself further than others expected. Both Rocky and Adonis lost their initial title bouts, but they both proved something to themselves, and the world.
Again, it’s a simple formula, but it works. Creed II is effectively the eighth movie in the Rocky series, but these ideas have been plundered so often in sports films that it feels like we’ve been taught the lesson countless times: Believe in yourself, do your best, put your soul in order and there’s nothing you can’t do. Except win your first title bout, of course, but you’ll be so proud of yourself for doing well that you won’t care.
Which is why the inversion of this formula in Creed II is so damned good, to the point where Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu) may be a more interesting character than Adonis Creed, or Rocky, himself. And the hero of the story, the character that makes the most positive decision, is actually Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren).
[Warning: This article contains detailed spoilers for Creed II.]
The lessons learned in the ring
Viktor Drago, the “bad guy” in Creed II, is the son of Ivan Drago, the Russian fighter who acted more like a Terminator than a human boxer in Rocky IV. Ivan Drago is the man who killed Apollo Creed in the ring, but was ultimately disgraced by his loss against Rocky Balboa.
Creed II lets us know what the boxer has been up to in the years since, and it’s grim. Ivan lost his wife, his wealth and the country’s support due to his loss. He lives in a small apartment with his son, who he trains to become another killing machine. What else can he do?
Viktor has almost no lines in the movie himself, but manages to be a pathetic screen presence despite his massive size. His father pushes him too hard, his mother left them, his country only cares about him when he’s winning and his only path to a better life is through violence. He’s stuck in a cold, grey world of hatred and training.
The Drago family is the underdog of this story, not the struggles of a champion who was rich before he boxed his first match and is being trained by boxing royalty. Adonis Creed proved himself in the first movie, then finds love and deals with being a first-time parent in Creed II. He has everything to lose by going into the ring with someone who can, and maybe even will, kill him. Rocky himself is tormented by the fact he didn’t throw in the towel when it became clear that Apollo Creed didn’t have a chance against Drago.
Adonis’ mother (Phylicia Rashad) is too smart to tell him not to take the fight, and his wife (Tessa Thompson) also wants to avoid being the woman in his life that tells him not to do the thing he loves. Rocky doesn’t have any problems telling Adonis to ditch the fight, however, and he’s right about it: Adonis seems immature and spiteful in his determination to fight Viktor, and he barely seems to care what life will be like for those he leaves behind if he’s seriously hurt.
Viktor nearly kills Adonis Creed the first time they fight, after connecting with an ugly, illegal shot to the head.
This is the section of Creed II that proves the hardest to watch, as it follows a broken fighter who risked too much for too little reward, and what happens when he shuts out everyone he cares about after they tried to give him good advice. Adonis becomes monstrous in his self-pity and injured pride following the fight.
Compare that to Viktor’s post-fight path. He’s beloved by the rich and powerful. He sees his mother again. His father is smiling and happy, which is a new experience. This is why the pain and the cold was worth it. This is everything he was raised to want.
And it turns to ash in his mouth.
Viktor knows that none of these people care about him unless he’s an effective weapon in the ring. His life has no worth to anyone unless he’s hurting others, and even being successful at that doesn’t bring him any peace or sense of self. Training brings him no joy, but winning torments him even further. Nothing about his situation is survivable.
Adonis’ problems all look like advantages when seen through this lens. He’s surrounded by people who care about him, and he’s going to be rich and loved no matter how the fight goes. But he’s a fighter, so he has to fight, in the same way a painter must paint. Rocky decides this is a good reason to take the rematch, so we’re treated to the training montage where the fighter who has have everything prepares to beat on a fighter who seems cursed even if he wins.
Rocky learned that if Adonis wants to fight, he should never quit, even if Adonis’ health is at risk. The choice goes against the entire rest of the movie, and frankly, is a pretty shitty way way to take the choice away from Adonis’ wife and daughter. The kid doesn’t get a say in this decision — because no one asks babies if their dads should destroy themselves for pride and money — even though that lack of a choice about having a relationship with his father has haunted Adonis his whole life.
Neither Rocky nor Adonis wrestle with this much. Adonis is the good guy, and the good guy wins after the first movie. That’s how Rocky works.
What’s more remarkable is that Ivan Drago, the unfeeling beast who set all of these pieces in motion when he killed Apollo, is given the heroic moment in the last round. He knows what it’s like to kill someone in the ring, and he can see where that action took him. He’s also starting to understand what it’s like to lose his son, because the act of winning is making Viktor even more resentful.
Ivan sees what the audience sees; that Viktor is damned no matter what happens in this fight. So Ivan does what a good father should do in that situation, the thing that Rocky didn’t do for Apollo and refused to do for Adonis.
Ivan stops the fight.
These characters apparently had more interaction after the climactic fight, but the scenes were cut from the final release of Creed II. Maybe they’ll be restored in the future, but they don’t really have to be. Ivan Drago had the best arc of any of these characters, and is one of the few people in the story who did the right thing when it mattered.
Which is why I bet Viktor Drago is going to be OK, no matter what happens in the inevitable sequel. His father stopped the cycle of pain and violence. Rocky and Adonis, on the other hand? I’m not so sure about them.