A spinoff is usually a last-ditch effort. These franchise death knells usually happen when a story’s ideas have run their course but a new film might still turn a buck, prolonging the exhausted glory. Pick a side character, think of some desperately inconsequential ways to reference the original, and hopefully watch the money roll in for one last try. It usually doesn’t end well. But that may change with this month’s release of Creed.
There’s no mistaking it: Creed is a full-fledged spinoff of the Rocky franchise, which has managed to parlay its underdog-against-the-world story starring — and mostly directed by — Sylvester Stallone for nearly 40 years. The first movie won Best Picture in 1976 (against no less than Network, Taxi Driver, and All the President’s Men) and catapulted Stallone from a dude who had dabbled in softcore porn into an A-list star who would define 1980s action maximalism.
The rest of the series never reached those heights. The first sequel was solid; the second was campy; the third, 1985’s Rocky IV, was the apotheosis of geopolitical-sports cornball drama: Stallone’s underdog boxer basically wins the Cold War for the United States by defeating Ivan Drago, a Soviet super-fighter who, in an early scene in the movie, kills Rocky’s best friend and former opponent Apollo Creed in a match. In 1990 a dreadful fifth installment all but killed the franchise before Stallone resuscitated his career and the character again with 2006’s Rocky Balboa, an apparent swan song.
But the character keeps getting off the mat in unexpected ways. In Creed the six-movie hero returns as a side character, playing trainer to Michael B. Jordan’s lead. Jordan plays Adonis Creed, the son of Rocky’s dead friend. Bringing in a later-generation character isn’t groundbreaking; such a move defines spin-offs of all sorts. Find an old character central to the plot of the previous movies and add a new character related to him for new adventures. But what separates Creed from the other big screen spin-offs of the world — your Minions, your Scorpion Kings, your X-Men Origins: Wolverine, et al. — is that Creed lacks the desperation inherent in most spin-offs trying to sidestep the main movies.
Rocky has already been at the pinnacle of the movie world. The character won the heavyweight title in the movies; Stallone claimed the Oscar in real life. The series has been a moderate success box office-wise, but it’s no Fast and the Furious or 007 sequel, scooping up a billion dollars with every installment. The motivation to make another Rocky movie is no doubt commercial, but seems to come as well from Stallone’s passion for the character and the universe. Creed is the rare spin-off that may owe more to artistic love than to the profit motive.
This sense of real purpose for the Rocky spin-off perhaps boils down to young director and co-screenwriter Ryan Coogler, whose Fruitvale Station garnered serious Sundance buzz and some Oscar talk when it was released two years ago. Coogler’s movie, which also starred Jordan, took a broken but steadfast African American lead and told his story with an assurance seldom seen in a big screen feature debut. Coogler seemed to latch onto Creed because he saw the opportunity to tell a similar type of story, but one that has the name recognition to rewrite the way spin-offs usually fail their main movies.
Creed has the potential to show the best facets of continuity, and perhaps upend the assumption that a series necessarily needs to devolve over so many installments. Hell, if it lives up to its unexpected potential, it may even warrant a sequel.