by Herbert H. Stein
For the spring issue of the PANY Bulletin, I wrote about the new Star Wars movie, emphasizing the very obvious attempt at nostalgic appeal. As it happens, the newest installment of the Rocky series of movies, Creed, appeared about a month earlier. Like the Star Wars series, the Rocky series began in the 1970’s, with the original Rocky appearing one year before Star Wars: A New Hope.
Like, Luke, Leia and Han Solo, Rocky has aged considerably since the original film. This is less the long awaited sequel, however, since whoever cared could have followed Rocky through a long and slow progression of change over the years in a series of films star- ring Sylvester Stallone. Also like Luke, Princess Leia and Han Solo, Rocky now plays a supporting role as a new generation meets some of the same challenges that he did in his youth. And, like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Creed gives us a relatively undisguised re-creation of the plot of its for- bearer, Rocky. An unknown fighter is given a chance to fight the world champion and matches him punch for punch in a grueling match, losing in a decision, but winning the respect of the formerly dismissive champ. The hero is the illegitimate son of Rocky’s opponent in the first movie, Apollo Creed. He bears a similar name, Adonis, but has grown up with his mother’s last name, Johnson. Orphaned, he is adopted by Apollo Creed’s wife, who has somehow learned of him.
She tries to raise him to be a successful white-collar worker, but he rebels, secretly leaving his opulent Los Angeles home to engage in prizefights in Mexico. The film clearly lets us know that this is the result of both his early years in the streets of Los Angeles and his genetic inheritance from his famous father.
He finally pursues his dream, to be a prize- fighter like his father. The local trainer won’t take him on, seeing him as a rich kid who can do better than risk his life in the ring, but he leaves home as a young man and heads to Philadelphia to pursue a boxing career with Rocky.
Rocky is no longer involved in boxing and has no interest in training his former oppo- nent and friend’s son, but is slowly wooed by Adonis. With the additional support of his new girlfriend, Bianca, Adonis begins to train and through happenstance, gets a fight with an up and coming boxer, the son of the local trainer. He wins that fight and then, through more complicated circumstances, gets a chance to fight the heavyweight champion of the world, “Pretty Ricky Conlan.”
If I hadn’t already told you, you would have known the rest of the plot. After a fight in which each boxer is knocked down, but not out, the champion is given the benefit of the doubt in the judges’ decision; but, the former- ly surly Ricky Conlan congratulates his oppo- nent on a great match and says that he’ll make a great champion some day.
To use a clinical analogy, that’s the “present- ing complaint,” the surface. From the outset, there are details that complicate and enrich that surface.
If Creed gives us a replay of the Rocky plot, it does so in its own peculiar way. We might say that Creed is Rocky as a family romance fantasy. Freud (1909) writes that in the period before puberty, a child’s daydreams and fanta- sy life “takes over the topic of family relations.” More specifically, he adds, “At about the peri- od I have mentioned, then, the child’s imagination becomes engaged in the task of getting free from the parents of whom he now has a low opinion and of replacing them by others, who, as a rule, are of higher social standing. He will make use in this connection of any opportune coincidences from his actual experience, such as his becoming acquainted with the Lord of the Manor or some landed proprietor if he lives in the country or with some member of the aristocracy if he lives in town.” (pp. 238-39)
We first encounter Adonis when he is just at the age of which Freud speaks. He is in an institution for homeless boys in Los Angeles where we see him beating up a much bigger and older boy. He has a visitor, an attractive, middle-aged African-American woman. She is told that he has been fighting and is in an isolation cell. She repeats the word “fighting” with a knowing look and is led to his cell, where the visitor, Mary Anne, and the boy, Adonis Johnson, meet for the first time.
“Why were you fighting?” “I’m not going to another group home.” “I’m not from a group home.” “You’re a social worker.” “No, I am not a social worker.” “Nigga said something about my ma, so I beat his ass.” “I’m sorry about your mother. (pause) I know what it’s like to lose someone. (pause) When your father died, I was angry for so long. I hurt myself, pushed family away.”
“I don’t have no father.”
“What did you say?”
“I said I don’t have no father.”
“That’s not true. He passed before you were born, but you had a father.”
“You knew him?”
“He was my husband. Adonis, I would like it very much if you would come and stay with me. Do you think you want to do that?”
“What was his name?”
We don’t hear the answer to that question because the film cuts to the title, in large capi- tal letters, starkly white with some smudging on a black screen, CREED.
And thus, the filmmakers, who probably never read Freud’s 1909 paper, have begun their film with a family romance fantasy in bright letters.
Through the vehicle of that fantasy made real, Adonis can be both a poor boy who grew up fighting, similar to Rocky, himself, and the son and heir to a great boxing champion. In the imagery of film, which usually functions on a fantasy level, Adonis is a child of destiny.
It also allows for a built-in contradiction. Throughout the film, Adonis will be reminded he is a rich woman’s son, brought up in the lap of luxury, who has no reason to be in a boxing ring. This is communicated by his adoptive mother, who fears she’ll lose her son the way she lost her husband, by the trainer at the local gym in Los Angeles, even by his ultimate opponent, the champion, Ricky Conlan, who has a Rocky-like background of his own. Even Rocky tells him he sounds too smart and sophisticated to be in the ring. Yet, we will not forget his true background.
The trainer at his local gym in LA tells him, “Adonis, these boys come in here, this how they survive. They gotta fight for life. Kill or be killed. People die in there. Your daddy died in the ring. This ain’t no joke.”
“I don’t know him. Ain’t got nothin’ to do with me.”
“Okay, you real tough now.”
“Nah, I ain’t training you. Nobody training you. I’m going to make sure about that.” Adonis jumps into a ring in front of him and challenges the professional boxers. When he knocks the first one down, he yells at him,
“Where was you at when I was in group homes, huh? You miss a meal? Nah!”
The film doesn’t emphasize it, but it’s clear that Adonis is caught between competing self- images, reinforced by those around him. He’s the rich son of a revered father. He’s an angry street kid, fighting his way through life. He’s the loved son of an adoptive mother who is terrified that he’ll die the way her husband died, his father. He uses his original name, Johnson, his birth mother’s name and says about his father, “I don’t know him. Ain’t got nothin’ to do with me.” Yet, he watches film of his famous father and shadow boxes as he watches. Again, in very concise form, the film reveals internal conflict and pain.
And something else that stands out in the opening dialogue between Adonis and Mary Anne:
“I’m sorry about your mother. (pause) I know what it’s like to lose someone. (pause) When your father died, I was angry for so long. I hurt myself, pushed family away.”
“I don’t have no father.”
In that snippet, we learn that Adonis’s mother has died, leaving him fatherless and motherless, and that Mary Anne has had to deal with the intense grief of losing her hus- band.
The theme of traumatic loss will appear over and over in Creed.
When Adonis tells his mother that he is going to be a boxer like his father, she tells him,
“You know how many times I had to carry your father up these stairs because he could- n’t walk? … How many times I had to wipe his ass because he couldn’t use his hands. Is that what you want?”
When he replies that he “can get hurt doing anything,” she replies, “Apollo didn’t get hurt. He got killed. People get killed.”
Her traumatization and fear is palpable, but she also says in a tender voice, revealing another side, “You are your father’s son, and you’re part of him. But it doesn’t mean you have to be him.”
We experience that pain of loss again through Rocky. Rocky isn’t interested in train- ing the young man who comes to his place after hours. The younger man gets him into a conversation about the past, about his fights with Apollo Creed. In answer to his question about how Rocky had defeated Creed, who Rocky says was the greatest fighter, Rocky gives an answer that resonates with the film’s overall theme,
“Time defeated him. Time, you know, takes everybody out, it’s undefeated.”
Loss, trauma, grief is inevitable, an integral part of life.
After Adonis tells him that Apollo was his father and that he can call Mary Anne to verify it, Rocky sits down, obviously feeling the grief. He talks about his guilt for not having stopped the fight in which Apollo was killed. Adonis suggests that Apollo got what he wanted, to die in the ring. Rocky answers,
“I think he’d rather be here talking with you.”
We can feel the conflict and the pain. Rocky has his own traumatic history. We see him visiting the graves of his wife, Adrian, and his good friend, her brother, Paulie. He’s clear- ly a regular visitor, keeps a folding chair in a tree near the graves. He wishes Paulie a happy birthday and leaves him a bottle of liquor at the gravesite.
“I didn’t forget you. Your favorite. Miss you, Pal. Hello, Adrian, my darling. The best of the best.” He talks to her about his life, his physi- cal condition, and then opens the paper, seated on his chair.
It’s a brief scene that makes its point with understatement. We immediately sense the grief that Rocky lives with on a daily basis. When Adonis finally worms his way into Rocky’s life enough to get him to start training him, we see that Rocky lives alone. He hasn’t been visiting the old gym. Paulie’s room is still there, some of his belongings undisturbed. Rocky has a picture of his son, but tells Adonis that his son lives in Canada, was not interest- ed in boxing, has his own family, and sees Rocky only occasionally. There is a suggestion that he left Philadelphia out of discomfort at being the child of a local legend.
In an additional touch that may be a little too obvious, Adonis meets a young woman, Bianca, a neighbor, who turns out to be a pro- fessional singer who is living with a progres- sive hearing loss. She knows that some day she will be deaf. There is virtually no character in this film who is not dealing with traumatic loss.
But, for those of you who have not seen Creed, don’t think that it’s about self-pity. This is, after all, a “Rocky” movie. The trauma, the grief is there; but, the film is about coping with it.
The primary mechanism for coping is through relationships, particularly replace- ments. We have seen that Adonis, who had lost a mother, finds another in Mary Anne. She, too, having lost a husband and without a child, finds Adonis to raise and love. Similarly, just as Adonis finds Rocky to train him, much as his father had trained Rocky at one time, Rocky also finds the son that he has apparent- ly lost.
The film focuses on this issue of trauma and coping with a device that at the same time seems contrived and obvious, but also commonplace, to be expected. As Rocky is training Creed for his world championship fight against “Pretty Ricky Conlan,” Rocky gets sick. Adonis takes him to the hospital, and after his release, we see Rocky, Adonis and Bianca toasting and enjoying an intimate dinner at Rocky’s apartment.
However, we soon see that Rocky gets a call from the hospital while at the gym. When he visits the doctor, he is told that his biopsy was positive for large cell non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He is advised to have the tumor removed and to begin chemotherapy immediately.
“My wife tried that.”
“Mr. Balboa, as far as options for treatment, this is the best plan of action.”
“No, I understand, but my wife tried that and I don’t think I wanna do it. Didn’t turn out so good. But it’s okay.”
“With treatment, you’ll still have a very good chance of recovery. Without it … ” (a shake of the head)
Rocky, putting on his hat, replies, “I’m okay with it, really.”
She gives him some material with informa- tion on his diagnosis and options for treatment. He thanks her and asks her not to tell anyone.
But he does, indirectly. He leaves his jacket in the gym where he is training Adonis with the written material about the lymphoma sticking out of his pocket. Adonis sees it and confronts him.
There is something jarring about having this development tossed into the film. It feels like an obvious plot device, too obtrusive. As I have said, people Rocky’s age do get lymphoma. In a film of unlikelihoods, this is really not so unlikely; but, we know that it is there because the filmmakers put it there for the effect. Despite all that, it works. And it works because of the use to which it is put.
“This shit for real?”
“Doesn’t matter. What you should be think- ing about is that fight coming up. That’s the only thing you should think about, nothing else.” “What you mean don’t think about this?
When you starting treatment?”
“I’m not doing no chemotherapy. No.”
“You don’t jump on this quick, you’re gonna end up dying.”
“And you’re all right with that?”
“You sound crazy, man. Gimme the keys. I’ll take you to the hospital right now.”
“I’m not crazy at all. If I could take everything that was good and put it into a bowl or something and say, ‘Hey! Here, I’d like to buy one more day with my wife,’ I’d do it. I would die a happy man, right then. Not gonna happen. … (exhales loudly) So, everything I got has moved on and I’m here. But you know what? It’s okay. Because I said to myself, ‘If I break, hurt, whatever, I ain’t gonna fix it. Why bother?’”
“And I’m just some bum just living in your crib, just nothing.”
“You’re a good kid, a good fighter. But you got your whole future ahead of you. Mine?” (He points to the wall behind him with announcements of past fights.) “Back there, like all them guys on that wall. In the back. In the past. We’re going nowhere. I am to you just an old trainer. That’s what brought us together. You know? We’re not a real family.” (Adonis turns away.) “That was just in our heads, kid.”
Adonis is visibly upset. He punches a locker, turns and moves to another area behind some lockers.
Rocky puts on his hat, saying to himself, “Oh, what’d you do, what’d you do? Why’d you say that?”
Rocky’s lymphoma is a plot device, but not a plot device just sitting there to elicit sympathy. It is used to focus on the film’s central theme. Virtually every major character in this film has suffered serious trauma. Adonis was born without a father and then lost his mother early in life. Rocky has lost his wife and his best friend. Bianca is faced with a future of permanent hearing loss. But the film’s emphasis is not trauma; it is resilience.
Let’s go back a bit in the film to two parallel scenes having to do with Adonis’s decision to go ahead with the championship fight. The champion’s trainer and manager has made it a condition for the fight to go on that Adonis take on the name, Creed. Clearly, he wants to exploit that name, that connection, in the absence of any other credible contender. Adonis is considering it, but doubtful. We see him with Bianca, sitting in bed in close con- tact. She asks him what he’s afraid of about the fight. He turns the question on her.
“What are you afraid of? … I mean this hearing shit …”
“I always knew it would happen eventually so my plan has always just been to do what I love for as long as I can. I think that’s all we ever do. You know?”
She asks him again.
“I’m afraid of taking on the name and losing. They’ll call me a fraud. Fake Creed.”
“Why don’t you think about what’s true? You love to fight, right? Yeah, it makes you happy, right? Yeah, and you are Apollo Creed’s son, right?”
“Yeah.” “So then use the name. It’s yours.” (They kiss, not with passion, but with affec-
tion.) A little later, we see a “parallel” scene, with
Adonis and Rocky talking about whether to call to accept the championship fight offer.
“It ain’t easy for me to be in your corner kid. I don’t know if you’re ready for it. I don’t know if I’m ready for it. But I’ll do what you wanna do.”
“If it was anybody else in my corner, I wouldn’t do it. But I got you. So make the call.”
I’ve called them parallel scenes because they both emphasize coping with fear through relationships. In the first scene, Adonis and Bianca are bonding by talking about their fears and how to handle them. But she is also telling him that he has a father and can use his father’s name proudly as his own. In the dialogue with Rocky, Adonis says, “If it was anybody else in my corner, I wouldn’t do it.” He is also acknowledging the relationship and the trust that goes with it. These scenes con- firm what I have earlier called a family romance fantasy; but, in a sense, they take them out of the realm of fantasy, as only films can do.
The scene in which Adonis confronts Rocky about his cancer brings these issues to a poignant head. When Rocky hears about the diagnosis and the recommendation, he responds by saying that his wife took chemo and it “didn’t turn out so good.” It is not mere- ly the prospect of suffering through chemotherapy. It has brought back the memo- ries and the grief with intensity. He is acutely aware of his loss. Rocky tells us that he would give anything for one more day with Adrian. Without his loved ones and his career, he has no reason to struggle to live.
This is not a film about people destroyed by trauma. It is a film about resilience, a resilience based on intimate relationships, families; families that are biological and those constructed in the mind. Now, in his grief, Rocky tries to destroy that fantasy. “We’re not a real family.” Then, when he sees Adonis’s reaction, he asks himself “Why’d you say that?”
We know why he said it. He said it because at that moment he was feeling his personal loss, the devastation of losing his family. We can also speculate that he said it to protect Adonis from another loss, the death of another father figure. And, of course, he said it because it was in the script, because the device was needed, not to add another bit of pathos, but to shine a light on the need that people have for one another, the need to cre- ate a new family if the first one is lost.
The crisis deepens as Adonis, already filled with rage and unsure of family ties, gets into a fight at the site of Bianca’s big performance, angered by the performer who headlines her show calling him “baby Creed.” We can read all kinds of meaning into that, but it results in a rift between Adonis and Bianca. We also see him arguing with Rocky in a holding cell after that fight.
But, this is a feel good movie. And not because of the big fight, a near reproduction of Rocky’s fight with Apollo Creed. The boxing match is just a prop, an undercard. The emo- tional impact comes from seeing Rocky (who has agreed to treatment for his lymphoma as a condition for Adonis going through with the fight) in Adonis’s corner with Bianca cheering him on, with his adoptive mother, Mary Anne, watching on TV, feeling his pain, but crying with pride and joy.
This is all done with obvious intent and artistry by the filmmakers. We are meant to feel that we can cope with adversity, with trauma, and that the vehicle for that is our relationships with other people. In the spirit of that, I’ll close with a quote from a hero in another sport.
“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”
Freud, S. (1909). Family Romances. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume IX (1906-1908): Jensen’s ‘Gradiva’ and Other Works, 235-242.
Originally published in the Fall, 2016 issue of the PANY Bulletin.