I remember Rocky IV in the mid-1980s, at the peak of Reagan's (and Donald Trump's) America. It's a film so mesmerizingly patriotic to American exceptionalism, the boxer 'Italian Stallion' Rocky Balboa as the plucky underdog, avenging the brutal death of his friend Apollo Creed by taking on the steroid-abusing giant who killed said friend in the ring, Russian Ivan Drago. I seem to remember at least three montages as Rocky first mulls over his Hamlet-like destiny to avenge his friend's death, and then unlike Hamlet, goes into training to whip some Russian ass. There's No Easy Way Out, indeed. Rocky's triumphant, improvised speech at the end getting President Gorbachev up from his chair, applauding, muttering, 'Who is this man?' is one of the all-time memorable orations, in terms of silliness. Though only a child when I first watched Rocky IV, I realized then it was Rocky, not democracy, who really won the Cold War for America.
Those were the days, when the capitalist system was about to deliver the seemingly knock-out blow to its only serious rival. Now, we have neoliberalism: there are no really different ways of doing things, people in America can be whatever they want to be, so goes the narrative, and America has nobody to go toe to toe with its power. This, indeed, is one of two major problems with Creed 2, so silently banal is the 'nemesis' in this movie, Ivan Drago's son, Viktor: imagine a really embittered, angry version of Viktor Krum from the Durmstrang school in Harry Potter on discovering Ron Weasley is marrying Hermione.
Creed 2 nevertheless is a completely different beast to both Harry Potter and Rocky IV, the national politics replaced with family drama. Up-and-coming Viktor Drago wants to fight (and beat) Creed because Creed's father-figure, Rocky Balboa, defeated Viktor's father Ivan. That original loss, we are told, consigned the Dragos back in the 1980s to national humiliation and poverty, the wife/mother (played again by the icily beautiful Brigitte Nielson) walking out on them. This could have been an interesting storyline but the film explores it insufficiently, giving us only caricatured anger from Viktor, though a few tender moments do flicker between the shamed, aging Ivan, and his brooding son, especially at the end. One particular moment involving the use of the white towel, I find poignant and moving even now.
Creed, played by Michael B. Jordan, I found a more difficult character to care about. Already rich, with a beautiful new apartment overlooking Los Angeles, Creed and his professional singer/songwriter partner Bianca (Tessa Thompson) apparently have it all, though complications arise with the birth of their first child. Like the plot to Rocky III (Rocky vs Mr T's 'Clubber Lang'), Creed will have two fights, allowing his arc to move from complacency to kick-ass determination. Family issues are eventually overcome/resolved for both fighters.
A neoliberal Rocky movie for the ages, then? Creed 2 I found strangely inconsequential, without the bombast and over-the-top theatrics of Rocky's melodrama, as a film that tries to be more serious and loses something along the way. Michael B. Jordan's protagonist is too handsomely articulate and healthy to be an underdog, his wife too beautiful and talented, his home too plush, his social surroundings too unconnected to his identity in terms of neighbourhood. Rocky more effectively portrayed a physically damaged, working-class hero done good – the boy from the streets of blue collar Philadelphia – while Creed could be from anywhere in the USA. In fairness I missed the first Creed film, and perhaps that gives us the roots this protagonist needs, but like Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born, the heroes seem to fit this world of fame and fortune too easily. I find myself thinking back, meanwhile, to a quote from Marilyn Monroe, on how dreaming of being famous was much more fun than being it. It's the second problem at the heart of Creed 2 and the already-has-everything protagonist, whose violent cause I don't completely understand, beyond the apparent joy of beating the crap out of people.