In the 40 years since Sylvester Stallone’s iconic cinematic boxing saga began, there have been good Rocky movies and there have been not-so-good Rocky movies (I’m looking at you, Rocky V). The newest instalment, Creed, is not just a good Rocky movie—it’s also a good movie, full stop. That’s what makes it so baffling that the sports drama—the best Rocky since, well, Rocky—was passed over for tonight’s Academy Awards in at least three no-brainer categories that it should absolutely have been nominated for: Best Actor, Best Director and Best Picture.
Creed hits so many of the same notes as the original Rocky that at times it feels like a reboot; an underdog fighter up against a world champion, a reluctant love interest, training montage after training montage and, of course, a make-or-break boxing match all appear. But as steeped as it is in nostalgia for its predecessors, Creed does deviate from the films that came before it in an important way, as evidenced straight from the title: This is the first Rocky that isn’t really about Rocky Balboa. Instead, Stallone steps into a supporting role (and earns his well-deserved Best Supporting Actor nod, the film’s only Oscar nomination) to let Michael B. Jordan star as the son of Apollo Creed, Rocky’s greatest rival and friend, who died dramatically in the Italian Stallion’s arms in Rocky IV.
Adonis Creed, nicknamed Donnie, never knew his father, but he approaches Rocky, now lonelier even than he was in 2006’s Rocky Balboa, to mentor him as he trains to follow in Apollo’s footsteps. One major way in which Creed deviates from Rocky’s formula is in its hero’s motivation: Rocky, a blue-collar, grade-school dropout, had nothing to lose and everything to prove when he got his big break, but Donnie, adopted as a child by his father’s wealthy widow (Phylicia Rashad), is instead grappling with whether he can live up to his dad’s legacy and still step out of its shadow. While Rocky was a character study and a romance (remember that even as the crowds cheer him, Rocky wants only Adrian), Creed is a sports movie, in the best possible way.
It’s not the first time that Stallone has played the role of mentor rather than fighter—he took on a similar role in Rocky V—but here he and Jordan have remarkable chemistry, and it’s not surprising that the film’s best scenes are between the two. Jordan plays the role with such intensity and charisma that it’s a shame he was passed over for Best Actor, since he is superbly natural alongside both Stallone and the wonderful Tessa Thompson, who plays his hearing-impaired, musician love interest.
Stallone will likely take home the Oscar tonight, as he should (who else could bring tears to filmgoers’ eyes simply by taking off his hat?). But in a year of #OscarsSoWhite, it seems like an embarrassing omission not to recognise Ryan Coogler, the director also behind Fruitvale Station, who paints such affectionate portraits of modern-day Philadelphia while still honouring his source material. And while Creed probably wouldn’t have been able to defeat heavy hitters like The Revenant or Spotlight in the Best Picture category, it’s heart would have made it a worthy, Rocky-style underdog.