Ryan Coogler’s Creed delivers a powerful knockout blow in the story structure department. Want to know why it scores 94% on Rotten Tomatoes? Every Throughline is accounted for and the thematic elements in each all add up to a coherent and consistent message: never back down.
A lesser film would simply hit viewers over the head with that controlling idea, Creed does it with skill and panache. That single tracking shot during “Hollywood Donnie’s” first fight? Simply icing on the cake of a terrific story.
Adonis “Donnie” Johnson Creed (Michael B. Jordan) is Apollo Creed’s son, a label he wants everyone to stop using (Main Character Throughline of
Universe, Main Character Growth of
Stop). Donnie is unproven and anytime he gets an opportunity to show people how wrong they are about him, he takes it—and shows them the truth (Main Character Problem of
Unproven, Main Character Symptom of
Non-accurate, and Main Character Response of
Accurate). Donnie doesn’t hesitate to step into the ring, from beginning to end, and comes to terms with being his father’s son (Main Character Approach of
Do-er, Main Character Resolve of
Steadfast, and Story Judgment of
Then we have the boxing world, complete with training sessions, amateur fights, and championship bouts—all with one goal in mind: to determine who is the best (Overall Story Throughline of
Physics, Overall Story Concern of
Doing). Everyone has their place in this world, a ranking that determines who they can fight and who they can’t, a ranking that generally favors those with more fights under the belt (Overall Story Issue of
Experience and Overall Story Problem of
Determination). Tensions rise and punches are thrown the moment someone says something intolerable and as reflected in Donnie’s Throughline, the resulting efforts are geared towards setting the record straight (Overall Story Symptom of
Non-accurate, Overall Story Response of
Accurate). In the end, it is Donnie who shocks the audience and even the announcers themselves, driving them to proclaim they “never expected” to see Creed still standing. Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew) may have won, but it was
Protagonist Creed that ultimately showed everyone how it was done by beating their expectations (Story Outcome of
Success, Story Goal of
Doing, and Overall Story Solution of
Expectation). “Conlan won the fight, but Creed won the night.”
Challenging Donnie’s emotional growth every step of the way, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) enters the film with his mind set: he’s not getting back in the ring (Influence Character Throughline of
Mind). Determined to avoid the same fate as his beloved deceased wife Adrian, Rocky refuses to seek treatment for cancer, preferring to live out his days numb and unresponsive to life’s blows (Influence Character Problem of
Determination, Influence Character Concern of
Preconscious). Remembering the endless bouts his wife experienced with chemo, Rocky prefers to keep it quiet and lets the disease consume him (Influence Character Symptom of
Unending and Influence Character Response of
Unfortunately for Rock he develops a relationship with Donnie, a battle of wits and a battle of how one sees the world (Relationship Story Throughline of
Psychology). They’re both fighters and come together almost as a way to make up for Apollo Creed’s tragic end (Relationship Story Problem of
Cause). Seeing the results of their hard work brings them closer and gives them both a reason to climb those steps at the end together (Relationship Story Solution of
More importantly though—and essential for the story’s meaning—is Rock’s eventual paradigm shift. He changes his Resolve the moment he declares that he looks forward to seeking treatment for his disease (Influence Character Resolve
Changed, Influence Character Solution of
Expectation). It may appear at first glance that both Rock and Donnie change their resolve. After all, Donnie comes to terms with his father’s legacy.
But Donnie’s revelation that he wants to know that he was not a mistake is something he will never know. It’s almost as if he is accepting that part of himself—that Main Character Problem of Unproven—and owning it as a source of pride and a source of drive. Narratively speaking, he grows into his Resolve.
Creed is a welcome addition to the Rocky mythos. Expertly told, brilliantly shot, and honestly acted, this film sits up there with the best of the best for 2015. Spotlight may have won the night, but there were plenty of other contenders that beat all expectations.