Warning: This post contains spoilers for Creed II and Rocky IV.
Even as it continues the story begun in Ryan Coogler’s 2015 box-office hit, Creed II also renews a fictional sports rivalry that started over three decades ago. For the fourth installment in his beloved Rocky franchise, writer-director-star Sylvester Stallone pitted former heavyweight champ Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) and his rival-turned-friend, Rocky Balboa, against the Soviet Express, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), in a pair of brutal bouts. Released in 1985, Rocky IV remains the highest-grossing entry in the series, so it’s no surprise that Creed II decided to bring Drago back into the fold. In the highly anticipated sequel, which Stallone co-wrote and almost directed, a new generation of fighters — Apollo’s son Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) and Ivan’s son Viktor (Florian Munteanu) — step into the ring where their predecessors once battled … and one memorably fell.
The tortured history between the Balboa, Creed and Drago dynasties was alluded to in Creed, but the shadow of Rocky IV looms larger over Creed II, which opens in theaters today. Watch the video above to learn how Creed II is a direct sequel to Rocky IV.
When Rocky IV begins, Rocky’s professional life couldn’t be in better shape, and so for the first time in a long time, he’s poised to put family first. The opening moments of the film find him bonding with his son, Rocky Jr., gifting his curmudgeonly brother-in-law, Paulie (Burt Young), with a one-of-a-kind birthday present and spending some quality time with the love of his life, Adrian (Talia Shire). Unfortunately, Drago’s arrival in the U.S. as part of a Soviet exhibition tour places an immediate hold on the Balboa family bonding. Rocky is in Apollo’s corner for his buddy’s doomed fight, and then almost immediately he has to start training for his own bout. Even in the few moments he’s able to spare for his son, his mind is only on Drago.
As the later Rocky sequels revealed, Rocky Jr. grew up to have a cordial but distant relationship with his dad, in part because of Balboa’s career. That’s a big reason why the older Balboa is making a concentrated effort to be present for Adonis in Creed II, especially as the younger Creed is about to become a dad himself. Soon after winning the heavyweight belt, Adonis learns that his girlfriend, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), is pregnant with their daughter. He’s all too aware of what an important presence he’ll have in the baby’s life, but first there’s a Drago-shaped obstacle to overcome. And if he’s not careful, the tragic history of the Creed family could repeat itself.
Apollo’s death at the fists of Ivan Drago is a top-five franchise moment, and nobody was more grief-stricken than Carl Weathers. When The A.V. Club asked the actor in 2014 if he was OK with Stallone’s decision to permanently retire Apollo, he replied, “Of course not! But what are you going to do? That’s the way it was written, and that ended Apollo Creed.”
At least Weathers can take heart in knowing that Apollo died so that Adonis could live. After growing up in his father’s shadow, the younger Creed has become his own man and his own fighter. But the world still expects him to want to avenge Apollo in another Creed vs. Drago bout. Rocky knows all too well that grief can be fought through but never fully defeated. Thirty years after besting Drago Sr., Balboa still mourns his friend and regrets his own role in his death. That grief hits him in the face all over again when he sees his old foe staring at him from across the ring — still intent on breaking him decades after their first grudge match.
Next to the boxing matches, training montages are the best parts of any Rocky movie. And Rocky IV has awesome training montages. Relocating to the Russian tundra to prepare for his fight with Drago, Balboa gets creative with his fitness routine, chopping wood, running up mountains and bench-pressing whatever he can find. Aside from pumping up the crowd, his unconventional methods prove a point: While Drago relies on technology to become the perfect fighting machine, Rocky uses the elements to transform himself into a force of nature. Balboa tries the same trick with Adonis in Creed II, taking him to a desert climate where the training regimen involves hitting tires with a sledgehammer and running in extreme heat. It’s a place where the younger Creed can work up a serious sweat … and emerge as a better fighter.
Rocky IV was released as the Cold War entered its final years, and the movie presents Rocky’s defeat of Drago as an American triumph over the Soviet Union. Balboa even appeals to the power of hope and change in his big speech, which was written by Stallone: Three decades later, America and Russia are once again at odds, and that’s felt in Creed II. Viktor Drago grew up in a nation where the class and economic divides increased, and he and his father carry decades of resentment toward Balboa for toppling them from their previously privileged perch. Meanwhile, Adonis may not wrap himself in the flag like Rocky did, but he still rocks his father’s star-spangled boxing shorts when he fights his Russian opponent on Drago’s home turf of Moscow. In the Rocky universe, a battle this personal, and political, can only be settled in one place: the boxing ring.
Creed II is playing in theaters now.
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