One of the most powerful moments in Ryan Coogler’s Creed finds Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) alone at the graves of Adrian, his wife, and Paulie, his best friend. “It’s a good day today,” he says to the headstones with a sigh. “Got no problems. The bills are paid.” He sets down a rose for his wife and some liquor for his friend. He reads them the paper. He tells them about the various aches and pains sneaking up on him. He keeps up his routine. He’s lonely, though, maybe lonelier than he’s ever been: “Everything I got is moved on, and I’m here,” he’ll later tell Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan). As the Italian Stallion has discovered, the problem with getting everything you’ve ever wanted is that nothing lasts forever. Moments fade into memories, and then those fade, as well. Without purpose, without direction, hopelessness has a way of setting in: “If I break, if I’m hurt, I’m not going to fix it. Why bother?” Now age 70, Balboa’s trademark grit has given way to an existential funk, leaving him withdrawn and more than a little regretful.
Which brings us to Creed: Adonis presents Rocky with an opportunity to train an up and-coming young fighter (to get busy living, some would say), an opportunity made all the more solemn and necessary because that fighter is the son of the man he failed to save (though, it has to be said, he did gloriously avenge for America and for the world). That short scene at Adrian’s is so brilliant because it gives a more precise meaning and context to Rocky’s “You are your toughest opponent” adage. When the two men stare each other down in front of the framed photographs of Rocky and Apollo’s glory days, it becomes clear that what they’re really fighting is time; both men are looking for a chance to prove that what’s behind them does not define them, that they’re more than prisoners of the past. Adonis wants to make peace with the memory of a father he never got to meet by using the gifts he left behind to forge a new identity. At the same time, getting back in the game will grant Balboa a purpose he’ll desperately need once he realizes he’s facing cancer.