There are more moments of pure cinematic rapture in Creed than in any other movie I’ve seen this year. From the whirling, long-take fight at its center to the ebullient training montage that moves the film into its final confrontation, Ryan Coogler’s direction shines in both its technical virtuosity and its ability to capture its hero’s emotional journey.
Coogler’s work behind the camera is matched by strong performances in front of it, particularly from the film’s two leads, Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone, as well as Tessa Thompson. Jordan plays Adonis, a young boxer and the son of Apollo Creed, the foil of the first two Rocky films who was played by Carl Weathers; Stallone returns as an aging Rocky Balboa, a role he’s been playing since 1976; and Thompson plays Adonis’s neighbor and eventual love interest, Bianca. The dialogue, from a screenplay by Coogler and Aaron Covington, is simultaneously more poetic and more naturalistic than that of previous Rocky films, and it gives many of the scenes a gentle sense of life and breath.
But Creed’s striking direction and punchy performances ultimately serve what turns out to be an extremely conventional sports story with few real surprises or unexpected turns. In particular, it fails to follow through on one of its most interesting characters, Bianca, who all but disappears in the film’s third act — appearing only briefly to reconcile with Adonis after a fight, sleep with him, and provide reaction shots during the inevitable final boxing match.
Like so many love interests in so many movies, Bianca is, in the end, relegated to the role of male protagonist support, reflecting him back to himself and motivating him when he needs it most.
That left me frustrated, in part because Creed seems to want to do so much more with her character. Indeed, for most of the film, Bianca isn’t just a loving woman in proximity to Adonis, she’s an independent person with specific goals — and recognizable personal challenges — of her own.
Bianca has her own story and struggles — until she doesn't
As the story unfolds, we learn that Bianca is an ambitious and obviously talented singer-songwriter, but she wears a hearing aid because she’s slowly going deaf — fading, in her own way, just like a boxer.
Bianca’s arc reflects one of the recurring sub-themes in the film: the unavoidable punishments of age and time. As Stallone’s Rocky tells Adonis, "Time takes everbody out. Time’s undefeated." For the former champ, decades past his prime, it’s everyday reality, but for Adonis, it’s motivation.
The same goes for Bianca. Despite her impairment, she’s writing music, playing shows, and building a career. Like Adonis, she’s making her life into what she wants it to be, before time takes her out, too. And she’s happy to have him along — just as he’s happy to have her along.
Throughout the second act, Creed presents the two as equals and independents. There’s a great conversation in the middle of the movie in which they playfully squabble over the role they each play in each other’s life. You’re my motivation, Adonis says to her. No, you’re my motivation, she responds. The point of the scene is that the inspiration goes both ways.
The exchange works as both an encapsulation of their competitive, playful relationship and a subtle shot at the reigning Hollywood formulas that govern love interest subplots in so many movies.
Bianca’s subplot is what screenplay guru Blake Snyder calls the B-story, which is usually where the love interest gets stashed. The B-story provides a break from the main story — in this case, Adonis’s increasingly difficult boxing training regime — and serves as an opportunity for the protagonist to ponder what the main story means. It allows for the hero to engage in self-questioning and introspection with a character who can reflect his thoughts back to himself, and whose insights provide the key, or at least the drive, to chase the main story to its end. Often, then, the B-story's main character is less of a well-developed, believable person and more of a mirror.
Creed, a rise-to-the-top boxing movie, is about perseverance and drive, about making the most of the time you have — so that’s what comes up when Adonis talks to Bianca. The script cleverly twists this idea, in a small way, by suggesting that he’s performing the same function for her. They’re both heroes in their own stories.
Yet in the third act, the movie completely drops Bianca's thread. The character, who has just played a big show (at which Adonis assaulted a member of another band, causing an understandable rift between the two), practically disappears, returning only at the last moment for a hurried reconciliation, a happy meeting in a hotel room, and a handful of climactic reaction shots. Creed’s coda provides no sense of where her life will go. Thus, in terms of the movie’s overall schema, there’s no question: She’s his motivation.
This happens in so many other movies, too
That’s fair enough, in some ways: The movie is called Creed, not Bianca. It’s his story, not hers. But the film's treatment of Bianca is indicative of the ways in which love interests and female supporting characters in general tend to get left behind as films race to their conclusions.
You can see something similar, if not exactly comparable, at work in the otherwise very good screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s Cold War thriller Bridge of Spies. Amy Ryan plays Mary, the wife of Tom Hanks’ lawyer character, James Donovan — and practically every one of her scenes revolves around the worries and concerns she has about her husband’s choices. She’s not a character so much as a sounding board and a conscience.
The same goes for Léa Seydoux’s character, Dr. Madeine Swann, in Spectre, the latest James Bond film. Swann comments on Bond’s various life choices; absurdly declares that she loves him after knowing him for just a few days; and, at the beginning of the film’s climax, tries to walk away — only to reappear, trapped by the villain’s plan, in order to amp up the emotional stakes. Once again, she’s a conscience and a motivation instead of a believable, specific person.
Granted, this "role" isn’t limited strictly to female characters; both Liam Hemsworth’s Gale and Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta perform a similar functions in The Hunger Games, as does Michael Biehn’s Lt. Hicks in Aliens.
But if you go back through the years, you’ll find far more female characters in these secondary roles — whether in prestige dramas like Flight or blockbusters like Jurassic World and Ant-Man or genre exercises like Olympus Has Fallen or the Taken sequels. Some of these characters are more fleshed out than others, but they all tend to exist to service the main character and his goals more than their own.
Why giving secondary characters their own stories makes for better films overall
Not every character can be a hero in every film, of course, but supporting characters tend to be more interesting and memorable when they have recognizable goals and desires of their own, and when they don’t disappear (or fade conveniently into the background) as soon as they’ve served their primary purpose of showing the main character the light. Films like The Martian or even Captain America: The Winter Soldier are very much centered on their male protagonists, but don’t entirely neglect their female characters in the end.
My favorite recent twist on the formula, though, comes from Mad Max: Fury Road, which turns Tom Hardy’s title character into the catalyst for his female co-star, Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, to accomplish her major goal. The big turn at the end of the second act comes when Max convinces Furiosa and the other women from the mythical Green Place to fight Furiosa’s warlord tormentor, Immortan Joe. They turn around, and ultimately it’s she, not Max, who strikes the killing blow before ascending to take Joe's place as a ruler of the wastes. It’s her story, not his. He’s the B-story in his own movie — and it’s great.
That sort of shift is probably more than one could reasonably expect from a film like Creed, which was always going to be a boxer’s story, capped by a pummeling showdown inside a ring. Even still, I wish this joyous and marvelously well-crafted film had been willing to be just a little more unconventional in its structure and storytelling, and to make just a little more room for the character of Bianca — and her own fights and dreams — as well.