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THE NEW ROCKY

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THE LATEST ITERATION IN A FRANCHISE THAT BEGAN 42 YEARS AGO, CREED II LEAVES NO DOUBT THAT MICHAEL B. JORDAN IS THE LONG-TERM FUTURE OF SYLVESTER STALLONE'S CREATION

THE KIDS SITTING in the front of the CityPlex12 theater in Newark are excited, very excited, because Michael B. Jordan is here. It's a Monday night in Jordan's hometown, and the actor/sex symbol/cultural icon has invited three theaters full of guests to a private screening of his new movie, Creed II, a week before its release. The first two rows are taken up by the She Wins Scholars, teenage girls from a social action organization that serves children affected by inner-city violence. They're wearing iridescent head wraps and incandescent smiles, and before Jordan entered the theater, they had their fists balled and their biceps flexed, emulating a boxer. Now they're gasping and shrieking as he walks past. Soon they rush toward him, their palms clasped over their mouths, grabbing hold of his arm, his shoulder, his hand, refusing to let go. Jordan brushes away his concerned security detail. It's O.K., he says. It's good.

The guests here tonight are from his old high school and his old church, from community centers and from youth groups; they are young and old, male and female; most of them are black, proudly celebrating black culture—bantu knots and protective-style braids, natural curls flowing freely, Malcolm X and Colin Kaepernick T-shirts. Those in the back of the theater—the parents and the grandparents, the ones who remember Rocky entering the cultural lexicon 42 years ago—they are proud.

"We love you, baby," a woman with close-cropped silver hair yells out. "God bless you."

There are hugs, so many hugs, as Jordan winds his way around the room, like a family gathering on the holidays. Some dab tears, others simply let them fall. As the Creed II script has it, Jordan is Adonis Creed, son of Apollo, doting fiancé to Bianca, loving father to Amara and heavyweight champion of the world. But to everyone in this room he is the new Rocky. Their Rocky.

IN 2012 Ryan Coogler, fresh out of film school at USC, finally managed to get a meeting with Sylvester Stallone after a year of trying. The 26-year-old's pitch: Resurrect the Rocky franchise and let me write and direct it.

But in Stallone's mind the iconic character was retired. It had taken him 16 years after Rocky V derailed the franchise to get a sixth film made, in 2006. In the final scene of that movie—Rocky Balboa, which earned the best reviews since the original, in '76—Rocky waves goodbye, thanking the adoring crowd in the arena and, in reality, the movie's audience. It marked a fitting end for the incomparable franchise.

Rocky is an anomaly in movie history. It has been honored by the exclusive National Film Registry along with all-time great movies such as Citizen Kane and Gone with the Wind; it was the first sports film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture; and when you adjust for inflation, the seven films that make up the Rocky saga rank 14th all time in gross box office earnings among franchises. And while most franchises have passionate fan bases—think superheroes—none have had the profound, far-reaching impact of Rocky, whose main character feels so real that Sylvester Stallone himself was inducted into the actual Boxing Hall of Fame in 2011.

"It's not even fair to put Rocky in the world of just other movies," says MGM president Jonathan Glickman. "He is a folk hero, and he is an American archetype."

In Philadelphia there are not one but two annual Rocky races—Rocky Run, which brings in 14,000 competitors hailing from 25 countries, and the Rocky 50K Fat Ass Race, which follows the exact 31-mile route that the character famously ran. Pulitzer Prize--winning journalist Michael Vitez spent a year in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, interviewing a thousand Rocky pilgrims who re-created the famous scene by running the 72 stone steps. In his 2006 book, Rocky Stories, Vitez features a man from France with a Muslim father and Catholic mother, ostracized by both sides, who found a paternal figure in Rocky; the two Bulgarian kids who go every year to pay their respects; the groom who, on his way to his wedding, thought of no better way to prepare for marriage. They came from all over the world, Vitez says, but they all shared a belief in the transformative power of Rocky.

Nearly everyone feels a connection to the self-made champion. After suffering through decades of war, disease and devastating floods, the citizens of Zitiste, Serbia (pop. 3,000), decided to erect a statue in 2011 to galvanize the town. They considered the Dali Lama, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Instead, they chose Rocky. Even North Korea dictator Kim Jong Un reportedly likes to have the movie's theme song performed at state occasions by large orchestras while clips of Rocky IV play in the background.

So Coogler, sitting in Stallone's home office, offered his own Rocky story.

As a kid in California, he and his father, Ira, would always watch the movies together, and his dad would cheer and laugh but mostly he'd cry. Ira would even cue up a favorite scene before Ryan's football and basketball games, playing the part from Rocky II, where the irascible trainer Mick (Burgess Meredith) goes into the hospital's chapel and tries to rouse Rocky out of his funk.

Recently, Coogler told Stallone, his father had been stricken by a condition that caused him to lose control of his skeletal muscles. Coogler was suddenly confronted with the concept of masculinity. What makes you strong? What makes you a man? His dad used to take care of him; now the roles were reversed.

Coogler wanted to explore the relationship between fathers and sons, and he wanted to do so through his dad's favorite character. His idea was to expand the Rocky universe, to tell the story of Adonis Creed, the son of Apollo Creed, the Rocky-villain-cum-best-friend. It would be an underdog story just like the original, but it would explore a new background, a new culture—the journey of a black man growing up without a father but still living in his shadow. To do so, he needed to bring back Rocky Balboa.

"No, kid," Stallone said. "I think we're tampering with something we should leave alone."

A year later Coogler's first feature-length film, Fruitvale Station, opened at the Sundance Film Festival to critical acclaim (with Jordan in the leading role). Stallone reconsidered their conversation, recalling the young director's energy and passion, and changed his mind. Coogler's was not a monetary drive, nor was it egotistical. He was sensitive and emotional; there was something authentic about him, something that reminded Stallone of himself five decades ago.

In 1974, Stallone had left New York City for Hollywood with the hopes of becoming a movie star, but he was struggling. He had gotten a few bit parts playing virtually the same character—a hardened street criminal—and had to take on roles in off-off-Broadway nude shows and soft-core porn flicks. By '75 Stallone had $106 in the bank, a pregnant wife and a bull mastiff that—legend has it—he had to sell to someone outside a 7-Eleven for $40 because he couldn't afford to feed it.

At some point he decided he wanted to take that character, a seeming brute, and explore the soul of the person underneath. He kept coming back to the concept of unrealized dreams. In 3½ days, he wrote the script for Rocky.

IN 1987 a comedian took to the stage in New York City in a purple-and-black paisley leather jumpsuit and performed one of the most beloved stand-up specials of all time, Eddie Murphy: Raw. He joked about the Rocky movies and the hold they have on a certain kind of audience. "White people, y'all go crazy after you see a Rocky movie because y'all believe that s---," Murphy said. "Stallone has y'all white people pumped."

The themes of grit and determination in the Rocky movies might be universal, but race is rarely addressed in the franchise. In 2010, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED ranked the 50 greatest fight films ever made; only two had black protagonists and both of those—The Great White Hope and The Great White Hype—are a self-conscious play on the racial tropes inherent in most boxing films.

Black boxers are often portrayed as loud, brash and animalistic, mere impediments for the white heroes to defeat. "We wanted to flip all those stereotypes," says Jordan, who was Coogler's choice to play the lead in Creed long before he pitched Stallone.

They both wanted Adonis to be smart, focused, reserved—not a loudmouthed self-promoter. Released in November 2015, Creed introduced audiences to a new hero and a new love story, showcasing not just millennial love but also black love. Tessa Thompson joined the cast to play Bianca—an emerging singer with degenerative hearing loss—and she was attracted to the role because it brought fuller, more nuanced female characters into the Rocky universe. Adrian is an iconic character, Thompson points out, but she existed mostly as a pillar of strength for her husband, with no real dreams or aspirations of her own. That, too, they were intent on changing.

A sequel was a fait accompli after Creed earned rave reviews and hauled in $173.6 million worldwide. It also proved that the old industry excuse was specious, at best. A movie with a black director and a majority black cast could have mainstream appeal, and Creed helped launch Coogler's and Jordan's next massive success together, Black Panther, in 2018.

With Coogler staying on as executive producer but unable to direct Creed II because of time conflicts, Stallone wrote the basic outline for the sequel. He was adamant that there needed to be a real villain, hence the return of Ivan Drago—the robotic Russian who killed Apollo Creed in Rocky IV with a vicious right hook—and the introduction of his son, Viktor, as the new challenger. Stallone was also originally set to direct the movie but soon realized that while Creed lived in the same universe, it wasn't Rocky. It existed on its own, speaking to a world that Stallone knew he couldn't.

So, on Coogler's suggestion, the studio approached Steven Caple Jr.—Coogler's friend and former classmate at USC's School of Cinema Arts. Caple knows movie history and laments that John Singleton never produced a Spike Lee movie in the same way that prominent white filmmakers collaborate with each other all the time.

When the job was offered, the 30-year-old Caple first had to overcome his apprehension at taking on such an iconic franchise. But with the handoff from Coogler, Caple thought, Why can't we be like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg?

"Keep it in the family," he says. "Cultivate the movement."

Jordan had decided long ago that he wanted only "white roles"—meaning ones that weren't written specifically for African-American actors. He didn't want to star in films that dealt strictly with skin color. In Creed the goal was to create a movie that didn't have race built into the plot but was still black at its core. The same remained true in the sequel.

Caple worked with black screenwriters Cheo Hodari Coker and Juel Taylor on the story and the script. The director also cribbed dialogue from his own life and added it into the movie—such as when he proposed to his wife, or when they were waiting on a pregnancy test in the bathroom. To make the story feel as real as possible he even added cursing, including one use of the n-word, despite MGM's trepidation, because that's "how we talk to each other," Caple says. "We just have moments where you feel the blackness, the black love, the black family. Those little moments are what make it yours, and what make it true to yourself."

Caple pushed Jordan to use his own journey. The 31-year-old actor was now being compared with Denzel Washington and Will Smith, and he felt overwhelmed and inadequate. He thought he had to create his own legacy. Just like Adonis, Caple said. Thompson expressed worry about Bianca's being pregnant and how that would affect her character's ambitions. She didn't want Bianca to end up barefoot, making Adonis sandwiches. Use that, Caple said, and the exact line ended up in the movie.

Over the years, the story of Stallone's steadfast refusal to sell Rocky to a studio that wouldn't let him star in it became its own underdog tale, inspiring countless others. Matt Damon has often said that there would be no Good Will Hunting without Rocky because it encouraged him and Ben Affleck to write their own springboard roles and act in the movie. Creed may have a similar impact for directors of color. Like Coogler, Caple was an unknown filmmaker before signing on to the Rocky/Creed franchise, having made only one movie, an indie titled The Land that explores inner-city poverty. Now he's directed a movie that brought in $55.8 million in its premiere weekend, the best Thanksgiving weekend opening for a live-action film in history.

Creed II is more than worthy as a sequel, mixing some of the more visceral boxing scenes with some the most poignant moments in franchise history. It also serves as a clear handoff from Rocky to Adonis and, in effect, from Stallone to Jordan. Everyone involved with the movie expresses a desire to make a Creed III, a Creed IV, a Creed V, and Jordan hopes audiences become so invested in the Adonis character that they want to see what kind of man he becomes later in life. Just like Rocky.

As Caple worked on the script, Stallone told the director that he didn't want to die in this movie. But the cast, the studio, and the producers are all preparing for a time when that may happen, when the franchise will go on without him. There's a scene near the end of the film in which Rocky sits in a chair outside the ring and lets Adonis soak in his moment, alone. "It's your time," he tells his protégé, echoing the same line that Stallone told Caple, Jordan and Thompson when they were filming.

"We are always trying to satisfy what the original pictures were about, but it's moving in its own direction," Thompson says. "To me it was a really graceful way of saying, You're with Creed now."