About 90 minutes and several inspirational montages into Creed, Ryan Coogler’s installment in the Rocky series, we’re hit with an emotional curveball: Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) has lymphoma. Up until this point, things have been looking up for our aging hero—Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), the unknown son of his deceased friend and fellow boxer, Apollo Creed, has shown up in Philadelphia and convinced him to train him as a fighter. Adonis moves in with Rocky, and, along with Adonis’ girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson), they form a close-knit family.
The doctor who delivers the sobering news to Rocky informs him that, luckily, his cancer is in the early stages, and if he starts chemotherapy right away, he’s got a good chance at survival. But he tells her somberly: “My wife tried that, it didn’t work.” He refuses the treatment, but when Adonis finds out about his diagnosis, the young trainee insists that he won’t continue training for his upcoming battle against the world light heavyweight champion “Pretty Ricky” Conlan unless his mentor goes through with chemo. “If you fight, I fight,” he tells a weary Rocky.
On the surface, such an encouraging vote of confidence is a logical one—why would Rocky, one of the greatest fighters to ever live, “give up” on life when he can knock cancer out just as he did James “Clubber” Lang in Rocky III? But in crafting a symbolic parallel between a pugilistic sports match and living with cancer, Creed also indulges in uncomfortable, all-too-familiar metaphorical language around illness. As others have noted in recent years, war analogies have become embedded in our discussions about cancer—we say someone is “battling” the disease, or that we need to help raise funds to “combat” it; those who don’t die directly from cancer are called “survivors.”
It’s well-intentioned language, meant to inspire hope in the face of incredible illness. Yet it can also be read as insensitive to sick people’s complicated feelings in the face of death—not everyone has the will to “fight,” and that should clearly be okay, too. “[Stuart] Scott’s disavowal of exceptional status reminds us that people with cancer should be treated not as demigods but as people,” former Slate intern Eliza Berman wrote in a response to the late ESPN host’s acceptance speech at the ESPY Awards in 2014. She praised him for avoiding much of the battle talk and downplaying his perceived superhero status, and wrote candidly of her personal experience with cancer within her family: “My mother lamented toward the end of her life, “Everyone always says to make the most of your time, but they don’t tell you that you won’t have an ounce of energy to do it with.”
When Rocky tells the doctor he has no intentions of being treated for cancer, it’s easy to see that he means it. It’s all over his face, which seems to age another 20 years in those few dramatic seconds—it’s a look of resignation, not relief. Coogler is a deft enough filmmaker not to resort to gimmicky flashbacks, but still, in this moment (and to Stallone’s credit in this performance), the viewer can fully sense that Rocky is recalling the last days of his beloved Adrian, and all the years he’s spent mourning her death. What’s so terrible about Rocky choosing to live out the rest of his days as he so chooses, rather than having to go through the physically and emotionally draining experience of radiation treatment after radiation treatment?
Well, nothing. But it’s also not a very palatable outcome for America’s favorite (fictional) boxer, whose legacy has been built explicitly around the notion of never “giving up” when the going gets tough. Admittedly, another montage after his diagnosis finds Rocky training Adonis in his hospital room while receiving treatment; it is quite touching, and more than a bit satisfying, even if you’re aware of the metaphor’s ick factor. So I understand the impulse and acknowledge its effectiveness—Creed as a whole is as populist-popcorn-fare as you can get this holiday season, and if Rocky Balboa is too old to actually fight in the ring anymore, he’s got to “fight” something else. And as I noted in my review last week, it’s easily the sort of film that will convert us non-sports-loving viewers averse to sports drama hokum into full-on sports enthusiasts. I only wish that, in crafting such a touching relationship between Rocky and Adonis, the film hadn’t inadvertently come down so hard on those who don’t have it in them to be a “fighter.”