Sympathy for the Devil: Creed II’s Most Compelling Character is the Villain

Pop Culture

Sympathy for the Devil: Creed II’s Most Compelling Character is the Villain

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

The Rocky franchise is now eight films and 40 years old, which means new entrants in the series follow a well-trod path, and deliver comforting, familiar wish-fulfilment. There’s a few staple ingredients in these movies – the underdog protagonist, an epic training montage, Sylvester Stallone mumbling bits of folksy wisdom, and, of course, that background score – and Creed II does not disappoint fans looking for what they know and love. It’s a competent, watchable, if predictable film, which does its job of decisively passing the protagonist’s torch from Stallone’s Rocky Balboa to Michael B Jordan’s Adonis Creed.

Still for all the déjà vu and callbacks to earlier films that are scattered throughout Creed II, the film does manage to sneak in a surprise. It brings back Ivan Drago, the most imposing, intimidating villain in the franchise’s history, only to show a softer, more human side to his character. Even though Rocky and Adonis are ostensibly the good guys, their opponents, the so-called villains, make for much more compelling characters. Ivan and his son Viktor are on their own road to redemption, and had this movie been titled Drago instead of Creed, would have been natural protagonists themselves.

This narrative, with the Dragos as its focal point, gains credence with the movie’s first shots. Rather than featuring Adonis, we see a grizzled, beaten-down Ivan (played by a grizzled, beaten-down Dolph Lundgren) training his son Viktor as they chop through opponents on the underground Ukrainian boxing circuit. Viktor represents Ivan’s last shot at redemption – losing to Rocky in 1985 caused him to lose everything: Wealthy patrons, public adoration, and his wife and Viktor’s mother. Now, Ivan attempts to relive his past glories through his son. It is Ivan’s quest to make his son the champion he never could become that drives the action in Creed II, which in my eyes, makes him the real hero of the film.

In Creed II, there is no clear villain, because everyone is the hero of their own story, even Drago.

It’s a far cry from the Ivan Drago we first met in 1985’s Rocky IV. Back then, Lundgren brought a chilling, robotic intensity to the Soviet boxer’s character, both inside and outside the ring. In that film, he kills Apollo Creed, Rocky’s friend and Adonis’ father, with clinical but brutal efficiency. The only time we see him show emotion is when tasting defeat and humiliation at the end of a gruelling war with Rocky.

This time however, Lundgren’s Drago is vulnerable. He’s still got his stone-faced façade, but this time there are rays of light that sometimes shine through the cracks. He is bitter over his own wasted potential, angry at Rocky for being the architect of his downfall, and afraid that his son might meet the same fate as him. And by the end of the film, we see the once-unfeeling Drago engage with his feelings, and grow.

The greatest villains always have justifiable reasons for their villainy, and Lundgren’s second turn as Drago elevates him into that pantheon. The cartoonish, evil Russian from the ’80s matured into a nuanced character who manages to evoke real sympathy from the audience. Credit must go to Stallone for writing Drago in a way that exposed the dark underbelly of the feel-good ending from Rocky IV. Ivan got the raw end of the deal when he lost to Rocky, and his quest to reclaim some joy from his barren life makes you want to root for him, even though his son and student is about to pound our hero into pulp.

In Creed II, there is no clear villain, because everyone is the hero of their own story, even Drago. It’s a trend that’s cropping up increasingly in big-budget blockbusters. Avengers: Infinity War and Black Panther, two of the year’s highest-grossing films, both featured a villain who was certain he was doing the right thing. #ThanosDidNothingWrong and #KillmongerWasRight were trending hashtags in the weeks after the movies released, because these apparent bad guys were only trying to make the world a better place – just going about it all wrong. In a time of increasing polarisation, where extreme viewpoints are the norm and consensus is rarely arrived upon, these characters remind us that there are two sides to every story. Maybe the reason we fight our enemies is because we both want peace.

Without giving away any spoilers, Ivan Drago too does find peace at end of Creed II. It might take 30 years, but even the villain deserves a happy ending.