As the Rocky franchise—now eight movies deep, including the two Creed spinoffs—has marched forward, the drama has partially moved away from the travails of a gritty underdog into a story about legacy and what fathers pass down to their sons—the gifts, but also the burdens. In Creed, Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Creed strove not only to live up to the legendary name of his father, but to live beyond it—to escape the shadow of Apollo and stake out his own story. In the follow-up, Creed II, this familial burden falls on Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), Adonis’s most formidable adversary yet.
Viktor’s surname ought to ring a bell—even if you haven’t seen Rocky IV. The 1985 classic—which doubles as a CrossFit-style winter workout montage and triples as a resolution to the Cold War—is the beginning of Viktor Drago’s story, for it documents the most crucial moments in the life of his father, Ivan Drago. It’s an essential text of American history, but to rehash: In Rocky IV, Ivan Drago was an up-and-coming boxer from Russia (played by a supremely swole Dolph Lundgren) who appeared to have been concocted in a laboratory. (As one super-oily training montage heavily implies, he was receiving a competitive edge via steroid injection.) His judgment clouded by pride and the colors of the American flag, washed Apollo challenged Drago to a fight, acting incredibly rude and more than a little ethnocentric in the process. This was a bad idea: Drago, who, again, was a science experiment, turned out to be quite lethal as a boxer—by which I mean he literally beat Apollo Creed to death. Called into action to avenge his friend’s death at the hands of a Communist, Rocky took a match against Drago; propelled by the pain of loss, the power of patriotism, and the grit one gains by dragging large pieces of wood through snow, the titular character defeated his Russian foe. The ending of Rocky IV was a happy one—at least from Rocky’s perspective. Decades later, we know what he’s been up to in his native Philadelphia—running a restaurant, aimlessly mumbling at gravestones—but we do not have the other side of that story. What became of Drago?
As Creed II makes clear, Rocky’s shocking win over Ivan—on Mother Russia’s soil, no less—ended him in every way. (One could say it … broke him?) After the fight, Ivan lost everything: his pride, the love and support of his country, and even his wife, Ludmilla (Brigitte Nielsen), who apparently couldn’t associate herself with a loser. Creed II opens in Kiev, Ukraine, where Ivan and his son languish, presumably too disgraced to set foot in their homeland. Ivan’s punishment for losing was ludicrously harsh, considering every great boxer not named Floyd Mayweather will probably lose at least once in their career. Nevertheless, the only thing left in Ivan’s life is Viktor, whom Ivan recognizes as the best opportunity to restore glory to the Drago name. (Luckily, Viktor has grown to be the size of a mountain; or perhaps it’s not luck, considering his genes.) Ivan trains Viktor mercilessly, driving an SUV into his son’s ankles to make him run faster. They spend their time touring the underground boxing scene in the Ukraine—as Viktor records first-round KOs with ease and possibly even kills people?—until a man who models himself as the millennial Don King presents them with a fast track to redemption. What better way for Viktor to announce himself to the world than to challenge the son of the boxing legend whom Ivan infamously killed in the ring?
This makes the Dragos the undeniable antagonists of Creed II. But the best villains (see: Jordan’s Erik Killmonger earlier this year) are the ones who are convinced that their motivations are justified—the ones who believe they’re the heroes of the story. And it’s quite easy to empathize with the Dragos and understand where they’re coming from—especially Viktor, who bears the brunt of massive familial expectations and rivalries that predate his birth.
Ivan and Viktor are a father and son on an island, and their worth to the outside world is expressed to them with cruel transparency. After embarrassing Adonis Creed in a title fight and losing only on a technicality, Viktor and his father are invited to a fancy dinner hosted by the Russian elite, an event also attended by Ludmilla. They are the honorary guests, the toasts of Russia, but both are well aware that this adoration is contingent on Viktor’s performance in the ring. Only now mother loves us, Viktor implores his father to see.
As understandable as Ivan’s actions are, he does not do his son any favors. Their relationship—not just between a dad and his son, but a boxer and his trainer—is toxic at its core, as Ivan lets his resentment surrounding the fallout of Rocky IV bleed into his son’s training. He is cold, impenetrable, and rigidly results-focused. The Drago ethos dictates that boxing is not just about beating the opponent. It is about breaking them. Ivan’s insatiable desire to regain his erstwhile glory breaks his son in a different way. Viktor’s seething resentment isn’t a byproduct of how his father was unfairly treated so much as what his father—and mother—have been doing to him his entire life.
When Viktor loses his rematch with Adonis—in part because the former loses the will to keep fighting, as he realizes he has nothing to fight for—Ivan has a crucial epiphany outside of the ring. Just because Russian elites—and even Ludmilla, who leaves the match early once Adonis gets the upper hand—treat Viktor with the same callous indifference that Ivan once experienced doesn’t mean he has to treat his son that way. It might’ve taken decades, but Ivan is finally able to let the past die.
As Creed II ends, Ivan and Viktor are back home training, only this time, the father runs alongside his son. Their relationship has deepened. They are beaten, but not broken.