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The Brilliance of the Cheesesteak Scene in ‘Creed’

To understand why ‘Black Panther’ is on its way to becoming Marvel’s most successful movie, look no further than how director Ryan Coogler found small pockets of life in one of film’s biggest franchises

Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson sitting across from each other at a restaurant in ‘Creed’ Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther has already become one of the most celebrated Marvel movies ever. The film has a near-perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes and is hurtling toward a record-breaking $170 million opening weekend at the box office. That a 31-year-old director with only two feature-length works to his name is at the helm of one of the most successful superhero movies in history may seem surprising. But only if you’ve never seen Creed.

At first glance, taking on a Rocky movie was a vast departure from Coogler’s superb 2013 debut, Fruitvale Station, a deeply personal story set in the director’s hometown of Oakland. By comparison, Creed extends — and revives — a beloved franchise while taking place in Philadelphia, nearly 3,000 miles across the country. And therein lies the brilliance of Creed: It’s the first indication of what Coogler could do with a big franchise movie. Where so many other sequels are antiseptic, Creed feels lived-in, with an indelible sense of place. Coogler takes personal, quiet moments and grafts them onto this huge movie saddled with loads of history and big-budget expectations.

Half an hour into the film, Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) calls his adoptive mother from his dark, mostly empty apartment; he gets her voicemail. Looking out at the lights and the sounds of Philly, he tells her that he misses her. “I got an apartment,” he says. “It ain’t much. But I’m trying to make it into something.” For the first time, the audience gets a version of Adonis outside of his hell-bent desire to fight. Hanging up, desperate for connection, Adonis heads downstairs to bang on the door of the only non-Rocky human he knows in Philadelphia, Tessa Thompson’s Bianca.

Most point to Creed’s boxing sequence — a four-and-a-half-minute tracking shot — as the movie’s best moment, but the dinner scene between Adonis and Bianca, while quieter, is just as impressive. From the time the pair leaves the apartment building until when the film cuts to Rocky walking through a graveyard, about three and a half minutes pass. And in those 200-or-so seconds, Coogler manages to plant the story squarely in a section of Philadelphia unexplored in prior Rocky installments while establishing the bond between these two characters that will be so vital the rest of the way.

What’s remarkable is how economically it all happens. Immediately after cutting from the apartment, there’s an establishing shot of Max’s Steaks, and, if that isn’t enough, Bianca lets Adonis (and everyone watching) know they’re in North Philly. She tells the guy behind the counter that she’s with a West Coast boy who’s never had a steak before. We get a shot of the steaks being slathered in pretty much every condiment available, and, on the way to the booth, Adonis asks what the deal is with how often Bianca uses “jawn.” She explains the local slang, and thus ends the most Philadelphia-packed minute imaginable. It’s easy to see the exchange as a boiled-down version of Coogler — himself a West Coast boy — navigating the city and its norms for the first time.

Over cheesesteaks, Bianca eventually mentions music venues Johnny Brenda’s and Electric Factory. She name-drops Jill Scott, John Legend, and the Roots. The saturation of Philly references never feels forced. The same goes for her explanation for how she’s living out her music career despite going deaf. It’s affecting yet without melodrama. When she asks Adonis why he wants to be a fighter, he responds that his father was. “That makes sense,” Bianca says, nodding with a mouthful of cheesesteak. The natural feel of the exchange speaks to Thompson’s ability as an actress and the pair’s chemistry, and it’s yet another example of how effectively Coogler grounds the movie.

Fans of the Rocky series will point to the scene at Max’s as a nod to one of the many quiet moments between Adrian and Rocky in the first movie, which is fair. In Creed, cheesesteaks fill in for ice skating, and Adonis’s trip to see Bianca play at Johnny Brenda’s is more or less a trip to the pet store. In both films, it’s these tiny scenes that paint pictures of fully realized lives, far beyond the boxer obsessed with being a champ and the bombastic cinematic choices that play into that pursuit. But Coogler’s choice to put moments like this in Creed is arguably bolder than Stallone doing it in the original. Rocky had a budget of $1.1 million. It was released without any expectations. The studio didn’t think Stallone was a big enough star to sell it.

While paying homage to the franchise’s grandeur (saving the Rocky theme for the last round of the final fight is an all-time move) with Creed, Coogler elevates what could just be another forgettable installment to a level worthy not only of the series, but the greatness of the original. His technical brilliance as a director undoubtedly plays into that. But what sets Creed — and by most accounts, Black Panther — apart is not how big Coogler can make these massive franchise movies seem. It’s how personal he can make them feel.