Brow Beat

Why Rocky Spin-Off Creed Might Just Prove to Be an Oscar Contender 

Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone in Creed.

Barry Wetcher - © 2015 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

What seemed a year or two ago like a boring, unnecessary addition to the glut of sequels and reboots in Hollywood has turned out to be a major success: Ryan Coogler’s Rocky spin-off Creed surpassed critical expectations to become a box office hit over the holiday weekend, coming in a solid third place (behind The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part II and Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur) with $42 million. Forbes reports that ticket sales rose an impressive 81 percent between Thursday and Black Friday.

With all this excitement about the revival of a near-40-year-old franchise that isn’t Star Wars, and because we’re in the midst of awards season, talk has inevitably turned to Creed’s Oscar chances. Could Creed see its stock continue to rise as the awards season goes on?

Earlier this month, I expressed my hesitancy to proclaim Spotlight the guaranteed Best Picture winner so early in the game, especially considering its potential narrowness of appeal. I pointed out that the film it’s been most favorably compared to, All the President’s Men, was nominated in 1977, but lost out to the first Rocky. While it’s premature at this point to predict that Creed will follow in its predecessor’s footsteps, it wouldn’t be that farfetched. The reason is simple: Creed is the straightforward, middle-of-the-road, feel-good crowd-pleaser in a race that every Oscar season needs and inevitably gets.

The Oscar feel-good crowd-pleaser is pretty easy to spot. It’s the movie that equally entertains critics and audiences, and is propelled by the power of word of mouth. It’s beautifully made and makes sweeping cinematic gestures to awe audiences, but at its heart is a tale of uplift, of triumph, of overcoming the odds. More than anything, though, the Oscar feel-good crowd-pleaser isn’t particularly intellectually heavy. Sure, it may deal with some grand themes of identity, nationalism, or the will to survive, but the film itself doesn’t lean too heavily on politics or controversial subject matter—it’s meant to appeal to your emotions, first and foremost.

It’s last year’s Best Picture winner Birdman; Gravity the year before that; Argo, Silver Linings Playbook, The Artist, Midnight in Paris, Toy Story 3, The King’s Speech, and The Fighter. It’s also Creed.

Coogler’s Creed is beautifully made and forcefully inspiring—it builds on the Rocky lore in a way that feels organic and fresh, with a take on a familiar subject (boxing) that feels new (a non-white fighter in the ring). The films that have dominated the Best Picture conversation so far are nothing like it: Spotlight is a solid film that journalist love about the triumph of good old-fashioned journalism—but its subject matter (the Catholic Church’s disgraceful cover up of rampant child sex abuse) is a serious one, and hardly spiritually comforting. Meanwhile, The Revenant is a brutal 19th century story about a man who gets mauled by a grizzly bear and travels hundreds of miles in the wilderness seeking revenge for the men who left him to die. Other promising Best Picture noms are likewise not designed to be “easy” to watch (Room) or to go light on the sociopolitical themes (Carol, Joy, The Hateful Eight).

There are a few purely feel-good films standing in Creed’s path, however: namely The Martian and Brooklyn, both of which are ranked high on Oscar prediction lists everywhere. The former is about as emotionally pleasurable as it can get, letting the film’s insanely smart protagonist Mark Wagney (Matt Damon) do all of the audience’s thinking for it as he rescues himself from Mars. And the critical consensus around Brooklyn, as deemed by Rotten Tomatoes, says it all: “[It’s] a rich period drama that tugs at the heartstrings as deftly as it satisfies the mind.” Both films, like Creed, have done quite well at the box office.

I wouldn’t count Creed out quite yet, though. For one thing, Oscar has historically had multiple feel-good movies make the cut in a single year, as with Silver Linings Playbook and Argo in 2013 and The Artist and Midnight in Paris the year before. Sure, Coogler is a relative newcomer whose debut Fruitvale Station was overlooked by the academy two years ago, but the academy likes to award newcomers—take Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash and Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild—with Best Picture nods. It also seems likely that at least one of the movies currently sitting in predictors’ top 10 lists will begin to slip as the season wears on—namely, Steve Jobs, a movie that has disappointed on both a commercial and critical level, in large part because hardly anyone finds the story of Steve Jobs the Person particularly fascinating.

While Creed hasn’t yet cracked the top ten of Gold Derby’s expert predictions for a nomination, it is currently hovering just outside at spot number 12. (The Danish Girl, which had lots of Oscar steam before opening to lukewarm reception at several festivals earlier this year, appears to now have less of a chance of making the final cut than Creed—it sits in slot 15.) And other predictions over at Indiewire and Awards Daily put Creed more solidly in the running. Creed has already managed to persuade many people who wouldn’t usually entertain the idea of watching a boxing movie to give it a shot. On Oscar night, it might just prove to be a real contender.