In “Creed II,” released Wednesday, Adonis returns to his hometown of Los Angeles and trains to fight the hulking Viktor Drago, the son of his father’s killer, Ivan Drago, in Moscow. The movie maintains the connection to Philly’s against-the-odds determination, but it comes at a time when the context has changed.
The typical perception of Philadelphia is rather distinct. The city’s fan base, known for obnoxiously supporting teams that rarely win championships, is widely regarded as the absolute worst in sports. In the “Rocky” and “Creed” movies, fans have seen hardship and triumph depicted through adored sports film tropes, all while the actual city’s sports teams failed to find the same continuous success.
No longer is Philly known for lazy identifiers such as cheesesteaks, volatile fans and “the Rocky steps.” It’s actually getting recognition for something else: The city finds itself at the forefront of popular culture for winning, not losing.
Rapper Meek Mill has become an unlikely avatar for prison reform. The Philadelphia 76ers’ polarizing long game for success yielded the team’s first playoff appearance in six seasons. And “Creed II” was filmed against the backdrop of the Philadelphia Eagles winning Super Bowl LII, their first championship of the NFL’s post-merger era. Such pride hadn’t been felt since the Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series in 2008.
“I was there in the city when it happened,” says “Creed II” director Steven Caple Jr., who arrived in January to prepare for filming. “I was literally on 15th and Sansom, and Broad [Street] was maybe one street over, and it was crazy. I had to check it out, just to catch the energy.”
For Meek Mill, who titled his 2017 album “Wins & Losses,” the start of 2018 almost certainly felt like the latter. He began the year behind bars after being sentenced to two to four years in November 2017 for violating the conditions of his probation. His case, which stemmed from a decade-old conviction for gun and drug charges, drew national attention, including criticism of how black men and women are disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system.
Although fame couldn’t keep Meek Mill out of prison, his profile elevated his case. He was released on bail in April after Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner questioned the credibility of the rapper’s arresting officer. Since his release, Meek has become a national advocate for criminal justice reform.
“When he has done interviews with national TV shows and even news conferences with the governor, he’s mentioned, ‘Hey, I know I’m lucky, and I’m just an example of what so many others are dealing with,” says Alex Holley, co-host of Fox 29’s “Good Day Philadelphia.”
The Eagles’ championship hopes had begun to fade after quarterback Carson Wentz, an MVP candidate, suffered a season-ending knee injury last December. Enter backup Nick Foles, who, against all odds, led the Eagles to the Super Bowl. They defeated the defending champion New England Patriots, snatching the Lombardi Trophy that had eluded them for more than 50 years, and Foles was named Super Bowl MVP.
The Super Bowl victory marked what seemed like an immediate change of culture for the franchise and the city. “It’s a lot easier, and a lot more fun, for people to associate themselves with the Super Bowl champion,” says Spike Eskin, program director for WIP-FM Philadelphia.
That winning attitude extended to the 76ers. After years of setbacks and being strategically terrible to draft the best available players, the 76ers concluded the 2017-18 season on a 16-game winning streak. They won their first playoff series in six years and, with the addition of four-time all-star Jimmy Butler, are considered a contender in the NBA’s Eastern Conference. (Meek Mill was transported directly from prison to the Wells Fargo Center to ring a replica of the Liberty Bell before a playoff game. As with the Eagles, the gesture was criticized for conflating Meek’s release from prison with a sports team’s ambition.)
Just three years ago, the Sixers were the worst team in the NBA. Now they’re among the new faces for success in the league.
Meanwhile, the “Creed” franchise has given the old “Rocky” story a new star (a white, working class hero didn’t reflect the diversity of the city), while still maintaining the narrative’s tropes: In the latest installment, Adonis appears overmatched once again and must come to terms with the circumstances surrounding his father’s death, and the legacy he left behind.
“I didn’t want to discontinue the underdog story,” Caple, Jr. says. “So a lot of it tapped into [Adonis’s] vulnerability as a character, his flaws and his growth.”
And the reason people gravitate toward that vulnerability is because they enjoy feel-good stories. The tales of Meek Mill, the Eagles and the 76ers and the intertwined stories of Rocky Balboa and Adonis Creed allow the masses to romanticize what it’s like to overcome hardships and win.
As Gene Demby, a Philadelphia native and the co-host and lead blogger for NPR’s Code Switch podcast and blog, put it: “Beating the odds is a great story, but the odds are also part of the story.”