Lang does not simply suffer from a bruised ego like Apollo in Rocky II, and nor is he the inhuman death-machine and cyborg that Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Drago would later prove to be in Rocky IV. No, Lang represents something real and meaningful, which casts a shadow of doubt over Rocky and everything he’s come to represent. Lang has an ethos and a belief system, which neither the cheery Apollo or the grunting Drago do. They have no point to make or prove, they’re just figures for Rocky to beat. But Clubber Lang? He has a point. He’s right. And the narrative is about Rocky realizing it and then having to reckon with that. It’s Rocky having to find synthesis and move forward in a way he has never had to before.
It’s precisely why Apollo Creed is the only man who can help Rocky, as Rocky in the film is very much in the place Apollo once was. They’re the two men who understand one another best. And it’s in this film that our current popular conception of Apollo Creed is born. He’s firmly crystallized as The Rival figure of the series, the lovable, cheery friend and ally to Rocky who challenges him and pushes him to be better. The guy who has his back, and who Rocky will also always have the back of.
The myth of Rocky was hollow, so Rocky and Apollo work to re-construct Rocky to actually live up to the myth, to be the man deserving and worthy of that statue, who can take on Lang and survive. To be the man who in Apollo’s position could do what Apollo couldn’t. It’s why Apollo is crucial.
Rocky III is where Rocky becomes Rocky in the truest, most iconic sense, with the real friendship and bond of Apollo/Rocky, the final hours of Mickey/Rocky, his relationship with Adrian, his dynamic with Burt Young’s Paulie, the amazing “Eye Of The Tiger” song opener, and a proper, meaningful villain who has a point and provides a true challenge to the series. While Rocky IV would prove to be even bigger, and even more ridiculous, wrapped up in a Cold War era fervor with the American Rocky fighting a literal Soviet super-soldier, the real identity of the Rocky as a series is born in the third installment.
Creed Needs His Own Lang
It’s why even the Creed series, which derives from the Rocky series, feels evocative of it. The first Creed film is once again a tale about an underdog amateur given a shot by the guy on top as a gimmick event. It’s a film wherein Adonis fights for his name, to prove he has something. And in Creed II, Adonis must tackle the only figure who could then make him an underdog: Drago and his legacy. Drago, who killed his father, remains the shadow that haunts Adonis’ story and world; the one and final figure left to take on if Adonis is to prove himself and cement a legacy that’s not beneath his father, but alongside him.
And most crucially, as we approach Creed III, we see Adonis at the top of the world, with his dream life. He is now The Man. He’s no longer the underdog, and he’s no longer under the shadow of anyone, not Rocky, not Apollo, or anybody else. The myth of Adonis Creed has surpassed Apollo Creed, the way Rocky Balboa’s did in Rocky III. And that means you need a story that examines and really questions that myth. That was the purpose of Clubber Lang, after all; he triggered self-reflection on the entire journey of our hero, and reflected back a dark mirror of his own roots. Clubber Lang was Rocky if Rocky had no Mickey or Adrian, or Paulie, or anyone else. A Rocky with truly nothing, who grinded his way out of the dirt and got himself on top through sheer force of will.
Which is why Creed III seems to be giving us Jonathan Majors’ Damien Anderson, the childhood best-friend of Adonis, who poses a “what if?” He too casts doubt and now questions the very myth and foundations of Adonis Creed and his existence, and reframes Adonis as the man on top, as opposed to the underdog. Damien is the guy who was in prison for 18 years, who lost everything, his dreams, his life that could have and should have been, and he had no one. He wasn’t the son of a famous boxing icon like Adonis. And with nothing and no one, Damien is the fury and flame that has kept going all this time. Now he’s here to take what he believes to be rightfully his. He’s the guy who had nothing but worked his ass off to change that fact. He wants everything, and he won’t settle. He’s coming for everything.