‘Creed,’ ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ and the Rise of the Nostalgia Sequel

At the multiplexes, what’s old is new again.

Rocky Balboa is back in the ring, Han Solo is once again steering the Millennium Falcon and Hollywood is riding a wave of nostalgia as it tries to put a fresh spin on some mothballed franchises.

Nearly 40 years ago, “Rocky” took America by storm, plunging up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum and into moviegoers’ hearts. A mere six months after “Rocky” debuted in November of 1976, “Star Wars” premiered, ushering in the era of the modern blockbuster, while offering up expansive visions of space fights and boundary-breaking special effects.

In the ensuing decades, both series lost their ways.  “Rocky” devolved into an increasingly ludicrous batch of sequels that reached its nadir with Balboa striking a blow for Western democracy by taking on Ivan Drago, a parody of pre-Perestroika Soviet resolve. And “Star Wars” nearly brought childhood fantasies crashing back to earth with a collection of prequels that relied on wooden dialogue and too much CGI.

Wisely, their creators waited roughly a decade before returning to the well. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” doesn’t open for nearly a month, but if “Creed” is any indication, moviegoers are embracing these stories like it’s the Bicentennial again. The film, which finds Balboa training rival Apollo Creed’s illegitimate son (Michael B. Jordan) is a hit with critics and audiences, earning a hefty $42.6 million over its first five days in theaters.

Older audiences drove the film’s popularity with 62% of ticket buyers clocking in over the age of 25, but it played well to all generations. Moviegoers of all ages handed the picture an A CinemaScore, signaling its popularity could build with younger viewers in coming weeks.

“There’s a nostalgia factor to the older crowds, but it really is a picture for everybody,” said Jeff Goldstein, a distribution executive at Warner Bros., the studio that’s handling “Creed’s” release. “You can see the word-of-mouth spreading.”

The alchemy that worked with “Creed” and the formula that J.J. Abrams hopes to apply to “Star Wars” is to provide a new perspective on a familiar franchise that respects the spirit of the originals while forging a new direction for the characters.

With “Creed,” writer and director Ryan Coogler, who first turned heads with the gritty “Fruitvale Station,” took the “Rocky” series back to its working class roots. As with the first film, where decaying Philadelphia is practically a supporting character, “Creed” is firmly rooted in its setting. The emphasis is on human drama, as Apollo Creed’s son tries to come to terms with the legacy of a father who abandoned him and finds a surrogate father in Balboa. The boxing is central to the plot, but secondary to developing the backstories of the people taking and delivering the body blows.

Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak, said he’s heard reports of audiences standing up and cheering during the climatic fight that ends “Creed.” It’s a sign, he argues, that the film has recaptured the first film’s spirit.

“It’s uplifting, it’s inspiring and it takes the Rocky mythology and the power of the story to a whole new level,” he said. “By virtue of taking on that indie filmmaking sensibility, it becomes so much more than the Rocky brand.”

“Star Wars” is adopting a similar, back to its roots approach. “The Force Awakens” remains shrouded in secrecy, but director Abrams has made it clear that he has listened to the objections fans raised about the George Lucas-directed prequels. He’s vowed to rely more on practical effects and less on digital imagery and he brought back Lawrence Kasdan, the man who scripted “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” to help craft the screenplay.

“All it takes is one movie to destroy a legacy, but one movie can restore it too,” said Dergarabedian.

Both franchises appear to have found the right caretakers. Coogler credits the “Rocky” series with being among his formative movie-watching experiences. They were films that inspired him to pursue dreams of Hollywood and that kind of reverence for the material was critical to “Creed’s” success.

“It’s a hard thing to capture, but when the chemistry is there, you know it and it just works,” said Goldstein. “This property meant something to him.”

Coogler’s enthusiasm for “Rocky” and that of Abrams for “Star Wars” appears to have rubbed off on the stars of the original films. It’s a sign that time heals all wounds, because in some cases the relationship between the actors and the icons they portrayed was an emotionally fraught one.

Harrison Ford, whose performance as Han Solo catapulted him to stardom, has made no secret of the fact that he prefers his Indiana Jones character. At one point, he begged Lucas to kill off Solo in “Return of the Jedi” and when the original trilogy wrapped up in 1983 he told a Today show interviewer that he was “glad to see that costume for the last time.”

But on the stump for “The Force Awakens,” Ford has appeared loose and happy to bask in the glow of “Star Wars” mania. Last summer, he told a cheering crowd of Comic-Can geeks that he was “proud and grateful to once again be involved.”

Likewise, Stallone, while having no problem cashing the checks from umpteenth “Rocky” films, has alluded to feeling trapped by the red, white, and blue trunks. As far back as 1978, he admitted to Roger Ebert that he struggled to have people accept him in other roles, vowing to end the series after three films.

“I could go on playin’ Rocky forever, but it’s like even the Bowery Boys got a little embarrassing when they were 50 or 60,” he told Ebert. “They shoulda been the Bowery Seniors.”

Now nearing 70, Stallone appears to have few regrets about revisiting his most iconic role. After leaving critics leaving critics hurling opprobrium with monosyllabic action roles like “Rambo” and “Cobra,” “Creed” has returned Stallone to their good graces. The film may even score him his first Oscar nomination since 1976’s “Rocky” landed him in the thick of the Best Actor race, a stunning reversal of fortune that few would have predicted.

“Every time you think Sylvester Stallone is down for the count, he pulls himself back up again,” said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations.

We should expect nothing less from the man who is and always will be Rocky Balboa.

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