The magic of United Artists’ first two Creed films lied in the way they opened up, updated, and revitalized the Rocky franchise — all while feeling true to and deeply reverent of the original Stallone pictures. Like both of its predecessors, Creed III from first-time director and star Michael B. Jordan never wants you to lose sight of what it means to come from humble beginnings or how having family in your corner can fundamentally change a person’s life. But rather than splitting its focus between two different generations of boxers and keeping Rocky himself in the picture for nostalgic diehards, Creed III taps into the spirit of the later Rocky films by turning Adonis Creed into the ultimate father figure fighting to secure his legacy.
In a movie landscape overfull of sequels purposefully (and inelegantly) designed to still work as standalone features, there’s something very refreshing about the way Creed III dives right back into the story of how Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the unknown fighter, became Adonis Creed, the heavyweight boxing champion, and a household name the world over. After years of watching Adonis fall down, get back up, and lay his opponents out, there’s little doubt of his greatness in the boxing world, and the work he does supporting up-and-coming fighters has all but guaranteed that he’ll be remembered as a hero.
While Adonis enjoys his fame and fortune, most everything he does is really for his musician wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and their daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent) — two of the only people aside from his stepmother Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) who really know him. Adonis cares for his family and values the life they’ve built together. But there are parts of himself that he’s always kept hidden from them, and as Creed III opens, no one else really understands just how much painful, crushing emotional baggage Adonis has been carrying around. No one, that is, except for Adonis’ childhood friend Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors).
The Creed saga’s never been all that secretive about what a difficult childhood Adonis had. But through Damian, Creed III spells out some of the finer, more brutal details of Adonis’ origins with a frankness that sets it apart from the last two movies in terms of how it frames fighting as something that can ruin people’s lives as well as turn them into celebrities. The two have no way of knowing for certain, but Adonis, rather than Damian, might have ended up in jail for almost 20 years while his best friend became a boxing superstar had their childhoods played out a little differently. What they both know, though, is how difficult it is to be honest with one another about their feelings after Damian’s freed, and the men are reunited for the first time in nearly two decades.
Creed III’s telling a specific story about Adonis at a time when he’s really come into his own as a Man™ — a paragon of idealized masculinity Jordan’s very comfortable in — who truly knows himself in stark contrast to the guileless teen he was introduced as. But co-writers Zach Baylin and Keenan Coogler’s script borrows enough elements from Stallone’s Rocky II and John G. Avildsen’s Rocky V that the movie often feels both like a remake and a fusion that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
Adonis wants and knows he needs to be more present in his daughter’s life, especially when her interest in fighting and difficulties with bullies at school lead to her being singled out by teachers. But Adonis’ love for his family is a big part of what pushes him to spend such long hours working in the gym with rising stars like Felix Chavez (José Benavidez), a boxer who simply can’t stop knocking out his sparring partners.
Between Damian showing back up, obligations at the gym, and Amara’s fighting, Adonis is beyond put upon, and Jordan tries to hammer that reality home with a performance that feels much quieter and contemplative than his previous outings in this role. One of the bigger themes running through Creed III is how being a reliable person means getting up every day and constantly fighting to stay on top of one’s responsibilities. Exploring that idea through both Adonis and a now accent-free Bianca is Creed III’s way of conveying just how much they’ve evolved as a couple, and Thompson, in particular, feels like she’s taken ownership of this role in a way that hasn’t always been the case.
Like the Rocky movies before them, the Creed films have always been about men from different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds beating each other up and then ultimately learning the importance of respecting each other in spite of their perceived differences. Majors’ Damian — a gifted brawler with a penchant for fighting dirty — is a classic Rocky antagonist whose talents and charm are as undeniable as his sudden appearance is suspicious. But rather than simply fixating on what a physically intimidating presence he can be as the old friends become opponents in the present day, Creed III frames the pair as two sides of the same coin, and Majors meets Jordan’s energy with a simmering intensity reminiscent of his performance in Magazine Dreams.
Despite the plot not always making the most sense, Creed III moves with a swiftness and confidence that serves the film relatively well when it’s outside the ring and focused on being a heartfelt drama. Inside the ring during fighting scenes, however, the story’s a little bit more complicated, as Jordan makes a number of bold directorial choices that don’t always work the way he likely intended. In its simpler, early fights, Creed III highlights the physical poetry fighters move with simply by pointing the camera at them and letting the matches play out the way spectators see them. As the fights begin to take on more emotional significance, however, Creed III tries to emphasize how important they are with VFX elements that feel plucked out of Stallone’s Rocky Balboa from 2006 and distinctly at odds with how grounded the rest of the franchise has been.
With Stallone’s Rocky absent from its story, Creed III feels like a pivotal moment in the franchise’s history meant to underscore how much it’s evolved over the course of almost 50 years. Adonis’ feelings about his biological father and respect for his legendary play uncle are still important parts of who he is. But Creed III takes the literal and existential titles that once defined Apollo Creed and Rocky Balboa and gives them to Adonis as a way of signifying that this really is his story now and his alone to carry into the future.
Creed III also stars Alex Henderson, Spence Moore II, Wood Harris, Florien Munteanu, Tony Bellew, and Selenis Leyva. The movie hits theaters on March 3rd.