Nobody in Creed III has much to say about Rocky Balboa. For the first two films in the series, the aged mentor (played by Sylvester Stallone) of the boxing star Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) is an important figure in the narrative, a folksy sage passing down the lessons of an entire movie franchise. In Creed III, he’s nowhere to be seen and basically forgotten. That’s partly because of off-camera disputes Stallone had about the creative direction, but his character’s absence also feels like a necessary, liberating step, allowing III to shake off the tricky label of “spin-off” and become something more robust. (Stallone is still credited as a producer on the movie.)
Adonis’s connection to the Rocky films is that he’s the son of Apollo Creed, Carl Weathers’s champion-boxer character, who goes from Rocky’s heated rival to his close friend over the course of the original series. By Creed III, Adonis has stopped living in his father’s shadow: He’s solidified his own boxing career and fought the son of the boxer who killed his father in the ring. This new entry is Jordan’s directorial debut, and he has quite the incisive authorial voice, turning what could have been a phoned-in threequel into a close look at the challenges of remaining “authentic” while being famous. Along the way, he offers some new visual language for on-screen boxing, just as the first Creed movie did.
For a franchise that seemed possibly moribund after Creed II, the rebound is exciting. Whereas the first Creed used well-known sports-movie hallmarks to its advantage (underdog kid makes good on the mean streets of the big city), Creed II felt like it was grasping to tie off loose ends from Stallone’s long-dormant saga. Adonis was relegated to an underdeveloped arc of stagnation and redemption as he won a title belt, lost it because of his arrogance, and then regained it.
That formula, when applied correctly, is solid enough, and indeed Creed III uses a similar blueprint. Adonis, who had retired as the undisputed champion, returns to competition after the emergence of a new and hostile rival. But Jordan’s film, with a screenplay by Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylin, fleshes out its protagonist in a way that Creed II did not. It focuses on Adonis’s family life, including his bond with his wife, Bianca (Tessa Thompson); his uneasy relationship with stardom; and the complex legacy of his celebrated father, who had an affair with Adonis’s mother and then died before Adonis could ever meet him.
In the first Creed, Adonis vaulted to fame mostly because of his connection to Apollo, but prior to that, he grew up in foster care and juvenile-hall facilities, far from his dad’s largesse. Eventually, he was taken in by Apollo’s wife, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad). The past two films faced the challenge of reminding viewers about Adonis’s past while still keeping the momentum going on his current success. Creed III addresses this tension by introducing a character from Adonis’s childhood who slips seamlessly into the action: an old friend from juvie named Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors), who was imprisoned on a gun charge after a skirmish that Adonis was also involved in.
I first noticed Majors in 2019, through his breakout performance in The Last Black Man in San Francisco, where he played a sensitive, soft-spoken playwright with an imposing stature. He’s done wonderful work since then in projects such as Da 5 Bloods and The Harder They Fall, but I was underwhelmed by his portrayal of the villainous Kang in the latest Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, a Marvel world he’ll be revisiting for the next few years. There, I wanted him to go more goofily bombastic, but he played it straight; in Creed III, though, he gets the mix of grandiloquence and grit just right.
Damian, who brands himself “Diamond Dame,” is a Ghost of Christmas Past for Adonis, a reminder of a more tragic path he could have taken. As Dame, Majors is a simmering cauldron of resentment and regret. Upon getting out of prison, he finds Adonis and reminds them of their shared past as amateur teen boxers. Partly out of guilt, Adonis agrees to help him train, but their shaky, decades-old connection quickly deteriorates. The only place to fix it is in the ring. Jordan cleverly costumes Majors in baggy, disheveled clothes and workout gear for the first act, making the reveal of the chiseled build underneath all the more impressive.
In Dame, Adonis finally has a villain who feels like his match, rather than the anonymous opponents of the first Creed or Ivan Drago’s son in the second, whose arc is mostly a rerun of his father’s in Rocky IV. Even better, Jordan gives the fight scenes real pop and sizzle, much of it inspired by his love of Japanese animation; Adonis spots his enemies’ weaknesses in slow-motion glances, and during one major battle, the crowd melts away and is replaced with dreamlike visuals straight from his subconscious. The direction is bold and different and exactly what this series needs if it’s going to continue. The first Rocky came out in 1976 and showed no sign of being the kind of movie that would spawn eight follow-ups. But with the inventiveness of Creed III, an old franchise suddenly feels fresh.