It’s hard to watch Creed III and not think of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, especially given its cinematic heritage. The Rocky franchise really was the MCU of its day, with its endless sequels and serialized melodrama, its superhero Rocky (Stallone) going mano a mano against an endless string of memorable villains, each more powerful than the last. At the end of the day, however, it was really the story of one man’s determination to rise above it all, to put himself to the test. The victory was his, alone.
The original Creed (2015) film didn’t just resurrect the Rocky franchise, it paved the way for it to continue in an exciting, necessary new direction. Passing the baton to the son of former foe / friend Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) made sense, as did Stallone graduating from fighter to mentor. The sequel, Creed II (2018), continued finishing off unresolved Rocky plots you didn’t realize were unresolved by having Rocky’s protégé fight the son of his former Russian rival. Only Star Wars has a smaller galaxy than the Rocky universe.
Creed III takes the boldest step forward by not only jettisoning Rocky’s baggage, but it takes steps to reintroduce the visual and narrative, um, flexibility of Stallone’s films into Adonis’ more realistic world. We’re not quite at the point where a single boxing match can change the world, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Creed IV had Adonis ending the crisis in the Middle East.
Freshly retired, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) is set on training the next-generation of fighters when a blast from his past re-emerges. Damian “Dame” Anderson (Jonathan Majors), a friend and formidable fighter that once had big dreams in his youth, shows up at Adonis’ gym after serving a lengthy prison stint. After Adonis recognizes a former staffer who’d abused the boys during their ‘stay’ at a group home and starts to pummel him, causing the staffer’s boys to jump Adonis. It’s only after Dame intervenes (with a gun) they back off, but not before police show up and arrest Dame while Adonis makes his escape.
Dame would then spend the next 18 years behind bars, watching Adonis conquer the world of boxing from his cell, living a life he feels was stolen from him. And now he wants it back, by any means necessary.
If Creed III feels like a soft reboot/homage to Rocky III, that’s probably by design. In all fairness, it was the choice *not* to feature Stallone’s Rocky, or any of the iconic Rocky memorabilia, that helps the film operate on its own terms. Rumors swirled around having Adonis match up against Clubber Lang’s son…thank goodness they went in a different direction, even if shades of what might have been remain. The parallels are all there: two men, one soft from privilege and the other hardened by the system, a major character who protected our hero from temptation dies from trauma, the loving spouse who begrudgingly grants her warrior-husband permission to knock the other guy out. We’ve got montages galore, some of which are on the beach.
Michael B. Jordan continues to demonstrate why he’s one of the best actors of his generation, here pulling double-duty with both an amazing physical performance and as director. It helps that he shares unbelievable onscreen chemistry with Jonathan Majors, especially in the quieter, less bloody character moments. It’s easy to see how much he cares about this franchise, maybe as much as its creator, and was the right choice to continue Stallone’s legacy.
Majors, in particular, is phenomenal as Dame Anderson. For the first time, a Creed film feels like it has a genuine Rocky-caliber heavy, a personality so defined by his experience you almost want to root for him, essentially invoking the same persona as Mr. T’s Clubber Lang. Half of Majors’ performance is in his eyes, the other in his pecs. So much attention has been made about Major’s physical transformation in recent films that it’s easy to overlook just how great a dramatic performance he’s giving without succumbing to cartoonish villainy.
Despite whatever grandiose plans Marvel has in store for his multiverse Kang role, it will be his role in Creed III (and not the forgettable Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania) that will be most celebrated.
The supporting cast are all equally great; Tessa Thompson reminds us she’s actually a great actress, Wood Harris (while underutilized) continues to be Mickey’s voice of reason as Little Duke, and Phylicia Rashad is always a welcome presence as Adonis’ adopted mom, here given more to work with than ever. Watch for a cameo from Tony Bellew as “Pretty” Ricky Conlan and a fun extended return by Florian Munteanu as Creed II’s heavy, Viktor Drago. The Rocky / Creed franchise is, if nothing else, loyal to its family.
Jordan does fine work in his directorial debut, careful to keep tabs on both the Creed franchise’s realism while paying tribute to the Rocky franchise’s more bombastic elements. This is also the first in the franchise to be filmed specifically for the larger IMAX format, and takes full advantage of the extra space to deliver (forgive me) that extra knockout punch. It’s a wider canvas that Jordan and returning cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau have fun taking advantage of.
Jordan in particular has made no secret of his love for anime, and here he employs extreme closeups in both narrative and action scenes, infusing the fight sequences with kinetic energy and visceral slow-motion that makes you feel every brutal punch and pummel as they land. It’s a reminder how awesome a boxing movie can be in theaters. Once scene has Jordan transforming his boxing rink into a literal metaphorical prison, vanishing the audience to let us know the battle is a personal one between two men fighting for what they believe in.
It’s an homage that feels like a homecoming, given how the original Rocky films, with their equally bombastic choreography and melodramatic storylines, would inspire so many Japanese animators to push the limits of celluloid action. It works.
In many ways, the Creed / Rocky cinematic dynamic resembles another never-ending blockbuster franchise, James Bond. Miraculously, years of cat-stroking supervillains with doomsday plans and high-tech gadgets during the Roger Moore era would cede to the more character-centric and grounded Daniel Craig era, both versions managing to co-exist in the hearts (and canon) of 007 fans.
Still, as much as high-brow critics may “prefer” the realism of Casino Royale, I’m sure many were secretly yearning for a Moonraker. Remember: the critically acclaimed, audience adored Creed franchise is really just the sequel to Rocky’s most bombastic, over-the-top (and financially successful) entry: Rocky IV.
It’s not a slight to say Creed III is an imperfect sequel in an imperfect franchise that almost depends on its imperfections to keep us affected and coming back for more. The only real criticism it’s that the outcome was never in doubt, and telegraphing the next-generation of the Creed dynasty maybe a little too obvious. And as much as we want this to be the story of Adonis, a little part of us wouldn’t mind the Italian Stallion making a future appearance. But Creed III connects where and how it needs to and that’s more than enough.