Michael B. Jordan Breathes New Life Into This Franchise
Feb 25, 2023
For nearly half a century, the Rocky franchise has understandably centered around Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa. Even when the series rebooted to center around Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the son of Apollo Creed, in Ryan Coogler’s 2015 film Creed, Rocky was still a major part of this series. While Stallone’s Rocky made sense in Creed, and earned Stallone his first acting Oscar nomination in nearly forty years, by Creed II, it became clear that after eight installments with Stallone, his continued appearance in the series was more of a distraction from Creed’s story than a benefit.
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But in Creed III, the story of the title character finally moves beyond Rocky, allowing Creed to take the spotlight all on his own, and gives Jordan an opportunity to make his directorial debut. Creed III interestingly becomes about how the past and present influence the future, and considering that, it’s also fascinating that Rocky isn’t even mentioned once. But as Creed III explores the childhood of young Adonis Creed before we ever met him in Creed, Jordan as director is updating this series for a new generation, playing with what this franchise can be, experimenting, and breaking from the norms—while also keeping the main skeleton of these films intact. Even more so than what Coogler did with this series, Jordan is a breath of fresh air for the Rocky/Creed universe, an exciting example of the potential still in this series nine films in.
Creed III begins in 2002, before we met Adonis in the opening moments of Creed, as we see the young Adonis (played by Alex Henderson) and his friendship with Damian “Dame” Anderson (Spence Moore II), a young Golden Gloves champion with nothing but potential ahead of him. In these early days, Adonis was in his friend’s corner, as Dame was an up-and-coming boxer impressing with his quick knockouts. The two seem like a perfect team, with Adonis knowing what advice to give his brilliant boxer friend. But after a victory one night, Adonis gets in a fight with a man outside a convenience store, and when Dame pulls a gun, it puts the two of them away.
Image via Warner Bros
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Cut to the present day and Adonis has become the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, retired at the top of his game, married the rock star Bianca Taylor (Tessa Thompson) and the pair had a kid, Amara (Mila Davis-Kent), and Adonis is helping mentor the next generation of great boxers alongside Little Duke (Wood Harris) at the Delphi Gym. Meanwhile, Dame (Jonathan Majors) is just now getting out of jail, and seeks out his childhood friend who has done well for himself. Dame says that even though he’s gotten older, his dreams have stayed the same, and he still wants to be a champion boxer.
Creed brings his friend to Delphi, getting him a job as a sparring partner to the current champion, Felix Chavez (Jose Benavidez). While Creed tells Dame that his dreams are going to take time, Dame has been locked up for almost two decades, and the last thing he wants to do is waste time. Like Dame says to Creed, “If Apollo Creed could take a chance on an underdog, why can’t you?” As he’s watched his old friend become the champion of the world, Dame has longed to live that life of success and glory, the life he was on the path to before he was locked away. As Creed attempts to help his friend earn his goals, Dame is much more interested in a fast track to making his dreams finally come true.
More than any other previous Rocky/Creed film, Creed III takes its time to let us get to know the upcoming enemy, making us both sympathize with Dame’s situation and his frustrations with how Adonis largely forgot his friend, while also showing us that Creed wasn’t entirely innocent in creating what Dame would become. Creed III makes this conflict a deeply personal battle between two men who were once like brothers, and the screenplay by Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylin (with a story by Coogler, Baylin, and Ryan Coogler) explores the gray in both of these men’s stories.
Creed III isn’t a story about boxing, it’s a story about family—both the ones that we’re born into and the ones that we discover along the way—and the sacrifices we make for the ones we love. Jordan makes sure the entire family this time around gets their moment, continuing to build this world and giving these characters agency. Bianca has given up live performance to help protect what hearing she has left, and while she puts on a smile and says she enjoys producing just as much, it’s clear that this choice has pained her. Bianca and Creed’s daughter Amara is getting picked on at her school, and Adonis attempts to teach her how to protect herself, showing her that boxing isn’t about violence, it’s about timing, control, and focus. Even Adonis’ mother Mary (Phylicia Rashad) gets some truly moving moments, as she reckons with attempting to hide Dame’s letters to Adonis after all these years, and the worry of losing Adonis after having already lost his father.
But even in the gym, this focus on family is felt, as Adonis has helped cultivated a group of potential champions, and has even become close friends with Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu). Yet it’s that love and history between Adonis and Dame that makes this story so powerful, and Coogler and Baylin’s script makes sure to spend as much time with this duo as possible, a necessary build for when these two eventually have to find each other in the ring. No other Rocky/Creed film has taken this much time building the relationship between fighters in quite this way, and the result is formidable, making this film more than just about pride, greatness, or power. Creed III ends up becoming emotional and exploratory of these character’s emotions in a way this series has never even attempted before.
A major part of what makes Creed III work is the performance by Majors, providing one of the most intriguing antagonists in the history of this series. Majors is great at playing roles like this, which are masculine and proud in their own way, yet extremely sensitive and emotional. Dame’s anger isn’t misplaced, and his frustrations at his situation are understandable. It’s also impossible to not enjoy what Majors is doing here, starting off as the long-lost brother in a way to Adonis, then slowly showing his true nature, while that original side of himself seeps further and further down. Even when he’s at his douchiest, it’s hard not to sort of root for Dame, and between his performance as Kang in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, and in the unnerving Sundance film Magazine Dreams, this is certainly going to be the year of Majors.
Image via Warner Bros
Yet even with this focus on the family and the protagonist at the center of the story, Jordan truly puts his directorial stamp on Creed III in the ring. As he tells his daughter, boxing is about timing, control, and focus, and Jordan makes sure we feel that when we watch these boxers go at it. Jordan slows down the action during the fights, showing the split-second choices a boxer has to make, the little tells that help win a fight, and the unbelievable power and might that comes in these battles. Jordan has said he was influenced by anime in making this film, and that can certainly be felt in the way he shoots these fights, the way these boxers move, and how Jordan shifts the perspective in stunning ways.
Jordan knows that we’ve been watching these films for almost 50 years, and he gives us something wholly new in the ring. For example, with Dame’s first fight, we see the boxer trying new angles and attempting unique hits that seem awkward, but impeccably placed, as he’s playing a longer game than just one round at a time. It’s such a slight shift, but it makes a huge impact on the viewer, who quickly comes to realize Jordan isn’t going to give us the same old fights we’re used to.
This is especially true in the climactic fight, in which Jordan completely throws the Rocky/Creed rule book out the window and attempts something truly experimental in a way this franchise has never been before. The final fight will absolutely be a litmus test for longtime fans of this series who will likely flinch at the new way Jordan frames this fight, which also delves into these two boxer’s long history with each other, but personally, I found it to be a brilliant way to try something new within this series, and an opportunity for Jordan to put his mark on this brand in a way that feels like him leading this world into a new era. Again, Jordan embraces the possibilities of what this series could be, instead of feeling hemmed in by what the past has said this series has to be.
Creed III honors the past while looking forward to the future, and gives Jordan—both the actor and the director—the spotlight in a way that shows his immense talents. By putting the priority directly on the family and diving into those dynamics for most of the film, with excellent performances by Jordan, Rashad, and Majors, among others, and by trying new things out in this series that is often known for its formulaic nature, Creed III is a breath of fresh air. Adonis might be avoiding the past in Creed III, but Jordan is learning from what has been done before and bringing this series into an entirely new generation, evolving this world in a way that makes it feel entirely new again.
Creed III comes to theaters on March 3.
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