There’s a moment in 2015’s Creed that serves as the lynchpin for its case as perhaps the best legacy sequel/years-later franchise extension of recent memory. During the climactic boxing match pitting underdog challenger Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Jordan) against a current champion, Creed confesses his greatest fear to his coach, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), who you may remember from six previous Rocky films, encompassing a 1976 Best Picture winner, a 1985 Cold War clip-show, and a 2006 old-man-comeback picture, among others. Rocky offers words of encouragement, expresses his love and gratitude, and Creed — the son of Rocky’s late opponent-turned-friend — stands up to fight one last round, with the opening notes of Bill Conti’s instantly recognizable Rocky theme emerging on the soundtrack.
There’s nothing quite like this in Creed III. That may sound like a body blow to the new sequel, but it’s not, both because a rush of emotion that powerful is an unfairly tall order for any sequel, and because Creed III is bravely taking its chances without Rocky or his accompanying emotional baggage (or, no small thing, his theme music). Creed II took a baby step away from its parent franchise, developing Creed’s world while leaving time for a Rocky subplot (and a Stallone co-writing credit that seemed, frankly, like the result of a miscommunication, given that he didn’t write the first one). This time, Rocky is mentioned briefly but unseen, and Creed’s big opponent is a sui-generis figure from his past, not Rocky’s. (Creed II featured Viktor Drago, son of Rocky IV’s supervillain Ivan.) Stallone may grumble, but the spinoff process is complete. The series belongs to Creed now.
Which also means that it fully belongs to Michael B. Jordan — not least because he takes a Stallone-like step into the director’s chair with this third installment. That weird alchemy between autobiography and self-mythologizing that makes the Rocky sequels fascinating even as they fail to live up to the magic of the original is very much active here, as Donnie feels the tension between his traumatic childhood and the luxury he now enjoys as a retired boxing champ. That tension tightens when Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors), a friend of Donnie’s from his group-home days, emerges from a multi-year prison sentence and asks for some help starting a belated boxing career. The movie retcons that Donnie learned some moves from the older, stronger Damian, who now feels that his life has been stolen from him — especially understandable when the specifics of his arrest are revealed. Donnie, meanwhile, must grapple with his guilt over the friend he left behind, alongside the provocative idea that one story’s scrappy underdog may be another’s well-off villain.
It’s inevitable that Donnie and Damian will eventually clash in the ring, despite Donnie’s supposed retirement; no Creed movie, no matter how well-crafted, has calculated its way out of boxing-movie formulas. Most of this ranges from satisfying clichés executed with skill (like the training montages — see the Los Angeles-based Creed stand triumphant above the Hollywood sign!) or minor irritants with some boilerplate function (the boxing-telecast commentary imposed on many of the fights). Occasionally, though, the heavy hand of screenplay requirements seems to interfere in the lives of otherwise convincing and well-drawn characters: Donnie’s wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson) prods him to teach their hearing-impaired daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent) about solving her problems without violence or vengeance, but must also eventually cheer her husband’s confrontation with Damian, and the movie only hints at how those two elements might be reconciled. It places more importance on Donnie just talking about his past with Bianca, and woe betide a movie that so readily recalls pithy tweets about what men would rather do than go to therapy. In this case, they would rather reclaim physically dangerous championship titles, in the face of a threat that sometimes feels a bit abstract. Does a boxing ex-con really have the power to ruin Creed’s life? Does Donnie understand the difference between shit-talk and a genuine threat to his family?
But compared to the lesser Rocky sequels, the Creed movies take greater care to keep their human dramas on the ground. The brief appearances here of former Creed opponents feels like a less cartoonish version of the Fast and Furious credo, where bad guys get converted to extended-family status with clockwork regularity. If these figures in Donnie’s orbit don’t quite have Old Man Balboa gravitas, this is also the first Creed with a truly memorable standalone antagonist. As Damian, Majors gives the scary, wounded, funny, charismatic performance he was supposed to have delivered in that Ant-Man movie; this time, he’s in a movie that understands how to coax out a range of emotions in dialogue scenes, and how to frame its actors, together and separately, to catch the flicker-like gestures that signal those shifts. Indeed, some of the most riveting scenes between Jordan and Majors downplay macho fireworks, like their reunion over lunch, driven by Majors’ pained menace.
Did Jordan study Heat for this scene? The shots aren’t cribbed from it, but the patience and unshowy strategy could be. Elsewhere, Jordan takes bigger swings from behind the camera. He’s spoken of his anime fandom (something else he’s gifted to his character; young Donnie has an anime poster in his bedroom), and how that influenced some of his directorial choices. That’s most evident in the film’s climactic boxing match, which features such bold stylizations — graphic-panel closeups, backgrounds that switch to dreamlike symbolism — that it’s hard not to wish for similar adventurousness in the other fights and training montages. But even when Creed III treads familiar ground, this series feels like the ideal outlet for the on-screen persona Jordan is building: a resilient man who needs to better understand the power he’s fought so hard for. A decade ago, another actor taking over and remixing the Rocky series would have seemed like pointless sacrilege. Now it seems like one of the few movie revival series with the drive to compete.
Director: Michael B. Jordan
Writer: Keenan Coogler, Zach Baylin
Starring:: Michael B. Jordan, Tessa Thompson, Jonathan Majors, Mila Davis-Kent, Phylicia Rashad, Wood Harris
Release Date: March 3, 2023
Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including Polygon, Inside Hook, Vulture, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.