Sports movies are among the most durable of genres, and nostalgia sequels and long-running franchises have become almost the norm for popular movies from the past half-century, but the legacy of Rocky is unique. Few big-screen franchises in any genre have remained vital after so many years, and no other sports movie has come close to launching such an enduring cinematic saga. The nearest analogue might be the Karate Kid franchise, which ran four movies from 1984 to 1994 and now has a crowd-pleasing afterlife with Netflix’s Cobra Kai — and even The Karate Kid was almost a Rocky movie in the first place (so much so that it was directed by John Avildsen and features a song, Joe Esposito’s “You’re the Best,” originally written for Rocky III).
The first two Creed films were “legacyquels” in the strict sense given by Matt Singer in coining the term: movies “in which beloved aging stars reprise classic roles and pass the torch to younger successors.” By this definition, 2006’s Rocky Balboa, coming 16 years after Rocky V, was not a legacyquel; it could be called a nostalgia sequel, which I have described as a sequel made after a franchise has lain fallow for perhaps a decade or more, in which the operative question is not “What happened next?” but “Where are they now?” Creed introduced us to Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Creed, the illegitimate son of Rocky’s great adversary turned friend Apollo Creed, with Rocky now in the role of reluctant trainer and mentor. (Wood Harris played “Little Duke” Evers, the son of Apollo’s trainer Duke, who initially refuses to train Adonis.) Creed II doubled down on revisiting the Rocky films by bringing back Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Drago as trainer and promoter for his own son, the similarly intimidating Viktor (Florian Munteanu), who challenges Adonis in a bid for family redemption in Russia.
Helmed by Jordan himself in his directorial debut, with a story co-written by Creed writer-director Ryan Coogler, Creed III is the first Rocky film featuring neither Stallone himself nor any returning character from the first six films, except Apollo Creed’s widow and Adonis’s adoptive mother, Mary Anne (played in the Creed movies by a regal Phylicia Rashad). Rocky is fleetingly mentioned, and the younger Drago appears briefly as an Apollo-like adversary turned ally, but the antagonist is someone from Adonis’s own past. And that’s not the only way Creed III goes its own way. Instead of once again casting the hero as an underdog against a younger and/or more established opponent — or, alternatively, easing the now-retired Adonis into a mentor role in relation to one of the young fighters at the gym he manages — Creed III boldly upends the formulas: This time Adonis is confronted with an older mentor figure from his youth, a once-promising coulda-been who lost his shot thanks to a lengthy prison sentence.
Jonathan Majors is a compelling presence in any non-MCU production (see The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Da Five Bloods; you might know him as Kang the Conqueror). He’s exceptionally riveting as Damian “Dame” Anderson, once a big-brother figure to young Adonis from their days at a juvenile hall and Adonis’s first mentor in boxing. Setting the stage, an opening flashback introduces us to Dame as a young man and Adonis as a teen (respectively, Spence Duane Moore II and Alex Henderson), some time after Adonis has been adopted by Mary Anne. How this fateful early episode ends isn’t immediately revealed, but it’s clear that Adonis carries unresolved guilt over Dame taking the fall while he himself moved on as if it never happened.
Despite their shared history, Dame represents, as antagonists in this franchise generally do, a sociological contrast to the hero. Rocky was a small-time, working-class palooka whose rags-to-riches story is part grit and part dumb luck. His antagonists include the polished showman Apollo, the Soviet golden boy Drago, and Mr. T’s “Clubber” Lang, who is mainly different from Rocky, alas, in being Black. “Clubber” is also the franchise’s nastiest villain, a fact highlighting an uncomfortable, much-noted racial dynamic running through all six films named for Rocky, every one of which depicts a Black champion humbled, beaten, or killed in the ring by a White challenger. (The White challenger isn’t always Rocky: In Rocky IV Ivan Drago kills Apollo, and in Rocky V White challenger Tommy “The Machine” Gunn defeats Black champion Union Cane. Both films end with Rocky defeating the White challenger.)
The Creed films upend all of this. Adonis’s background is complex: an Black orphan with a troubled childhood who nevertheless comes of age amid privilege in the care of his wealthy adoptive mother. The very way he talks telegraphs the quality of his education to Rocky. His sparring partners and opponents in Creed and Creed II are White and/or Latino; the main antagonist in Creed, “Pretty” Ricky Conlan, is a Liverpudlian champion and convict being forced into retirement by a looming prison sentence. (Like Rocky in the first film, Adonis wins a moral victory by going the distance but loses the fight in a split decision.)
At the same time, every Rocky film in some way pits the hero against himself, and in Creed III the internal drama finds its strongest external realization. Creed III pits Adonis against a shadowy mirror image: a charismatic, confident man he once looked to as the future he wanted, and whose hard-case life easily could have become his own past, if not for the privilege and the opportunities that came with the discovery of his illustrious paternity as well as the maternal generosity of his adoptive mother. By the third film, Adonis is in many ways living the dream. He’s happily married to his love interest from the previous two films, successful pop musician Bianca Taylor (Tessa Thompson, radiating self-possession and emotional intelligence), and they have an adorable daughter. Life isn’t without challenges: Due to her progressive hearing loss, Bianca has retired from performing and is reinventing herself as a producer, and their daughter Amara was born deaf. (She’s played by 9-year-old deaf actress Mila Davis-Kent.) To Dame, though, everything Adonis has is a mocking reminder of the dreams of his own younger self.
Creed III is about the “two Americas” invoked by Martin Luther King, Jr., divided partly by race, but more by class and the economic divide between the haves and have-nots. It’s also about the extent to which the happiness of the privileged can turn on the suffering of the disadvantaged being out of sight and out of mind. None of this is explicitly stated when Dame appears again in Adonis’s life, but it’s implicit in every guarded word of ostensibly cordial conversation as the two brothers-turned-strangers warily circle one another while feigning not to. Adonis says, truthfully, that he never got any of Dame’s letters, but that’s not the whole guilty truth of why he never reached out to Dame. And while Dame, far from expressing envy, lightly needles Adonis about his “monkey-suit” and swanky home in the “boonies” of Bel-Air, the resentment is just submerged enough that Adonis can pretend to ignore it. As for Bianca, she trusts Adonis enough to invite Dame to dinner, but she also knows him well enough to be attuned to Dame’s suggestions that there may be more to their history than Adonis has admitted to her.
This may be more character drama than we expect from a Rocky sequel, although the original Rocky was perhaps a character drama first and a sports movie second. Creed III isn’t that, but it’s a kind of drama we haven’t seen before: shades of a Cape Fear–esque thriller with an insinuating, slyly menacing antagonist with a grudge threatening the hero’s domestic happiness. Majors is actually a few years younger than Jordan, but, between the poised calculation of his performance and his heavier face and bulkier build, he easily plays older. Yet he can’t be dismissed as a has-been: With his unnervingly nonchalant gaze and jaw jutting forward, Majors radiates hidden, explosive danger, and his formidably brawny physique makes an understatement of Dame’s boast to have kept in shape in prison.
Jordan gives his most layered performance of the series, though his arc is perhaps too schematic, too stubbornly withholding from Bianca, until he isn’t. This is too much like a retread of Creed II, when Bianca lamented to Mary Anne about Adonis being distant and disconnected and seeming not to care even about her. After nearly a decade of marriage, I would like to see more growth than this, though to be fair it’s plausible that the reappearance of Dame might trigger old behaviors and social scripts in Adonis. Certainly Bianca has grown, and Thompson effortlessly weaves the confidence and compassion that have always characterized her performance around an increasing number of potentially conflicting commitments that she somehow resolves. Among these are her work, her marriage, her husband’s work, their daughter, the daddy-daughter relationship, and the daughter’s struggles and acting out at school, not to mention the delicate balance between concern for her mother-in-law’s health and respect for her pride. Rashad, too, has never been better in a part with more emotional weight than in previous films.
Does it go without saying that the boxing sequences are imaginatively and energetically staged and filmed with wincing persuasiveness and emotional power? I am not — I can’t be — a fan of professional boxing. The debilitating cumulative toll on the body over the course of a boxing career is a greater issue even than with professional football, since in boxing the goal is ideally to damage the other player badly enough to concuss him or otherwise render him incapable of standing. I can’t reconcile that with the fifth commandment. Yet I find that I can still appreciate a boxing movie, especially when the fight scenes emphasize precision and strategy over sheer bludgeoning power. Creed III gives us such a great example of this early on that it somewhat undercuts the final showdown, as solid as it is. If they had switched the endings of the two fights, it would make a good movie even more satisfying.
It’s still a satisfying movie, and a rousing conclusion of a trilogy as well as an ongoing reinvention of many of the best elements of the Rocky franchise. Whether Stallone returns or not, the spirit of Rocky will live on. Creed III probably isn’t the end, but if it were, it would be a fitting finale to the Rocky saga — much like both of its predecessors.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.