Creed II made a critical mistake by leaning too hard into the lore of the Rocky series. That wasn’t a criticism I expected to make at this point but I don’t think it’s controversial. As strange as it is to see a ninth Rocky film without Sylvester Stallone in a supporting role, the Creed films needed to spread their wings and be their own thing. And with Creed III, the franchise is finally back on track.
The film is set in the years after his breakout as a boxer and his fight with Ivan Drago’s son. Adonis is now a family man with a five-year-old daughter. Having performed his final competing boxing match, he’s moved on to running his own boxing academy and training other fighters. Much to his surprise, an old childhood friend appears before him for the first time in 18 years. Dame Anderson (Jonathan Majors) has spent nearly two decades in jail for an assault charge while his friend went on to wealth and worldwide acclaim. Now only Creed can help him get back on his feet, eventually resulting in a climactic fight between the two friends.
It helps that the film is an excellent directorial debut of star Michael B. Jordan, who has made an impressive career as the star of the previous two films and as the antagonist of Black Panther (and also Fan4stick). Jordan’s directorial work is surprisingly contemplative for a first-time director, no doubt helpfully ushered by Coogler and Stallone in producer roles. Even then, this third film in the franchise stands confidently without relying on the benefits of Stallone. The first Creed film benefitted from just how unique and personable its protagonist was, grappling with an estranged father-son relationship with the son figuratively shadow-boxing his dad’s legendary legacy.
And the third film continues the best of Adonis’s characterization, exploring the challenges of fatherhood, family relationships, and black identity in the context of his miraculous career, raising him above challenges his other black friends were left to struggle with. One senses an undercurrent of guilt running under the film, a sense of imposter syndrome that captures the fear of betrayal and inauthenticity that comes from making it to the top and leaving your friends at the bottom. Curiously, the ending offers a very contrarian, even conservative, depiction of success and self-determination within the contact of black identity.
It’s no surprise that Jonathan Majors manages to carry a lot of the film’s weight. Majors has become a runaway success since his breakout in Last Black Man in San Fransisco. He’s since become more widely known as Kang the Conquerer, colloquially the least negatively received aspect of Ant-Man 3 (one can only imagine how grateful he is that a better film came out to smooth that over). Dame provides an interesting thematic counterpoint to Rocky and Adonis, following the same zero-to-hero underdog story that his predecessors followed but in a much darker way, violently beating his way to the top and revealing who he truly is as he succeeds.
Considering I had no expectations or passion about a third Creed film, I’m happy it turned out as good as it did. The prospect of Ryan Coogler’s original vision of resurrecting the franchise with a new protagonist made for one of the best legacy sequels of the past decade, and Creed III shows there’s enough energy to keep the franchise going against its own tendencies. The Rocky franchise rapidly appears to be becoming unstoppable, an unbreakable chain of surprisingly moving films depicting the changes in American life and its creative leads over decades. And I can’t wait to see where the franchise goes a decade from now.