The wall of Adonis Creed’s gym is adorned with a mural of his dad, the late heavyweight boxing champ Apollo Creed, adorned with the inscription “Build Your Own Legacy.” That’s an interesting mantra for a film like Creed III, the first entry in either the Rocky or Creed franchises without an onscreen appearance from Rocky Balboa himself, Sylvester Stallone. Stallone’s name does pop up as a producer in Creed III’s closing credits, but Rocky is barely mentioned otherwise. Intentionally or not, the message is clear: This is Creed’s show now. And coincidentally or not, that’s sort of what Creed III is about as well. A man from Adonis’ past returns to challenge him, claiming that he has unfairly enjoyed the life that should have been his.
That is Dame Anderson (Jonathan Majors). An opening flashback shows Dame and Adonis in 2002, when both were still kids and Dame was one of the hottest amateur boxing prospects in the country. 20 years later, it’s Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) who’s a boxing champ while Dame is fresh out of jail, having spent most of the intervening years behind bars. Finally out on parole, he turns up at Adonis’ gym to reconnect. When Adonis recognizes Dame, he’s happy — and a little wary. Clearly something in their shared past left a bad taste in both men’s mouths.
Adonis invites Dame into his life anyway, and the latter observes the former’s glamorous lifestyle with a mixture of admiration and understandable jealousy. Recently retired from boxing, Adonis gets to spend most of his time in his stunning Hollywood hills mansion with his gorgeous and talented music producer of a wife (Tessa Thompson) and their adorable daughter (Mila Davis-Kent). It’s obvious from the start that Dame blames Adonis for his time in jail, and over the course of Creed III it’s revealed why — and why Adonis may blame himself for Dame’s past as well. So when Dame announces his ambition to become a champion boxer, Adonis feels obliged to help him, especially since he’s become a boxing promoter after his in-ring retirement.
Despite the slogan on Creed’s wall about building a legacy, there are undeniable parallels between Creed III and earlier Rocky films. Its structure comes straight from Rocky III, which saw the Italian Stallion grappling with fame and celebrity while battling a new challenger who was tougher, stronger, and hungrier. But Jordan, making his directorial debut, doesn’t simply rehash old Rocky plots; he cannily weaponizes the audience’s familiarity with the franchise to subvert their expectations.
Dame isn’t just an updated Clubber Lang or Ivan Drago. (Although Majors’ jacked physique certainly makes him look like a very credible heavyweight.) Majors’ character is a lot closer in construction to Rocky Balboa, another down-on-his-luck underdog who wants to prove himself worthy of the big time. By extension, that comparison almost makes Adonis — the rich guy whose mansion is a veritable monument to himself — the Apollo of this story. So who is the hero and who is the villain here?
To Creed III’s credit, things are rarely that cut and dried. Neither was the original Rocky, which was less of an adrenaline-pumping sports movie than a character study about a soft-hearted palooka. The sequels became more cartoonish and formulaic — including 2018’s Creed II, which saw Adonis fight the son of the man who had killed his father decades earlier. Creed III returns the franchise to its roots in macho melodrama. Yes, Adonis and Dame eventually fight. But a lot of Creed III is about their lives away from the ring, and about universal themes that have nothing to do with boxing like getting older and feeling as if your dreams are about to slip through your fingers.
As such, time is a big motif in Creed III, and not just when referees are counting out boxers who’ve been knocked to the mat. But then time has always been a big motif in Rocky, which have been about the importance of endurance, in life as well as in the ring, since the very first film. (“Time takes everybody out, it’s undefeated,” said Rocky during a particularly haunting scene in the first Creed.) So it’s at least a little odd that the embodiment of that idea in Creed III is portrayed by Jonathan Majors just a few weeks removed from his role as Kang the Conqueror in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania — another powerful and time-obsessed antagonist with somewhat inscrutable motives who has spent years in a prison he feels he does not belong in, and now looks to make up for lost time by striking back at the people he blames for his incarceration.
The parallels between the characters are a little jarring. But as good as Majors was as Kang, he’s even better here; more natural, more at ease, and a lot more intimidating in his boxing scenes with Jordan and others. He also lets the audience see the cracks in Dame’s emotional armor; this is not a one-dimensional tough guy. Majors (and the script by Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylin) provide glimpses of Dame’s warmth and kindness, particularly in scenes with Adonis’ daughter Amara. For all his flaws, Dame might have a point about Adonis’ role in his criminal past. When the inevitable final match arrives, you don’t necessarily want Dame to win, but you also don’t want to see him lose, either. He really might be the most interesting antagonist in any Rocky movie since Apollo Creed. He’s certainly the most fully realized.
Credit for that goes not only to Majors and the screenwriters but to Jordan as well, who delivers an extremely poised directorial debut. He’s not as flashy a filmmaker as Ryan Coogler; Creed III’s boxing matches are never quite as visceral or as intricately shot and choreographed as the ones in the first Creed. But he also takes some interesting swings at mixing up the franchise’s tried-and-true elements, like its training montages and climactic title bout, which is far more impressionistic than anything in any other Rocky to date. Like Adonis, Jordan is clearly interested in making his own legacy.
To do that, I think he’ll need to direct some original material, not just another satisfying installment in a long-running franchise. That said, Jordan more than proved himself up to the task of directing himself in a brawny but thoughtful sequel. After the first Creed, it’s certainly a contender for the best sequel this series has ever produced.
-Mila Davis-Kent is a total scene-stealer as Adonis’ daughter. The film sort of forgets about her when the boxing rivalry heats up, but if they make a Creed IV, she better be in it.
-Does Creed III need Rocky or Sylvester Stallone? No — but there is one scene where his absence is noticeable, simply because it’s hard to explain why his character wouldn’t show up for this key moment in his friend Adonis’ life.
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