How does one forge a legacy in another’s shadow?
The Creed franchise, at its core, is about answering that question. Adonis Creed, played by Michael B. Jordan, had a heavyweight chip on his shoulder in the first two films as he reconciled the legacies of his father, Apollo, and his trainer Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). By the end of Creed II, the film had found the answer, and Creed’s journey from boxing upstart to superstar appeared complete. That makes the idea of a third Creed film feel like a dodgy prospect on paper. What could another film explore if Creed successfully established his legacy amongst the titans of his past?
The answer is the journey of Michael B. Jordan.
For his third outing as Creed, Jordan steps behind the camera for the first time. Creed III finds Adonis settled into a wealthy, comfortable retirement with his wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and daughter Amara. He now promotes and trains his successor, Felix Chavez, for a big prize fight to retain the heavyweight champion title. One day, Creed meets his childhood friend Damien “Diamond Dame” Anderson (Jonathan Majors), fresh out of prison after 18 years. Anderson, an aspiring boxer before going to jail, wants a shot at the glory he believes was taken from him. Creed, struggling with his complicated feelings about Anderson’s re-emergence, agrees to help him. Unfortunately, the chip on Anderson’s shoulder dwarfs the one that used to rest on Creed’s. Anderson’s past grievances and aggressive antics in the ring threaten to upend everything Creed has built.
Jordan’s directorial debut pushes him into an intriguing inverse dynamic with his on-screen character. Jordan is now where Creed was eight years ago: the upstart following his frequent collaborator Ryan Coogler’s trailblazing path. Like Creed, Jordan’s success depends not on what came before him but his stylistic identity. Creed III is both a safe space and a significant challenge. It is a critical opportunity for Jordan to define his path as a filmmaker.
Jordan paves that path with references that will delight anyone who spent a portion of their youth watching Toonami. A self-proclaimed anime fan, Jordan fashions Creed III in the shonen action tradition. His approach is comprehensive, leveraging aesthetics and storytelling structure to bring Creed and Anderson’s rivalry to life. Jordan understands that emotional and technical narratives – why and how opponents fight – inform battle anime’s best fights. Whether Dragon Ball Z’s Vegeta and Goku or Naruto and Sasuke in Naruto, their complex motivations inform their explosive brawls. Creed III‘s story is simple, but Jordan’s thoughtful development of Creed and Anderson’s emotional narratives provide depth. Simmering discomfort undercuts their easy camaraderie, while Creed’s guilt and past and present insecurities clash with Anderson’s barely-contained resentment. Jordan has a keen eye for intimate character-building moments, holding them tightly in the frame to convey their magnitude.
Creed III shines in how Jordan develops and demonstrates the technical narratives of its two fighters. Their psychologies manifest in their techniques: Anderson is pummeling brutality and cheap shots, while Creed is quick-footed but slightly tentative. Jordan captures their fighting styles and training sequences with stunning fluidity and focus. His camera moves as quickly as they do in the ring, dialing up the intensity without losing a sense of space. He experiments with perspective across the first and second act fights, slowing down and lasering into specific punches to demonstrate Creed or Anderson’s thinking behind the move. Those initial stylistic flourishes elevate the excitement but are merely appetizers for the main event.
When Creed and Anderson get into the ring for their marquee bout, Jordan lets loose. The finale is a tour-de-force, a nail-biting display of tightly-choreographed action where Jordan fully shows off his affection for knock-down, drag-out anime battles. He is staggeringly inventive here, paying off both characters’ emotional narratives in ways that effectively rewrite what sports movies can achieve. Some shots and sequences are downright unforgettable. (You’ll think of Anderson beating the sweat off Creed in slow-motion for weeks, if not longer.) The references to Dragon Ball Z, Hajime no Ippo, and Naruto are undeniable, and Jordan crafts them with great confidence that shames the directors who have attempted (and failed) to adapt anime into live-action films. The only disappointment is that he doesn’t lean into those instincts earlier.
Jordan’s great first stab at direction doesn’t diminish his abilities in front of the camera. In fact, Creed III is his best performance to date. Jordan appears at ease with the character, carrying and shifting between several conflicting feelings in his expressions and physicality. Creed’s insecurities around Anderson creep across his face, especially in quieter moments. While he typically excels in emotional moments, he reaches a new level of naked vulnerability. Jonathan Majors, rapidly becoming one of Hollywood’s most exciting and gifted actors, is an excellent compliment and foil for Jordan. He is a powder keg of ferocious energy, but he tempers it with a deep-seated yearning for acceptance and acknowledgment that dimensionalizes his character. Tessa Thompson personifies effortless, steely grace as Bianca, finding opportunities to flesh out her slightly underwritten character. The cast has terrific chemistry with each other, making the stakes and consequences of their conflict even heavier.
Creed III could (and should) be the final chapter of Adonis Creed’s story, but it marks the arrival of a formidable filmmaker in Michael B. Jordan. Rather than rest on Ryan Coogler’s playbook and the franchise’s laurels, Jordan shows a sharp sensibility for rich characterization and creative action that will only improve as he continues his directing career. He has some work to do to be Adonis Creed’s filmmaking equal, but if Creed III is any indication, his legacy is inevitable.