‘Creed III’ Review: Michael B. Jordan and Jonathan Majors Duke It Out in Fantastic Continuation

Jordan’s directorial debut works despite of Sylvester Stallone’s absence

Creed iii
Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Creed in "Creed III"

There has never been a bad “Rocky” movie before, and thank goodness “Creed III” keeps the streak alive.

Even the films in the “Rocky” series with less-than-stellar reputations are interesting character pieces, valuable snapshots of their moments in history, which only become more enjoyable as time marches on. Time has marched directly into the “Creed” series, an equally impressive collection of underdog tales starring Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Creed, the son of Rocky’s greatest opponent, who forges a path for himself but — like Rocky before him — keeps walking into one epic tussle after another.

The raison d’être of the “Rocky” and “Creed” sequels is to take a character who had seemingly achieved all of their goals, knock them back down again, and see if they can crawl back up. Frankly, the series is more valuable for all these efforts. Taken as a whole, these films paint life as a perpetual, Sisyphean struggle up one hill after another. Financial success can vanish in an instant, loving families can fall into crisis, and in “Creed III” a seemingly heroic masculine ideal can be suddenly forced to confront their lifetime struggle with childhood trauma.

“Creed III” finds Adonis Creed at the top of the world, the undisputed heavyweight boxing champion, retiring in glory to a loving family and a successful managing career. He’s still married to a talented musician, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), who has segued into producing after her hearing loss becomes more severe. Their daughter, Amara (Mila Davis Kent), is bright and eager to take after her father as a fighter. Adonis has even managed the new heavyweight champion, Felix Chavez (Jose Benavidez), to his own glory.

Just when it seems like nothing could possibly go wrong, Adonis’s life gets turned upside down by the sudden arrival of Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors, “Antman and the Wasp: Quantumania”), who lived in foster care with Adonis during his bleakest years and just got out of prison after nearly two decades. They were more than just friends, they were practically brothers, and Damian is ready to resume his boxing career if Adonis is willing to give him a shot.

Adonis and Damian have unspoken history, not just because of the violent altercation that sent Damian to prison for half his life, while Adonis successfully fled and found untold glory. Damian isn’t a random plot point emerging from out of nowhere; he’s a repressed memory come to life, a vivid reminder of childhood friendship amidst shocking abuse. And since Adonis only knows how to deal with his inner demons in the ring, and since he’s not in the ring anymore, he’s easily manipulated into giving Damian an opportunity like Rocky Balboa had in 1976. A sudden underdog title shot, except this time, the underdog is feral.

It leads to a big battle between Adonis and Damian. That’s what movies like this are for, and “Creed III” is nothing if not efficient. It sets up the antagonist and the conflict, then runs with it. Damian is one of the most fascinating and disturbing antagonists in the history of the “Rocky” and “Creed” series, at once grossly manipulative, terrifyingly violent, and utterly sympathetic. Jonathan Majors introduces us to the character’s vulnerabilities and then shocks us with his power.

Meanwhile, Michael B. Jordan finds new depths in Adonis. It’s a shame “Creed III” seems hesitant to openly discuss Adonis’s abusive childhood, but it admirably acknowledges the fragility at the core of even seemingly happy, successful, powerful men. That even a great motion picture hero like Adonis Creed is hurting this deeply is remarkable. That the movie doesn’t feel comfortable discussing it outright is a little disappointing and undermines the point.

Michael B. Jordan makes his directorial debut with “Creed III” and it turns out he’s an excellent filmmaker, pulling great performances out of his co-stars — and himself — while capturing the series’ iconic fights with strategic clarity. Cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau returns from “Creed II” and casts the film in striking angles and dense shadows, popping out bright and eye-catching colors with the pageantry of the sport kicks in.

It’s a striking motion picture, somewhat undermined by the late-in-the-game decision to stage some of the climactic boxing match inside Creed’s subconscious. It’s an idea that works on paper — thematically tying into the core of the story while also mixing up the way the series visualizes its many, many physical battles — but in practice it’s jarring and briefly even a little comical. Mercifully, this creative decision doesn’t hamper the film for more than a few moments. Like Adonis himself, director Jordan may stumble but then gets right back in the ring and finishes the damn job.

Like most of the movies in the series, “Creed III” is an intergenerational tale about parenthood and mentorship, and the way our pasts continue to shape us years later. The return of various characters from previous “Creed” films solidifies that Adonis’s story now has a whole separate mythology, an identity all its own, which owes its existence to Sylvester Stallone’s creation yet has the freedom to make its own choices. Stallone did not participate in this film and there are moments where his absence is felt since Rocky’s story is used as a plot point. Adonis could clearly use guidance and doesn’t always seek it. But it’s not like “Creed III” doesn’t work without him.

If anything, “Creed III” proves the series need never end, so long as it keeps pushing forward. This film’s ability to introduce new characters, recontextualize old ones, and play with new genres is satisfying and electric. Damian Anderson is a villain right out of a psychological thriller, or at least he would be if Jordan’s film didn’t understand and sympathize with him so deeply. The sensitivity at the heart of Creed’s ongoing story is intact, no matter what changes occur on the surface, and the promise of future films about Adonis, Bianca and maybe even a young fighter named Amara Creed is worth hanging onto.

“Creed III” may not have the pure, unadulterated power of the original “Rocky” or the original “Creed” but it’s a worthy follow-up that takes chances and makes the most of them. It’s a sharply produced and emotionally raw film, anchored by exciting performances and impressive writing. To think, after nearly 50 years this series still gives us new reasons to cheer.