The former duo of Creed movies accomplished what few legacy spin-offs manage to do; They revitalized the long-running Rocky franchise with a fresh and exciting new narrative direction, refocusing the story around the progeny of Rocky’s original boxing rival, Apollo Creed. Sylvester Stallone’s iconic champion boxer meanwhile was moved into a passive coaching role, with his own tales in the ring more or less satisfyingly wrapped up in 2006’s Rocky Balboa, and thus allowed to stay that way.
After just two movies however, the Creed storyline kind of felt like it was satisfyingly wrapped up. New protagonist, Adonis “Donnie” Creed has successfully defeated the son of the boxer that killed his father in the ring, he married the love of his life and settled down, and even Rocky was allowed to retire for good, returning to his estranged son, and ready to live out the rest of his years with his family. If the Creed movies had stopped after Creed II, it would have marked a perfectly satisfying ending to this successor franchise, and perhaps this entire fictional sports drama universe in general.
Alas, with Amazon now acquiring Rocky/Creed franchise owner, MGM, the mega-corporation clearly has big plans for what is undeniably one of MGM’s longest-running and most celebrated movie franchises. This includes a new shared universe roadmap being in the works, between both movies and TV, and unsurprisingly, it also means that Creed was inevitably going to become a trilogy, despite both Rocky and Donnie now having retired from boxing. Well, how is that going to work, you may ask?
Honestly, much better than you would expect! Creed star, Michael B. Jordan enters the director’s chair himself for this third offering to boot, creating a true labour of love that unexpectedly manages to mine more from the Creed saga, bringing Donnie back into the fight to face another opponent with deeply personal stakes behind him. The result is not only a stunning first-time directing achievement for Jordan, but also a riveting crowd-pleaser on its own merits, definitively proving that there is indeed more to explore in the Creed canon, even when it formerly found a fitting place to end.
Despite attaining a happy ending with his wife, daughter and champion status, Donnie still has some demons in his past. This comes to a head after he formally retires from boxing, cementing his status as the new heavyweight world champion. In a bit of art imitating life however, higher powers quickly conspire to push Donnie back into his old athletic career, when a shady figure from his past returns to get justice for old wounds.
Said figure is Damian “Diamond Dame” Anderson, played by Jonathan Majors, Donnie’s childhood best friend and former boxing inspiration. Damian ended up being imprisoned for many years after taking the fall for an assault by Donnie, thus ending his boxing career and life prospects, while Donnie ended up rising to fame and fortune in Damian’s stead. This is a pretty fantastic motivation for a new Creed villain, as Damian initially comes to Donnie as a friend and hopeful student, only to eventually reveal his true agenda as a scorned former ally that’s out for justice. This could have been a pretty cool surprise, but don’t think I’m truly spoiling anything; Creed III’s marketing makes it plainly evident that Damian is the villain of the movie.
“When Creed III focuses in on its core rivalry between Donnie and Damian, it quickly feels like the strongest entry in the Creed series to date!”
Majors’ performance takes some awesome turns throughout this threequel as well. He begins as a meek, homely reminder of the past, and gradually transitions more into a savage force of revenge with every passing scene. In effect, Majors’ Damian thus ends up becoming an even more exciting opponent than Creed II’s Viktor Drago, who happens to make a brief return appearance in Creed III, only to disappear from the movie just as quickly. This is all part of the plan, of course, as Damian operates almost like a boxing-themed super-villain (perhaps fitting, given Majors’ new station at Marvel Studios as new MCU arch-foe, Kang the Conquerer), actively manipulating events in order to force Donnie to pick up the gloves again, so he and Damian can settle their differences the best way either of them know how; In the boxing ring.
When Creed III focuses in on its core rivalry between Donnie and Damian, it quickly feels like the strongest entry in the Creed series to date! The battle between Donnie and Damian feels so crackling and personal that even Viktor Drago feels like a distant memory, as Donnie faces an unexpected foe that’s perhaps even more intrinsically tied to the man that he has become. Naturally, this all adds up to a wonderfully thrilling boxing climax to boot, one steeped in melodrama and spectacle, as Donnie must fight to maintain his place in the legacy of the sport, while battling for his fundamental honour as a champion that truly deserves what he’s earned.
Michael B. Jordan has made no secret of the fact that he’s a massive anime enthusiast off-camera, and that love of the medium definitely translates into Creed III. Now given free reign as director, Jordan almost gleefully loads this Creed threequel with references and Easter eggs from both well-known and obscure anime. These go into thoroughly grinning overdrive during the climactic fight between Donnie and Damian as well, which comes complete with fighting moves and directing flourishes lifted wholesale from Dragon Ball Z, Naruto and more!
Jordan’s direction also manages to add an interesting sense of anime-inspired weight to every fight scene, even beyond the climax. Jordan’s ability to play with the speed of background objects and foreground characters, for example, creates a fantastic anime-inspired blend between realism and style, giving Creed III its own unique feel as a visual piece, as much as a grounded sports drama. Even while the anime-inspired flourishes move Creed III a bit further away from grounded boxing presentation as well, the shift nonetheless manages to work effectively, because, frankly, most viewers probably aren’t going to be anal about Creed perfectly following the technique and discipline of this franchise’s chosen sport anyway.
Jordan definitely knows his way around directing the boxing scenes, ironically managing to make anime techniques work in live-action, a rarity for Hollywood, even within a movie that isn’t adapted from an actual anime. Even so, Jordan also manages to be equally skilled directing the more grounded moments, even when the rivalry between Donnie and Damian feels so powerful that it quickly overshadows anything else. Jordan’s lead performance isn’t compromised at all from his double duty as director either, with Jordan’s and Majors’ shared scenes in particular being absolutely packed with both heart-wrenching drama, and no shortage of psychological intrigue. The outstanding attention to detail throughout all of these interactions is exemplary, proving that Jordan isn’t just about the big, spectacular payoffs, but also the careful setup and character work that these payoffs demand to truly work.
The only place where Jordan’s direction can feel a little more shaky is in trying to give Bianca and other supporting characters just as much ceremony in the plot. To that end, Creed III almost feels like a victim of its own superb premise, with many emotional moments surrounding Donnie’s family feeling like they don’t land as effectively as this threequel’s core rivalry. There’s just so much animosity-driven magnetism between Jordan’s and Majors’ boxers that you’ll simply want Creed III to get back to the good stuff during these moments, with any other scene feeling like tedious obligation, rather than truly necessary plotting. Even so, Creed III just barely manages to avoid feeling aimless during its further development of the Creed family, as Donnie’s wife and daughter still manage to have enough say in Donnie’s newest battle that they nonetheless still feel like a part of proceedings, if merely a small part.
Perhaps the biggest testament to Creed III being the litmus test for whether this franchise can justifiably continue further is the fact that it’s the first entry to not feature Rocky’s original lead star and creator, Sylvester Stallone. Stallone is retained as a producer on Creed III, granted, but Rocky is nonetheless nowhere to be found in this threequel, merely being mentioned in passing, and otherwise not having any bearing on the storyline at all. Why? Well, it’s simple; Rocky’s storyline is fully resolved after Creed II, and there’s no justifiable reason to drag him back into a conflict that’s very much specific to Donnie’s character.
Does Creed III ultimately suffer from Rocky’s absence? Not at all! Instead, Donnie’s formerly fledgling arc is now able to confidently leave the Rocky nest and forge its own vision, free of the legacy from this franchise’s origins. As I mentioned, Jordan steering the ship as both director and lead star proves to be a resounding success as well, allowing room for a fresh and exciting continuation of the Creed canon that somehow manages to find compelling new story content, even after Donnie ends his boxing career on his own terms. All the while, the former sextet of Rocky movies cement their own legacy in this series, with their best and worst moments untouched and undisturbed, while Creed becomes the torchbearer for a new generation of storytelling.
“Does Creed III ultimately suffer from Rocky’s absence? Not at all!”
As a small caveat however, this also inevitably results in some scenes that are transparently designed to tease new Amazon-supplied sequels and spin-offs surrounding these characters, and their own arcs. Donnie’s deaf daughter has a problem with fighting in school? That’s spin-off bait. Viktor Drago trying to repair his bruised ego against Donnie’s new boxing hopeful? Two separate slices of spin-off bait. Hell, even new antagonist, Damian seemingly teases more storytelling possibilities beyond this movie, as Amazon no doubt eyes a legion of franchise continuations that will make Rocky/Creed join the modern pantheon of shared cinematic universes. At worst, these secondary spin-off ambitions can provide some unwelcome distractions from where Creed III’s narrative focus should ultimately be, though like I said, these distractions thankfully aren’t enough to derail an impeccably strong core rivalry holding everything together.
Much like its dark horse protagonist, Creed III pulls this celebrated successor franchise back out of retirement with very engaging results. Even as Amazon no doubt lusts after a litany of potential spin-offs to keep expanding this fictional universe indefinitely from here, the Creed brand itself proves that there’s plenty of life left in it, despite it formerly appearing to find a good stopping point in Creed II.
Fortunately, with lead star, Michael B. Jordan taking on directing duties himself for this latest Creed offering, Creed has never felt more exciting as a franchise. Thanks to Jordan’s inspired directing style, this threequel’s bold anime-inspired flourishes blend perfectly with an especially dramatic new opponent in Jonathan Majors’ Diamond Dame, marking Creed III as an easy improvement over the good, but not great Creed II, while the excellent original Creed is finally given a worthy rival.
Whether we like it or not, Creed is going to keep continuing, and it’s probably going to birth yet more spin-offs from Sylvester Stallone’s much-beloved 1970’s creation under Amazon. If Creed III is any indication however, perhaps the series is in better hands than fans would initially think, even as it starts to move fully beyond Stallone’s decades-long tenure. It was definitely a gamble to move past the natural resolution of Creed II, but so far, that gamble seems to be paying off.
It just goes to show; Never count out a determined prizefighter!