Michael B. Jordan’s Directorial Debut Wins by Knockout
DIRECTOR: MICHAEL B. JORDAN/2023
ERIK YATES: Michael B. Jordan’s take on Apollo Creed’s unknown son, Adonis, was a strong spin-off from the long-running Rocky series when Creed debuted in 2015. Creed even benefited from having Sylvester Stallone reprise his role as the Italian Stallion, earning an Oscar nomination for his performance some 40+ years after being nominated for the same character in the original Rocky, which went on to win Best Picture. In the first Creed film, Rocky finds himself training Adonis Creed (Jordan) after his former friend’s son finds him in Philadelphia. Creed II eventually followed with a new director, but again found itself in Rocky’s shadow, this time being a direct sequel to both Creed (2015), but also to Rocky IV (1985). This time Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), who killed Apollo Creed in the ring back in 1985, sees his son take on Apollo’s son for the heavyweight title decades later. With Creed finding himself still standing in the end, the future looked bright.
So the question entering Creed III is what kind of Creed film was this next installment going to be? Would he, and by extension this series, continue to find itself in Rocky’s long shadow, or would Creed be his own man? The answer to that is that while Creed III mostly allows Adonis Creed to step out of his former mentor’s shadow and come into his own, Rocky’s absence is still felt…but not as much as one would think.
With this third entry, Michael B. Jordan takes on directorial duties, and it is also the first film without Rocky Balboa in Adonis’ corner. I have to say that Michael B. Jordan comes out swinging in his directorial debut and he scores a knockout. This is easily the strongest entry in the series since the original Creed, and in some ways it surpasses the original. He is able to largely avoid any pitfalls that Rocky’s absence could have caused, and is able to organically focus on the story he is telling here, without having to explain away too much of what isn’t here from the earlier entries.
Always formidable as an actor, Jordan shows off what he has learned through his directing. As an actor, he also delivers a rousing performance that continues the strong grounded storylines of Adonis’ past, as well as his family relationships with his wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson), his adopted mom Mary-Anne (Phylicia Rashad), and also his daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent). We also are introduced to his childhood friend Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors), who will serve as a perfect over-the-top antagonist for Adonis with the strength and purpose-driven focus of Rocky III‘s Clubber Lang (as a comparison), which emerges as another complicated relationship Adonis must wrestle with as he continues to develop as a boxer, husband, son, and father. All of these will be put to the test as Majors brings another strong big bad performance to the screen to go with his turn as Kang the Conqueror in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.
TAYLOR BLAKE: Like Erik, I’m all in on Creed III. In the middle of the film, I found myself thinking, “This is what Hollywood entertainment for adults should be!”
Yes, there’s a place for 80 for Brady and for Cocaine Bear—I’m not pretending I didn’t just give those lowest common denominator comedies decent reviews. There’s also a place for Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, which Erik and I seemed to enjoy more than the average reviewer. That said, what Majors is doing as the big bad in Creed III is more layered than what Marvel will probably allow for even if he sticks around for 10 of their films. Jordan’s directorial debut is riveting, but unlike those February releases, it builds its stakes on character instead of gimmicks or elevator pitches. The boxing is as thrilling as in any other Rocky or Creed entry and even finds new ways to innovate on filming the matches, but style is not the only substance. Adonis, Bianca, and Damian aren’t just on edge about what goes on in the ring—they’re also wrestling with childhood wounds from foster care, the inadequacies of the American justice system, parenting children with disabilities, healthy emotional expression, and how success can change someone.
While that last theme ties this movie in nicely with Rocky II and Rocky V, Creed III is proof this world can survive without Rocky himself. Jordan and Majors have more than enough movie star mojo individually to carry a story like this, but together they’re even better. Majors conveys the same level of energy I’ve seen in the MCU, Da 5 Bloods, Devotion, The Harder They Fall, or The Last Black Man in San Francisco, but here the energy is awkward. We feel uneasy every time he’s on screen because we sense Damian is uncomfortable in his own skin. We have no idea what he’ll do next because Damian seems at a loss for his next move for so much of the film. There’s a reason my favorite podcast just compared Majors to a number one draft pick, and it’s because I can’t think of any other performer that has felt like the elephant in the room in an excellent way. He has presence.
ERIK YATES: As you mentioned, Taylor, the strength of this film isn’t the boxing, though it is solid. It is the multilayered issues each of these characters are facing that transcend what Adonis and Damian are doing in the ring. In this respect, each character is given a strong narrative arc that is satisfying to the audience . Tessa Thompson is in many ways the heart of these films and doesn’t get enough credit for what she has brought to the series. She portrays a strong woman who projects both strength and vulnerability. She balances both career and family without tearing either of these choices down at the expense of the other. She also has her own physical limitations she is facing while also striving to overcome them, and modeling her struggle for a daughter that will face many of the same issues. She is an example of the strong character arcs of this film, as is Jonathan Majors’ Damien (which I’ll discuss in a bit).
If the film had no boxing whatsoever, it would still stand as a strong drama with much to say about all of the issues you listed, and many more. Trauma and trust, or the lack of it, go hand-in-hand, and by delving more into Adonis’ backstory at the group home, it allows for this story to not only delve into past hurts, regrets, and grievances, but also to see how they manifest decades later through relationships, business decisions, and confidence in one’s on view of themselves.
Creed III is simply going to be a runaway hit for all of these reasons we’ve discussed, as well as many we haven’t. Majors delivery of being “uneasy in his own skin” as you said, Taylor, is a great way to describe the way he makes you, the audience feel. His Damien isn’t just a bigger and badder bad guy to fight than the previous installment like we got in Rocky III and especially in Rocky IV, when the grounded storyline was ditched for pure commercial box office returns. Here, he is someone who comes across as dangerous because you don’t know what he is truly capable of because of his own trauma and experiences that have led him back into Adonis’ life. There are times where this does bleed into a little bit of that mid-Rocky “bad guy” caricature, but maybe I felt that briefly in this film because I’m used to the films in the Rocky universe sliding that way naturally. Fortunately, Creed III largely avoids those pitfalls and keeps their antagonist firmly grounded in the larger story that they have been telling of Adonis throughout this series.
TAYLOR BLAKE: Yes, you are reading my mind on Thompson! Bianca is no token “main character’s wife” role. Thompson brings so much that if there is a next film, she could make a solid Oscar run if she had a few more scenes than she has in this third chapter.
That said, I appreciate that Creed III clocks in under two hours. (Perhaps another benchmark of Hollywood entertainment for adults?) In spite of the many plot lines and character conflicts, it moves, so much so several scenes surprised me with how short they were. Moments later, though, I’d realize we had everything we needed to keep going. With that strong writing, sharp editing, and smart plotting, Jordan shows us he can zag just when we think we know he’s going to zig. And even in a fast-paced film, he finds room for color symbolism in the costumes, another killer training montage, and a song that shouts out his time in Wakanda on the soundtrack. Sounds like a knockout to me, too, Erik.