WARNING: This review contains spoilers for Creed, Creed II and Creed III.
In the early portion of Ryan Coogler’s Creed, Adonis returns home after being floored by Danny “Stuntman” Wheeler at Little Duke’s gym. Embarrassed and donning unnecessarily dark sunglasses as he sits on the stairs near the front door, Adonis tells Mary Anne that he’s leaving the house and pursuing a career in boxing. Incensed by the mere sound of the word, boxing, the matriarch of the Creed family goes on a tirade. It’s at this moment we hear about how physically and emotionally taxing Apollo Creed’s career truly was. Aside from his final two professional fights with Rocky Balboa and the fatal exhibition bout against Ivan Drago, Apollo Creed is painted as an unstoppable force who seemingly suffered no physical damage throughout much of his pro career. Mary Anne’s impassioned rant does little to stop Adonis from pursuing his dreams, but it leaves the viewer asking what else did we not know about Apollo before his untimely demise.
If there is one thing that we learn about Apollo’s life at his untimely demise, it’s that he had an extramarital affair and Adonis was born shortly after his passing. Not long thereafter, Adonis’ mother passes away and he’s left in the foster system. By the time viewers are introduced to Adonis, he’s getting into a fight at a juvenile detention center and Mary Anne is coming to pick him up. From then on, the focus is placed on a more developed version of Adonis looking to become his own man through boxing. But does he ever achieve this? The first Creed film has Adonis traveling to Philadelphia and meeting up with Apollo’s best friend, Rocky. The second Creed film follows Adonis as he attempts to somehow avenge his father’s death. In both of these films, his success is somehow tied to his father, Apollo. In Michael B. Jordan’s directorial debut, a magnifying glass is put up to the part of Adonis’ life that was previously ignored, unlike his father. Most importantly, Jordan’s debut asks the question that the first two films didn’t completely ask. Can Adonis be his own man without Rocky or Apollo?
Creed III opens up in a familiar place with a few unfamiliar faces. A young Adonis Creed, played by Thaddeus J. Mixon, sneaks out of the house and meets up with a young Damian Anderson, played by Spence Moore II. Together, they make their way from la casa de Creed to a nearby underground club where Dame has a boxing match lined up to make a little bit of extra cash. Following behind with his equipment, Adonis is just happy to offer advice and work the corner if it’s needed. As Adonis and Dame make their way to the makeshift ring, Creed locks eyes with Little Duke and it’s at his moment that it becomes clear just how far their relationship goes back. Emphatically, Dame makes quick work of his opponent and picks up the cash he made from betting on himself. The film quickly makes its way from the ringside to the passenger side. On their way to the corner store, Dame drives as the two plot out their futures. Dame believes he has the talent to go big and win a world title with his pseudo-little brother, Adonis, riding alongside him. Once the two hit the corner store, Adonis gets out and makes his way to the front door. In his travels, he comes across an older man holding a 40 oz. The moment he lays eyes on him, Adonis immediately gets to yelling at the man and beating him to a pulp. From the outside, a few guys jump in to defend the target of Adonis’ aggression, but Dame gets out of the car and pulls out a gun in an attempt to break up the fight. However, things only get worse as a cop car pulls up and the crowd scatters. This is a scene that will define the future of the young kids and the way that Creed III will play out on screen.
It’s a tale as old as time. A fight breaks out among a group of young Black men, the police show up, refuse to ask questions, the crowd scatters and arrests are made. Just like that, Dame heads off to prison for the majority of his young adult life while Adonis goes off to college, gets a well-paying job, makes a detour to become the heavyweight champion and marries a pop star. All the while, an older Dame, played by Jonathan Majors, becomes resentful as he writes letters to his former friend, Adonis, that are never answered because they are hidden by a mother who hopes to keep her son on the straight and narrow. When Damn is released and returns to Adonis’ life, he’s anything but deterred. Spiteful of what has happened and enraged by the site of those who were present at the time of his arrest, he lets Adonis know that he’d like to fight for a world title. However calm his tone might sound, every statement that Majors delivers sounds less like a request and more like a threat. Regrettably, Adonis gives Dame a shot at the world title and he doesn’t look back as he heads straight for the one man he has held responsible for his tough road in life — Adonis.
One look at any one of the Creed III trailers highlights the destination of this film. Adonis will fight Creed in an epic heavyweight title fight, but the road there is what is most fascinating. By the time Dame is released, Adonis has become the undisputed heavyweight champion, retired and began his promotional outfit, Creed Athletics. Meanwhile, his wife, Bianca, has transitioned from performing to producing as her hearing declines. Not to be forgotten, little Amara is getting bigger by the day and Mary Anne slowly grows old. Fully immersed in family life, Creed finds himself put in the same position that his former trainer, Rocky Balboa, was in before his fight with Clubber Lang in Rocky III. However, things are a bit different. Creed has lost a lot in the process of becoming a fighter. His father, trainer and biological mother have all passed away. His wife is losing her hearing and is unable to fully do the one thing she loves. His mother, Mary Anne, ultimately passes away and he is forced to confront the trauma that he hasn’t ever unpacked. The man that Adonis beats in front of the corner store is his former group home parent that physically abused him and Dame for years. As all of this going on, Amara is watching her father run away from opening up and running toward physical confrontation. In response, she turns to fighting as well. To top it all off, he’s rusty as a boxer. Sure, Adonis manages to find a way to overcome all of this in true Rocky/Creed fashion, but this is the weakest any fighter has been in all aspects of any Creed or Rocky film.
This saga of brotherhood turned to fury and anger crescendoes in a fight that is much less about what has happened and more about what is. Sure, Adonis and Dame could have gone to therapy and worked things out like men, but would that truly fit who they are? Adonis and Dame both became fighters outside of the ring in different manners, but they are fighters nevertheless. What they can’t sort out emotionally spills over into a ring. In their joint hometown of Los Angeles, the two trade blows in an anime-style manner. Jordan’s directing shines as the crowd is simply removed and the two spend time fighting in what feels like a cage or a prison cell. In the end, one man comes out as the victor, but can a boxing match truly deal with everything that these two men have dealt with?
With the absence of Rocky Balboa and the loss of Mary Anne Creed, Jordan’s directorial debut is the first of the trilogy to truly stand apart from the historic Rocky franchise that has preceded it. In doing so, Adonis Creed can stand on his own two feet in a way that is different from the two previous films. Fueled by an imaginative screenplay from Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylin, Creed III spends much of its time outside of the realm of simply trading leather in the squared circle. Instead, Jordan’s directorial debut manages to dive into discussions of brotherhood, parenthood and masculinity through the lens of Black men without feeling heavy-handed. There is power in the scenes in which Bianca tells Adonis that he’s going to have to talk about the inner demons he is fighting with her or somebody else. There is also power in seeing Jonathan Majors portray a character that is so full of rage, yet so inviting. Ironically, his portrayal of Damian Anderson is much like Jordan’s portrayal of Erik Killmonger. They’re both villains with readily apparent flaws, but the viewer has no choice other than to understand where they are coming from and how their rage developed over time. However, Majors’ portrayal of Anderson differs in that he appears to humble himself before an untimely demise. Majors’ performance paired with Jordan’s directing skill makes for a beautiful portrait of family, friendship, pain and forgiveness. Walking out of the theater, this film leaves a sense of excitement and thrill hovering above. Like any other film along the Rocky lineage, there are moments where the viewer will have to suspend realism (i.e. Creed pulling a small plane while training), but it’s all in the best interest of the film. Creed III is imaginative, thrilling and emotive. In a calendar year where Ryan Garcia will fight Gervonta Davis, Tyson Fury will fight Oleksandr Usyk and Devin Haney will fight Vasyl Lomachenko, Adonis Creed versus Damian Anderson is the fight everyone needs to see in 2023.
Final Grade: A-