Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
How many times can you tell the same story and keep it interesting? Well, the Rocky franchise makes the case that you can repeat the same act for 47 years (and counting). Even outside of its previous eight entries, the Rocky series has defined a genre in a way few films ever have. The effect on boxing films is obvious, but Rocky (1976) had a notable influence over sports films and underdog tales in general. The touching story of a loveable everyman, with everyday issues, proving he can go the distance regardless of whether he wins, became such a winning formula that some feel it’s now cliché. So how come that formula continues to inspire the audience? The answer may lie in the ninth entry in the series, Creed III (2023).
Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the son of legendary heavy-weight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), has retired from the world of boxing after finally reaching the same career heights as his father. He and his wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson) are going strong as they progress their careers as a boxing coach and music producer respectively, while comfortably raising their hearing impaired daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent). Things aren’t quiet for long as an old childhood friend of Adonis’, Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors) is finally released from prison looking for a bit of support. At first that may seem perfectly innocent, but Damian was once a child prodigy in the boxing world and had his eyes on the heavyweight championship before he was locked up. Thinking that he deserves his shot before time is up, Damian is going to stop at nothing to achieve the title, and he may blame Adonis for his lost time.
The thing that most viewers will notice right off the bat is that this is the first film in the entire series not to feature Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa. Stallone’s presence has been a constant throughout the franchise, even when Michael B. Jordan took the reins as Adonis Creed. Ordinarily, you would think the lack of such a key figure would harm the overall piece, but surprisingly the absence of Rocky is barely noticed. Instead of making Creed III feel empty, it makes the film feel like it’s out of the original series’ shadow. These are fascinating characters, with their own emotionally resonant journeys, all told from different world-views, so it’s nice to see the Creed films prove they can stand on their own.
In a way, Creed III cuts to the core of what has made this franchise consistently popular. While there’s obviously plenty of action and excitement, the film continues the tradition of making the story more centred around the human drama, prioritising the quieter and smaller moments of these characters’ lives over the spectacle. The time dedicated to fleshing out their everyday issues, past traumas, emotional touchpoints and psychological hangups is so extensive that you sometimes forget you’re watching a film about boxing. There’s nothing groundbreaking as far as the drama goes, but it’s mostly effective and avoids feeling too ridiculous.
On the plus side Creed III’s central narrative thread is at least a new angle for this series. At this point anyone could recite the boxing underdog story standing on their head, but Creed III finds a fresh take simply by having the underdog role be filled by the film’s antagonist, Damian. While he may ultimately be Adonis’ final opponent by the end, initially placing Damian in the traditional underdog spot allows the viewer to have a window into the villain’s motivations more deeply than any previous Creed or Rocky film. By the time the hero and villain are going head to head, the viewer understands the emotional weight behind both of them going into that fight. This is a trick already pulled in Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior (2011), but Creed III doesn’t try to pull on the heartstrings as aggressively, trusting the audience will naturally become invested.
Despite Creed III’s considerable strengths, it does at times succumb to the franchise’s unavoidable pitfalls. Specifically, the rules of the sport are bent into some unrealistic areas, simply to allow the story to progress the way it needs to. While the suspension of disbelief isn’t destroyed nearly as badly as some of the series’ most outlandish offerings, anyone familiar with boxing won’t be entirely convinced by how the two leads find each other in the ring. This isn’t a deal breaker, considering the emotional reason for the conflict is what’s important, but the logistics of the sport being represented this loosely may alienate a portion of this film’s core audience. That’s not the only nitpick, as some may lose interest when the obligatory training montage starts, but to be fair, the training montage is the main thing people are showing up to see. Not wanting to see a Rocky film show a training montage is the equivalent of going to an Italian restaurant and being upset that they serve pizza.
The real reason Creed III succeeds where it could’ve so easily failed is all because of Michael B. Jordan. Not only does he continue to give a nuanced, inspiring and likeable performance as Adonis Creed, this time he is also in the director’s chair. Sylvester Stallone took over as director of the Rocky films as the series progressed, so it’s only fitting that the star of Creed would eventually take the same path. Despite this being his first effort, Jordan directs with the assuredness and confidence of filmmakers with years of experience. His understanding of pacing, cinematography, performance and tension is beyond reproach, making him potentially one of the most exciting new storytellers around. The most evident proof of his undeniable talent is how creatively he stages the fight scenes, encompassing visual ideas previously unseen in any sports drama.
Regardless of the supposed clichés, it’s clear that the formula is still working as well as it ever did. Creed III may not be the instant classic Rocky was, nor is it the modern masterpiece that Creed (2015) was, but it still manages to succeed in ways none of its predecessors did. Additionally, Creed III concludes in a fashion which makes the series feel like it has gone out on a high note, so it’ll be interesting to see if the formula holds up if they ever decide to make another one.
Best way to watch it: Before your next gym session.