‘Creed III’ Is an Engagingly Familiar Featherweight Success

Jonathan Majors out here stealing a second franchise in as many weeks.
Creed III

Formula plays a major role in most movies, both the good and the bad ones, from slashers to romantic comedies — they couldn’t be more different, but both follow well established formulas that audiences have come to expect and enjoy. One of the most formulaic sub-genres of all, though, is the underdog sports tale. Sylvester Stallone built an entire six-film franchise on the back of it, and 2015’s Creed spin-off has now gotten a second sequel of its own. And surprise… Creed III is still all about the underdog.

Of course, no one would mistake Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) for an underdog these days. He retired from the ring a champion and now spends his time enjoying his family, wealth, and work promoting his gym and new fighters. It’s been years since he’s thrown a punch of his own, but the urge to scratch that itch comes calling again soon after an old friend named Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors) does — a friend with an understandably angry grudge from their past.

While the first two Creed films feature Stallone’s Rocky in a prominent role as both mentor and trainer to Adonis, Creed III is the first of the entire Rocky/Creed franchise where he doesn’t appear at all. His name is mentioned once or twice, but this is both Adonis and Jordan stepping out on their own from under Stallone’s shadow. The point is driven home by it also being Jordan’s directorial debut. Still, while it’s stepping away from its primary character inspiration, the story remains fully entrenched in the idea of the underdog — albeit with an inspiration from one of Jordan’s films from a few years prior.

It’s probably not surprising that Creed III‘s “villain” storyline borrows heavily from 2018’s Black PantherRyan Coogler co-wrote/directed that Marvel film and is onboard here with a story by credit — as it’s an incredibly engaging angle for both the characters and their dynamic. Damian was Adonis’ best friend and a teenage boxer with a bright future, but he took the wrap for something Adonis instigated resulting in a serious prison sentence. He was abandoned by his friend and watched as Adonis found massive success in the sport he once called home, and now that he’s out he’s demanding a shot at life he missed.

The result is an antagonist whose motivation and outrage are wholly understandable — arguably the best kind of villain as a battle in the gray is always more interesting than mere black and white — and Majors absolutely shines in the role. As he did with this year’s Ant-Man sequel, he steals the film whenever he’s onscreen. Like Clubber Lang in Rocky III, Damian is a fighter with skill who relies most heavily on brute force, and it’s an approach that Majors sells with ferocity. He’s more than just a brute, though, and that’s part of what makes the performance so intensely mesmerizing. Damian is angry, yes, but he’s also far more than that. He hasn’t let go of his friendship, meaning his resentment is balanced by regret, and his jealousy over Adonis’ life by real joy for what he’s accomplished. Majors crafts a character who’s a one-man emotional rollercoaster, someone less interested in revenge than in his own personal salvation, and the redemption he seeks just so happens to require delivering some beatdowns.

Unlucky for those in his way, but it’s good for viewers as Jordan captures the fights in Creed III with an energetic eye. He and cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau move us around the ring with the fighters, bouncing in and out of arm’s reach, and it makes for some exciting sequences. Jordan can’t resist a bit of showmanship in the big fight, though, and fades the entire arena audience out to highlight the personal nature of these two men going at it. The idea is sound, but it serves to distract from the fight by making the digital backdrop all the more obvious.

The script, co-written by Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylin, succeeds at shaping both men into underdogs. Damian is fresh out of prison having never fought a professional bout in his life, while Adonis has gone soft both physically and mentally (although don’t go in expecting Jordan to have let his physique go for the role…), and both are seeking to prove themselves something more by the third act. It’s familiar whether you’ve seen a Rocky/Creed movie or not, but it’s familiar for a reason as the formula works. We want to see the underdog succeed — with the minor twist here being that we’d maybe be okay with either fighter winning? It’s not quite a Sophie’s Choice on par with 2011’s Warrior (or with 1982’s Sophie’s Choice, I guess), but the emotional weight on both sides makes for a bout with stakes well beyond mere good and bad.

Other elements maybe don’t work as well, though, including time spent with Adonis’ family. Tessa Thompson returns as his wife, Bianca, but attempts at drama between the couple or involving their daughter don’t get the time needed to make it feel compelling or relevant. Adonis’ struggle feels insular, and that family dynamic doesn’t carry real weight here and instead winds up becoming filler. The same goes for Phylicia Rashad‘s Mary-Anne Creed who returns solely as a source of conflict and expected drama. Performances are all solid, though, including from the two young actors playing Adonis (Thaddeus J. Mixson) and Damian (Spence Moore II) as teenagers.

Creed III is a more than competent entry in the ongoing franchise, one that feels apace with the likes of Rocky III. It lacks the highs of the first two Creed films and can’t touch the first, second, or fourth Rocky entries, but it’s a fine sports tale that probably won’t be the last we see of Adonis Creed. Now bring on Creed IV: The Rise of Clubber Lang Jr.!

Rob Hunter: Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.