‘Creed’ ends, Jordan’s directorial career begins

Images courtesy Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer.

9/10 The Creed sub-series has been a direct arc upward from unimpressive-but-promising to impressive and finally to Creed III, an inspired directorial debut from star Michael B. Jordan.

Los Angeles- Seven years after Creed II, Donnie Creed (Jordan, who also directs and produces) has retired on top as heavyweight champion of the world, content to leverage his name on gyms and merchandise, but he is confronted outside his gym by Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors), an old friend from the foster care system. “Diamond Dame” Anderson was a couple of years older and a top-tier amateur boxer who taught Creed everything he knew at the time, but was sent to prison for 18 years for pulling a gun to protect Creed. Creed would be lifted out of poverty by his father’s widow and set on the path to success some time after.  

Anderson, in his late 30s but without the wear-and-tear of a boxing career, wants a shot at the title, but Creed can’t give it to him overnight, so Anderson resorts to dirty tricks in and out of the ring to make it happen. Their tension builds into the ring when Creed comes out of retirement to reclaim the title from Anderson.

Creed III is a fire hydrant of complex conflict, incorporating Creed’s survivor’s guilt and Anderson’s post-incarceration syndrome into their clashes outside the ring and eventual confrontation inside it, all of which is set against the systemic problems that shaped their lives. It’s an earnest and a little bit goofy masculine melodrama like the old-school anime rivalries that inspired it, but because it takes itself seriously, it doesn’t feel immature when it covers serious ground.

Creed’s and Anderson’s story is about growing up poor and black in America, specifically set inside the foster-care-to-prison pipeline and the overpolicing of black Americans in poor communities. Creed’s first ever scene is in juvenile prison, and California’s infamous three-strikes law is what lands Anderson in prison for 18 years. Anderson isn’t just a psychological shadow, he’s Creed’s equal-or-better in the ring who didn’t win the lottery, and survivor’s guilt animates Creed throughout the runtime.

Jonathan Majors is a superstar, and he steals another show with a squirrelly, incisive performance as a man in a permanent state of fight or flight because he cannot believe he is free. He strives to believe the best in the people around him and accept Creed’s graces, but after relying on only himself for so long, he can’t adjust to the idea he’s talking to someone who isn’t out to get him. It’s a remarkably honest and insightful performance that captures what happens to people when they’re thrown in a hole for years on end, and for all Creed III’s narrative connections to mass incarceration, it wouldn’t be nearly the same without the emotional connection brought by this performance.

There are a lot of striking images in Creed III, but this is the one that really arrests me in Anderson’s locker room just before the midpoint match, where he’s about to make it clear that he’ll betray any principle of sporting or friendship to get what he wants. To this point, Creed has given Anderson everything he thinks he can, but hasn’t been able to truly confront his guilt, and because of this, he’s been unable to distinguish between his own unease and Anderson’s simmering rage. Creed leaves the locker room amiably, but as he walks down the hall, both men turn suddenly to face each other, acknowledging their unspoken tension before the audience, but each can only see the wall between them.

Where the prior movies see Creed, the out-of-wedlock son of Rocky Balboa’s rival Apollo Creed, inserted into conflicts stemming from Balboa’s past, Creed III finishes the transformation with a retired Creed facing a conflict rising from his own past. Franchise lead Sylvester Stallone doesn’t appear for the first time – and he seems to have been willing to. This seems to have been a major creative rift here.

The series has been a sendup for black filmmakers – Black Panther director Ryan Coogler broke out with the first one, and he and Jordan already had a longstanding partnership – so it feels just as appropriate that Jordan takes his first turn as director here. He’s just 36, but he started acting when he was 10 and has gotten a lot more active behind the scenes, with three other producer credits since 2019. He was obviously excited for the opportunity and had a ton of little ideas for how to breathe new life into the series, especially the boxing matches.

Conflict is the narrative highlight, and it’s the visual highlight as well. Creed III’s boxing matches have tons of different angles and freeze-frames and close-ups to keep things fresh. The first two matches take viewers into the mid-fight adjustments and thought processes from punch to punch, make you feel like you understand what’s going on. We carry that knowledge into their championship match where the walkthrough stops, but the audience maintains its comfort with the tactics as an anchor while the match descends into a surreal, hallucinatory journey into both men’s psyches.

In one of the film’s best scenes incorporating everything about the characters and their power dynamic, Anderson reintroduces himself leaning on Creed’s gaudy, oversized Rolls-Royce Cullinan, 2023 models starting at $355,000.

Jordan has talked about letting his love of anime into Creed III, and it doesn’t feel like a live-action anime the way some especially garish examples like Pacific Rim or The Matrix do, but it’s noticeable, especially in the climactic title match at Dodger Stadium that features sharp black and white gloves and shorts, extended fantasy sequences and an especially juicy Cross Counter moment.

Black American anime fandom, in isolation from greater anime fandom, has developed into its own uniquely black aesthetic, and Creed III may go down in history as a key example, but what I notice much more are the aesthetics of rags-to-riches and conspicuous consumption, which also means something different to black Americans for a lot of reasons. You can see everywhere in Creed’s blocky, alarmingly modern home from production designer Jahmin Assa and his spectacular suits, as well as Anderson’s glamorous beachside workouts surrounded by all his great new friends that reflect his grandiosity, how much he is enjoying his new life and all the attention, but also betrays how quickly he’s acquired these things and what’s happening to him psychologically. Anderson’s poisoned version of this same consumption is visible in the trappings of his sudden rise to wealth, the house with the perfunctory furniture that he does not lounge on and the rotating cast of silent women he pays no attention to.  

Creed III is the first sports movie to be filmed with IMAX cameras, though this is limited to the boxing matches at the beginning, middle and end. It’s not a defining aspect that changes the film, but it’s nice, it’s grand, and it really highlights the enthusiasm and special attention paid to this movie. The differences feel slight, but it really is unlike any other boxing movie that’s ever been made.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com. 

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