The Rocky franchise is typically defined by its heroes. The more memorable shots in the series are often moments like Balboa climbing the steps or Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) celebrating with exuberance. However, the best movies in the series are the ones that care about the guy in the other corner as well. Sports movies often carve their antagonists in the mold of 2D cutouts, as they’re not allowed to upstage the star. But the great films consider the backstory that’s led their villains to the role of opposition, perhaps even creating more empathy for the supposed bad guy. For if the spectacle is boxing, the real electricity occurs when you’re not entirely sure who you want to win.

Adonis is certainly winning in life, freed from the shadow of his late father, Apollo. He’s retired from boxing after notching wins on opponents he owed a receipt and stepping into the promotional side of the sport. He’s a brand now, for better or worse, setting up fights and lining his pockets with sponsorship partners. But he’s also a family man, the male figure in a house full of women; his wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and his daughter Amara (a lovable performance by Mila Davis-Kent). Amara is deaf, a hereditary obstacle, but the film never asks you to feel sorry for her. Instead, she signs with her parents with a look of glee stapled to her face. She doesn’t think she’s missing anything, and why would she – could she ask for better parents or a better support system?

Adonis is providing a support system that he often lived without, that being of a dependable male role model. Early on, we see a young Creed participating in some scrupulous tactics. However, his actions are seen from across the aisle by a much wiser acquaintance, Little Duke (Wood Harris). It’s like when you’re about to do something sneaky in public, and you find that the one person in the room who knows you is going to be the one to see it; the moment is shot to convey this paradigm perfectly. Little Duke can’t save Adonis from the streets. Perhaps only luck can do that. But we soon find out that an old friend who was not so lucky, Dame (Jonathan Majors), has done his time and wants his new lease on life. When Dame reunites with Adonis, there’s instant tension. First, for the mistakes of the past that have led to this moment. Secondly, for their wildly different fortunes and standings in life. When Dame enters the Creed home, he’s shocked by the wealth on display, capturing mental screenshots and rubbing his hands while sporting a look of uncomfortable fascination. He thinks about what could have been and if it should have been him. Maybe, it still can.

It’s interesting that Adonis seems visibly threatened by Dame’s presence. Sure, there’s the overwhelming guilt from the idea that Adonis thrived while Dame suffered in prison; the latter was on the way to his pro-boxing career before his downfall. But there’s also a sense of jealousy and pride emitting from both men. When Dame expresses interest in going pro, Adonis is uneasy about helping his friend’s career. Perhaps there’s a part of him that fears, even as a retired fighter, that Dame might show him up. That Dame really is the better fighter of the two. Just maybe, Adonis feels there isn’t room at the top for both of them, an insecurity that is somewhat rooted in race. Granted, these insecurities don’t have to be entirely logical or based in fact, but the emotions are still valid. Rocky Balboa didn’t always have a rational reason for why he kept fighting, but we understood his choices based on pride, self-worth, and a desperate fight against an inferiority complex. Adonis Creed suffers from many of those same trappings, but Creed III also ponders how much the second-generation fighter owes the people from his past that was left behind in his ascent to superstardom.

Speaking of superstardom, Jonathan Majors is flirting with it. Majors has done great work for years in the likes of The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019), Lovecraft Country, and most recently, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But Creed III is possibly a turning point for him, as it’s here where his potential as a mega-wattage silver screen presence is on full display. It’s to the point where I can imagine Majors as, one day, the biggest movie star in the world, or at least the most interesting in blockbuster fare. He embodies Damian Anderson like an enigmatic wrestling heel, one whose motives aren’t always pure, but his actions and mannerisms are captivating. You want the camera to stay on him to catch the next line reading or bizarre facial choice, as you can’t predict how he’ll interpret the next moment. Yes, he moves, winces, showboats, and scrunches his face like a boxer, but it’s his version of that archetype, not reminiscent of anyone else. Well… maybe there’s a little prime Mike Tyson somewhere in his physical performance, without the high-pitched threats of pedicide.

There’s also a gritty brutality to the film, appreciated given its PG-13 rating. The movie never explicitly verbalizes a condemnation of how boxing endangers its combatants for the sake of entertainment, but the images on-screen certainly make the case. The deep cuts, the brain damage, and a gnarly shot of deformed cheeks and gums make one contemplate the lengths these fighters go through to achieve their ideal life, along with the pros and cons of a system that make such violence a commodity. Despite all the years that Dame lost, he still has a chance to reach the fiscal mountaintop in a relatively short amount of time. The caveat is he must pay with his body, just as he did in prison. In this world, you have to be near death just for a chance at having your dreams come true. It’s barbaric but also inspirational when the success story happens; a duality of morality and consumption on the part of the audience.

The film was shot using IMAX cameras, and seeing the movie in that format makes the fight scenes dazzle with sparkling intensity, sound, and contrast. It’s as if you’re in the ring with the fighters. The crowd has never felt further away. A fantastic moment occurs when the movie enters the surreal, rendering a fight in an alternate space that not only makes the encounter more intimate but condenses a large swath of time to just a few moments. It’s a great editing choice that these movies have never attempted before. We owe 1st time director Michael B. Jordan many of these visual flourishes, as his style is striking while also adhering often to the edict of “show, don’t tell.” The look of this film is distinct, poppy, and colorful, yet elegant. Even when the characters aren’t boxing, the film’s visual language jumps off the screen. There’s a depiction of early 2000s Los Angeles, accompanied by an earworm beat that makes it seem like 50 Cent or Kanye are just around the corner. In these flashbacks, the cinematography is so sleek it’s as if it has been snatched from an episode of Snowfall or Atlanta.

We’re greeted with a callback to The Princess and the Frog (2009) that seems more significant culturally than its brief appearance would suggest. Later, Stephen A. Smith appears out of nowhere, steals his scene, and then leaves as an early contender for the cameo of the year. Kehlani makes a surprise singing appearance, in a much-needed reprieve from Bianca’s unironically generic musical stylings. The fact that we don’t have to sit through a Bianca solo and pretend to like it makes it the best of the Creed movies. Regardless, the chemistry between Jordan and Thompson does well to follow in the footsteps of Sylvester Stallone and Talia Shire. Bianca’s chill demeanor and no-nonsense Philly attitude create an endearing contrast with her man, whom she often finds corny. He is pretty corny. At one point, he yells, “Sneak Attack!” unprompted. But Adonis’ warm personality, in juxtaposition to his anger and brutality, creates multitudes of the male ego, which Jordan embodies with aplomb. Phylicia Rashad delivers the strongest performance she’s had in this trilogy, particularly a lengthy monologue where she completely shows out in a moment that could easily fit in someone’s Oscar reel. I could have watched her deliver that speech for 20 minutes.

Creed III, in general, cares a lot about the women in the story, even if they’re not the ones in the ring fighting. Adonis’ past, and everything that has led to the present, is put on trial by Bianca, who urges Adonis to talk about what’s going on in that head. She wants him to confront what he has convinced himself to run away from. Adonis’ entire arc revolves around realizing he doesn’t need to uphold his independence. Instead, it’s to rely on others. It’s OK to let someone else help with the baggage; he has a real family now. Yet, he’s spent his life relying on physical talent rather than emotional maturity. Not surprising, given his profession rewards physical talent and nothing else. Not only does the sport not demand a great deal of intellectual and emotional intelligence, but some would also say it outright discourages it in the pursuit of maximum profit. However, it’s quite a twist of fate that the physical tools needed to become very rich in the world of boxing also lead you down a path of destroying your body.

Additionally, Bianca lays some haymakers herself as she openly laments the musical career that she imagined for herself has now slipped away. Another reminder that her music was not very good, BUT it still feels unfair that Bianca could not live her dreams to the fullest while her husband’s dreams were allowed to prosper with impunity. Meanwhile, their daughter remains in the background, seemingly having her own idea of her future already formed. She’s in a better position than either of her parents to make that reality happen because she’s equipped with better resources and role models.

This makes Creed III an interesting study of storytelling – Dame lacked those resources and was put behind the eight ball in life. Part of you wants to root for him, even if you dislike many of his choices. Like Rocky Balboa in 1976, Dame is the underdog, awarded a fortuitous meeting with the privileged face of the sport. It turns the Rocky formula on its head, even as we suspect we know where the conclusion is headed. There will likely be a Creed IV, but hopefully not one that forgets what is still left on the table. The formula of the Rocky movie succeeds by capitalizing on the audience’s anxiety of wanting the most out of their economic situation. Rocky Balboa was poor, downtrodden, and seldom respected before he met the champ. Then he became a Philadelphia superhero. Characters like Adonis and Dame have their generation and community to inspire, but their successes are an optimistic view towards the deadly and competitive game of free market capitalism. Future Creed movies shouldn’t forget – we still want to see the underdog win that game.