Michael B. Jordan has never been shy about his love for Japanese animation, from Naruto and Dragon Ball Z to Bleach and My Hero Academia. A decade’s worth of endearing press appearances spread across his 25-year career attests to that fact. But for the 36-year-old actor-turned-director, the love goes deeper than fandom.
For Creed III, his third time embodying the role of heavyweight boxing champion and Apollo Creed scion Adonis Creed and his first time in the director’s chair, Jordan drew on his keen understanding of the distinctive aesthetic and emotional storytelling of his favorite anime series for inspiration in not only the film’s fight scenes, but in the storyline between Creed and Damian “Diamond Dame” Anderson. The mysterious childhood friend from Adonis’ past, played by Jonathan Majors (Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania), returns to make his own bid for the title of world heavyweight boxing champion. Their inevitable match in the ring feels more like a battle between superpowered titans.
Polygon had the opportunity to speak to Jordan about the many anime nods and references in Creed III, what it was like imbuing his most iconic role to date with his longtime passion, how he bridged the divide between anime fight choreography and live-action boxing, and what sort of life lessons he’s gleaned from watching anime over the years.
Polygon: While doing press for Creed III, you’ve said there’s a punch in the fight between Adonis and Damian that’s a reference to Dragon Ball Z. So let’s start there: Was that punch the shot of Adonis and Damian landing a cross counter blow at the same time, and was it a nod to the fight between Goku and Vegeta in the Majin Buu Saga?
Michael B. Jordan: No, that punch is Naruto and Sasuke [from episode 450 of the Naruto: Shippuden anime].
Oh wow, you tripped me up!
Yeah, but that punch has happened a few times in anime. It happened in Dragon Ball Z also, between Goku and Vegeta. But for me, [the Creed III scene] was about the relationship between two brothers, so the relationship between Naruto and Sasuke was where the inspiration for that relationship kind of stemmed from.
The fight between Creed and Damian had to be an even battle, and in an emotionally high place where these two men were both baring their souls to one another. The emotional level they were at, where they were coming at it from, the emotions between those two characters. That was the moment I leaned into with that scene from Naruto.
Were you watching Naruto while working on preproduction for Creed III, and at some point you just said, “I have to put this moment in here”?
No. I mean, I watch anime every day. It’s like these images are burned into my head. So when I was in preproduction and putting together the fight choreography, it was just second nature to me to reach for that.
There’s a few moments like that in there: the gut punch — boom! There were moments during production where I was like, Where do I infuse these moments? I just have a highlight reel of moments from my favorite anime constantly running through my head that, you know, if it makes sense and it fits with the movie, I just pull from that for inspiration. You know, try this or try that. It just came together naturally like that. It’s hard to explain, but yeah.
The relationship between Adonis and Jonathan Majors’ character Damian in this film feels like a quintessential type of relationship you often see in anime: childhood friends turned rivals. You mentioned Naruto and Sasuke, but what were some other sources you pulled from in defining that relationship between Adonis and Damian?
[Ed and Alphonse from] Fullmetal Alchemist was definitely one. Goku and Vegeta [from Dragon Ball Z], Bakugo and Midoriya from My Hero Academia. Those are just a few. When you’re watching anime, there’s all these similar tones, themes, and feelings between them all that in a sense boil down to when a hero is challenged, and they usually have a best friend or rival that’s the one challenging them in a lot of ways. There’s a lot of different ways anime iterates on these themes and feelings. So for me, tapping into that was just a part of me.
These are just some of the ones I watch, but these points are interchangeable across a lot of different anime. And that’s what I love about it. They repackage these feelings and beats and emotions in different ways through different styles of animation. I’m watching Blue Lock right now — which is dope as fuck — and that’s all about the ego of these characters, them developing their skills, and devouring different styles and defeating others in order to evolve and grow.
Creed III opens with a flashback to Adonis’ childhood, and his bedroom is cluttered with anime memorabilia. There’s a Lupin the Third poster; a Gunpla model figure on his dresser; a Robotech poster on the wall behind his door; and a screen-printed Naruto banner hanging off the side of his desk, to name a few. You would’ve been Adonis’ age back in 2002, give or take a year. What was it like drawing from your real-life passion for anime to craft this previously unseen dimension of Adonis as a kid?
It was fun. [laughs] You know, as an actor, you find ways to bring a piece of yourself and your reality to these characters and make them real and relatable as much as you can. At a certain point, Adonis was going through the same things I was going through, those same types of challenges.
Exploring the idea of identity. Your blessings, your gifts, your survivor’s guilt, your impostor syndrome. The relationship between you and your loved ones, your family, your friends; with communicating and talking through your emotions. How do you deal with success? How do you deal with being in the spotlight and still retaining some type of normal life while staying grounded? All of those things, man.
When the opportunity presented itself to craft this character who I am, in a sense, becoming, in a way that felt true to my own reality, it was a great feeling, man. Put those Easter eggs in there, put those anime references in there — let them see and feel who this kid was, and who he is now. This is where he came from; this is how it started. I had a chance to almost redo the origin story, essentially. That was a very satisfying and gratifying experience.
How did you iterate on fight choreography from animation so it made sense in a live-action boxing film?
We used a lot of parallaxing shots [in which the camera is in motion while the subject and background appear to be moving at different speeds] for the fight scenes. Parallaxing shots happen in anime all the time; it’s a part of the visual language of the medium. To do that in live action in a way that succeeds at getting at those same feelings and that effect is really tough to do. It’s damn near impossible, you know? It’s really, really hard.
So finding the cuts in the edit that communicate what Adonis was looking at, suggesting why he was looking at that, and that you’re going to find out why later, that was how I found a way around that challenge. Usually, you’d go into an internal dialogue, a thought process of whoever the character is as they’re getting ready to plot, and you’re letting the audience know what’s going to happen and what he’s thinking about, you know what I’m saying? What of the world is he putting together? Like, he’s putting together these pieces of information that are going to come together for this payoff. It’s all about bringing the audience into Adonis’ head, showing his smarts and intelligence. He’s not just throwing punches out here; he’s playing chess. He’s willing to make sacrifices for a big payoff. That was the thought process behind that first fight with Conlan.
I used a Bolt camera grip for the fight scenes. It’s this piece of camera equipment which is basically, like, a mechanical arm like the ones they use on car assembly lines — you know, the ones that weld all the pieces of the frame together, and then the next car goes up. It just hits every spot every time. We put a camera on top of that and programmed the movements so it gave us these really cool ramped slow-motion shots. That was really cool. I love talking about this stuff.
There’s an establishing shot before the fight between Creed and Damian that shows that the fight is taking place in Dodger Stadium. Another name for a baseball field is a diamond, so I interpreted that as a nod to Damian’s nickname, “Diamond Dame” Anderson. It felt a lot like “Domain Expansion” from Jujutsu Kaisen — this concept of manifesting one’s psychic energy into a physical space as a way of intimidating and overpowering one’s opponent. Was that choice of location at all deliberate?
It was deliberate. Not for that reason, but I love that connection. See, this is why I love anime, because after watching a lot of anime, your mind will go to those comparisons, and now you can put those things together and make it personal for you. That’s what I actually took away from a lot of the stuff I did in this movie. Anime is... not broad, but it’s so layered that people will naturally make those connections that make the most sense to them.
But no, that’s not why I chose the location. I wanted the fight to be outdoors, and I really wanted to establish it as an LA story. I wanted it to be iconic, so I chose Dodger Stadium. And then it was also because my dad was a Dodgers fan growing up. He used to sneak out to baseball games with my uncles and stuff, so that choice was my homage to him as well.
But for me, the void [a moment where Creed and Damian are impressionistically shown to be fighting each other in an otherwise empty stadium] is probably the biggest anime swing I took in this movie. Because as you know, in anime, you’ve got these two main characters who are going at it, right? Usually they go to a quiet place, and it’s usually either all-white or -black space, and they’re there just calmly talking about how they feel emotionally. Meanwhile, they’re going hard at each other; they’re physically trying to take each other’s heads off. It’s just about these two guys and nobody else, and the void is a way that idea is communicated through anime.
It’s like that moment [in Naruto: Shippuden] when Sasuke first went to go talk to Kurama, you know what I’m saying? When Sasuke acknowledged that Kurama [the nine-tailed fox] was inside of Naruto and was like, Oh, this is what you’ve got up inside of you? This is what’s inside of you? Nah, we ’bout to shut all that shit down. They went to that space. I was like, Oh man, that would be dope, if I could figure out a way to get these two guys into a void, and that’s where they were really having their final battle at. It wasn’t about nobody else — it wasn’t about anyone else watching the fight. It was about these two dudes who couldn’t emotionally say what they had to say with their words, so they had to physically get it out through fighting. So that idea evolved into revisiting their childhood trauma and making it more like performance art, even.
There was a moment where there were subtitles during that scene as well. I started experimenting with subtitles so that, with every exchange they had, there would be something said along with it and a lot of posturing; no music, no nothing. The sound was just these primal grunts of rage and emotion. But then I had to realize, I’m making this movie for everybody around the world. Not everybody is used to reading and watching something at the same time as anime fans are, and I didn’t want to take away from one or the other and have people miss certain things. So I decided to hold back on the subtitles and let it just be about these two guys figuring it out between each other.
You’ve spoken at length in the past about how much Dragon Ball Z and Naruto mean to you. What is it about those anime that resonates with and speaks to you so deeply? Where does that love come from?
Oh man, that’s deep. There are so many layers I can get into, but like [for Dragon Ball Z], it’s Goku’s resilience, you know? No matter how much pain and struggle he goes through, every battle, a Saiyan only gets stronger. They could even lose, but they’re gonna come back stronger until they eventually beat you. Like, it doesn’t even matter. Even sometimes in death, he’s gonna come back. He comes back all the time [laughs], and he’s going to become stronger until he beats you. I think that resilience, that never-give-up attitude, is what I connect with, and I dig that. I think the unassuming nature of Goku, his disarming nature combined with his ability to be ready for whatever happens when his back is against the wall, is really inspiring. He always steps up to whatever challenge.
The bonds and relationships of Naruto are what speak to me. Him being an outcast, being different, being shunned away from everybody, and still being able to not hold a grudge, keep a smile on his face, keep his promise and go to the ends of the Earth in order to live up to that promise, is what resonates for me. And then just the idea of having that inner demon inside of you, that inner beast — I think that’s something strong to have, an inner sense of self. And that’s not even getting into the story of all the Hokages before him.
It’s so layered with all the supporting characters and their own powers that represent certain things about them. Shikamaru is one of my favorite characters. Rock Lee is one of my favorites: somebody who wasn’t naturally gifted and wasn’t able to use any of the other jutsu and whatnot, but still decided that ninjutsu is going to be the one thing that he’s going to perfect and be great at. He’s going to work hard and he’s going to be able to overcome any obstacle, even his mentor, Guy Lee; he’s going to match that level and surpass it.
So for me, [Naruto] is about promises. The importance of keeping your promises; of being able to say, “I’m sorry”; the importance of the bonds and friendships you make when you’re coming up. I could go on in a lot of different ways, but I think those are the ones that really stick out to me the most, and why I think they resonate with a lot of other people as well, too.