Michael B. Jordan’s directorial debut, Creed III, is already one of 2023’s biggest success stories, a top 10 box-office contender that’s stirred up interest in the long-running Rocky franchise and prompted a lot of thoughtful, eager theorizing about Jordan’s directorial style and his possible future behind the camera. Most of us at Polygon were fans of the movie, with its overt and enjoyably nerdy anime references and its emotional, deep-dive approach into current franchise protagonist Adonis Creed, played by Jordan. Creed III goes further into Adonis’ backstory and history than the first two entries in the franchise, and while it naturally frames his conflict around a climactic boxing match, it continues to be clear that his internal battles are just as significant as the public ones.
But does Creed III really give those fights the space they deserve? The movie pointedly doesn’t go past the surface in letting him resolve some of his big issues, which leaves the ring open for sequels, along with Jordan’s possible anime spinoff of the franchise. That’s potentially a good thing for Jordan and for the future of this series, but is it a good thing for Creed III’s story? In the spirit of our staff throwdowns over Titanic’s alternate ending, Spider in Avatar: The Way of Water, and the song cut from The Muppet Christmas Carol, we had two writers step into the ring to duke it out.
Polygon Court is now in session.
[Ed. note: Spoilers ahead for Creed III, including end spoilers.]
Opening statements: A case for catharsis
Tasha: So to make this clear, this isn’t a debate about who got more points in Creed III’s climactic fight or whatever. I’m not a boxing expert, and as Jordan has said himself, that match is more an anime hero/villain throwdown than a by-the-book WBA match. This is about a post-Creed III conversation where I complained that Adonis got robbed of some much-needed plot payoff in this movie, and you said, “Yes, and that’s awesome.” We’re here to fight about whether this movie needs the closure it doesn’t get, and whether it’s cool to just keep leaving Adonis swinging in the wind, waiting for the next installment of his story.
Austen: It’s true, I love this movie’s lack of closure, and I think it’s sort of the point. Too many movies wrap their plots up with bows, neatly tying everything together into a clean third act that leaves us without a single question. Creed III’s third act is entirely about punching someone you have a problem with until one of you falls down, and then not having a problem with them after the punching. That’s about as much closure as you could ever get on anything, so I’m perfectly happy if that’s all the closure the movie wants to offer.
Presentation of evidence: Does Creed III’s ending work?
Tasha, the case for closure: Here’s my biggest beef with Creed III: Screenwriters Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylin kill off Adonis’ mom, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), in what feels to me like a pretty stilted rehash of the death of Rocky’s longtime trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith) in Rocky III. I strongly suspect that in early drafts, that plot beat was meant to be the death of Adonis’ trainer and mentor, Rocky, and that Sylvester Stallone full-on balked. We know Stallone opted out of Creed III over clashes with franchise rights owner Irwin Winkler, and given how Creed II sets Rocky up as dying of cancer, I’d put cash money down on a bet that Winkler wanted to kill him off, and Stallone didn’t want to close that door.
So instead, Adonis’ low point is his mom dying — which comes at a point in the movie shortly after she reveals that she deliberately withheld years’ worth of letters from his childhood best friend Damian “Dame” Anderson. That deeply harmed both men, but apart from Adonis’ flash of fury when he first finds out, he never really gets to talk to her about it or come to terms with it. In a movie that’s so deeply and empathetically about his need for emotional unburdening, that strikes me as a problem. But it sounds like you’re all for it.
Austen, the case against: I actually agree with you that this feels like a plotline originally designed for Rocky’s death. But I also think that the changes made around it being Adonis’ mom are a lot more interesting than Rocky dying ever could have been.
Donnie’s emotional arc in this movie is mostly about his inability to open up and talk about the things that are hurting him — especially without resorting to violence, whether that’s in words or actions. And the storyline with his mom puts that into perspective perfectly. He pushes away every conversation with her until he explodes at her for hiding the letters from Dame. Then suddenly she’s gone. On its face, it’s a straightforward plot device for his character’s turn: In the wake of his mom’s death, Donnie feels the weight of the conversations he’s not having, and it convinces him to open up a bit to Bianca.
But the movie isn’t showy about this idea in a way that would feel cloying and untrue to Adonis’ stoicism. He doesn’t get a cathartic scene where he explains his last fight with his mom to Bianca. He doesn’t get a monologue about the finiteness of life or the importance of emotional openness. He just talks to Bianca as best he can. It shapes everything Donnie does after; it just does it quietly.
Tasha, the case for closure: Wow, I feel like I just took a first-round punch that’s close to a KO, but I committed to this fight, and I have to soldier on. I’ll cue up “Eye of the Tiger” to keep me focused here. I like the idea of Adonis feeling pushed to open up to Bianca because he didn’t have a chance to open up to his mom, but I just don’t think the movie makes that dynamic clear at all, either in terms of the timeline or his response. And I don’t think it’s any clearer that talking to Bianca helps Adonis in the way it’s meant to.
This movie pays some lip service to the idea that Adonis needs to talk about his feelings — again, emulating Rocky III, and Rocky and Adrian’s similar face-off on the beach about how he needs to admit he’s scared to face Clubber Lang again, or his unspoken fears will keep holding him back. But in that movie, he clearly comes to a point of catharsis that lets him speak his mind and let go of his secrets. Here, that catharsis is so much more limited. He finally tells Bianca his backstory, and it’s an important moment for him — but given how the flashbacks have been doled out throughout the movie, he’s just telling us things we already know, and that don’t seem to give him any relief or release.
Austen, the case against: I would argue that the connection to his mom actually is pretty direct! It’s right after her funeral that he and Bianca first talk about Leon, where she shares her experiences with her hearing loss, and what it meant for her career and her life. It’s also this act of opening up that helps Donnie admit that he thinks the only way to stop Dame is to fight him, which, to the movie’s credit, Bianca greets with an appropriate mix of concern, warmth, and trust.
This is the moment that, to me, lets the movie tip its hand to the fact that the lack of closure we’re often confronted with in life is what Creed III is all about. Bianca’s story about her hearing loss doesn’t end triumphantly with her in comfortable acceptance, or with her getting to do one last show. She realized she was suffering permanent damage, so she just stopped performing live, and she’s still hurting from what making the right decision cost her. She’s even struggling watching other artists perform her songs. None of that is closure either. She’s just learning to live, and to deal with the way life has gone. She’s working through the pain to find joy where she can.
In the same way, she never asks Adonis to sort himself out, or to come to her once he’s figured out his Leon problems, or his Dame problems. She just wants a partner who she feels she can share the unresolved wounds of her life with and hear his in return. And that’s what he gives her.
Tasha, the case for closure: Maybe then my gripe here is that Creed III is so focused on what other people need out of Adonis. Dame needs to fight him — and I think on a pure emotional level, Dame needs be beaten, so he has absolute proof that Adonis is the better fighter, and didn’t unjustly steal Dame’s rightful place. Bianca needs to hear Adonis’ story, and force him to confide in her. Mary Anne needs Adonis to hear her confession before she dies. Even his daughter Amara needs him to reconcile his feelings about fighting, so he knows how to respond to her. But where does Creed III address what Adonis needs? There has to be more to all of this than him suffering for everyone else.
Austen, the case against: I think Donnie as an avatar for the pain and catharsis of everyone around him is a really fair point, and to some extent, a pretty strong criticism of who the character is, and what his story often slips into — looking straight at you, Creed II. I also think Donnie’s place in the story is the most strained part of the movie’s approach to life as a series of complicated interconnected events that are difficult to narrativize.
Adonis is a character who things happen to in this movie, rather than being the aggressor and the changer. In some ways, that’s the point: He’s looking for a way to move his life forward and to age gracefully into retirement, but without the structure of the next fight to prepare for, it’s something he struggles with.
Tasha, the case for closure: All of which is true, but it’s what leaves me frustrated at all the things this particular movie denies him. He gets to win a fight and have his moment in the ring with his family at the end, and that feels like closure in a way, for his boxing career. But this whole film is telling us that his boxing career isn’t the point, that it’s an afterthought compared to his relationships to people! And he ends this movie with a few small, incremental steps forward — he’s finally able to (briefly, in a halting and limited way) talk to Dame honestly, and to open up to his wife, and play with his daughter. These are all good things! But he’s still left with so much unresolved that the film feels like it was never really about him at all.
Austen, the case against: In that way, I actually think it’s a fascinating type of narrative that men in their 30s rarely get in movies, and never in blockbusters. It’s quiet and a little aimless. The ending is about a man who’s reconciled a relationship from his past that he blocked out, a relationship from his present that he was actively blocking out, and a relationship with his daughter that he was trying to block from certain parts of himself.
Now, none of these are really “needs,” and the most cynical version of me might see the recent announcement of a few Creed spinoffs going into development and think that all this movie had to do was put Donnie in the right place to spread his IP wings. But the messy complications of the story and its refusal to tie itself to easy resolutions, and the kind of closure that life rarely has, are exactly what makes me give it the benefit of the doubt.
Tasha, the case for closure: One last thing: Because Sylvester Stallone opted out of this movie, we don’t get any kind of closure between Rocky and Adonis. I admit I’m neutral on that one — this is a movie largely about Black masculinity, competition, and communication, and I’m perfectly fine with not having the Italian Stallion butt in with his perspective. But it sounds like you consider Rocky’s absence here even more of a positive than I do?
Austen, the case against: I’m not sure I have any feelings one way or another about Rocky not showing up in Creed III. I just think the intimacy and immediacy of family makes Mary Anne the right choice for Adonis’ mid-movie turn toward emotional openness, especially since she’s a family member he didn’t have much of a relationship with early in his life, which makies that openness even more important, and regrettably not present. But I’m also not sure any of that precludes Rocky from showing up at all. Maybe my most honest opinion is that I don’t need much more from Rocky after he sits out the in-ring celebration in Creed II. In a lot of ways, that feels like an acceptable split from the series for him, especially when he and Adonis have both found their own separate ways to accept Apollo’s death and legacy.
Closing arguments: Justice for Adonis
Tasha, the case for closure: Just give Adonis something that’s all his own, that’s all I ask. The guy suffers so much in this movie, trying to make everyone else happy. That final moment in the ring after the fight feels more like relief that they might all leave him alone for a bit than like triumph over the end of a meteoric career. Just give the guy a night off from everyone’s demands, huh?
Austen, the case against: Creed III’s whole point is that closure isn’t possible, and that open and honest communication is still worth striving for anyway. In the end, Adonis doesn’t get any answers, and his story doesn’t get a neat bow wrapped around it. Instead, he opens himself up to the messy, painful knots that people tie out of life’s loose ends and uncertainties. Without boxing, Adonis has to deal with the rest of his life, where things are complicated, because judges don’t keep scores and conflicts rarely end in knockouts. He can’t have a night off, because that’s all he’s taken up until now.
Did Adonis deserve more closure in Creed III?
This poll is closed
Yes! Give the guy a win that isn’t just in the ring!
Nah, life is messy, people die without resolving everything, and this movie reflects that.
Whatever! Just bring on Creed IV and the anime spinoff.