Sports movies are among the most durable of genres, and nostalgia sequels and long-running franchises have become almost the norm for popular movies from the past half-century, but the legacy of Rocky is unique. Few big-screen franchises in any genre have remained vital after so many years, and no other sports movie has come close to launching such an enduring cinematic saga. The nearest analogue might be the Karate Kid franchise, which ran four movies from 1984 to 1994 and now has a crowd-pleasing afterlife with Netflix’s Cobra Kai — and even The Karate Kid was almost a Rocky movie in the first place (so much so that it was directed by John Avildsen and features a song, Joe Esposito’s “You’re the Best,” originally written for Rocky III).
The first two Creed films were “legacyquels” in the strict sense given by Matt Singer in coining the term: movies “in which beloved aging stars reprise classic roles and pass the torch to younger successors.” By this definition, 2006’s Rocky Balboa, coming 16 years after Rocky V, was not a legacyquel; it could be called a nostalgia sequel, which I have described as a sequel made after a franchise has lain fallow for perhaps a decade or more, in which the operative question is not “What happened next?” but “Where are they now?” Creed introduced us to Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Creed, the illegitimate son of Rocky’s great adversary turned friend Apollo Creed, with Rocky now in the role of reluctant trainer and mentor. (Wood Harris played “Little Duke” Evers, the son of Apollo’s trainer Duke, who initially refuses to train Adonis.) Creed II doubled down on revisiting the Rocky films by bringing back Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Drago as trainer and promoter for his own son, the similarly intimidating Viktor (Florian Munteanu), who challenges Adonis in a bid for family redemption in Russia.
At the same time, every Rocky film in some way pits the hero against himself, and in Creed III the internal drama finds its strongest external realization. Creed III pits Adonis against a shadowy mirror image: a charismatic, confident man he once looked to as the future he wanted, and whose hard-case life easily could have become his own past.
Helmed by Jordan himself in his directorial debut, with a story co-written by Creed writer-director Ryan Coogler, Creed III is the first Rocky film featuring neither Stallone himself nor any returning character from the first six films, except Apollo Creed’s widow and Adonis’s adoptive mother, Mary Anne (played in the Creed movies by a regal Phylicia Rashad). Rocky is fleetingly mentioned, and the younger Drago appears briefly as an Apollo-like adversary turned ally, but the antagonist is someone from Adonis’s own past. And that’s not the only way Creed III goes its own way. Instead of once again casting the hero as an underdog against a younger and/or more established opponent — or, alternatively, easing the now-retired Adonis into a mentor role in relation to one of the young fighters at the gym he manages — Creed III boldly upends the formulas: This time Adonis is confronted with an older mentor figure from his youth, a once-promising coulda-been who lost his shot thanks to a lengthy prison sentence.