In Creed III, Adonis Faces His Toughest Opponent Yet: Trauma

Photo: Eli Ade.
This story contains heavy spoilers for Creed III. When Creed first premiered in 2015, the world had no idea how big it would become; after all, it was just an offshoot of the Rocky franchise, and we know how much of a toss-up spin-offs can be. But in the years since its debut, the story of Apollo Creed’s son Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) has evolved into a sports epic that is moving enough to rival the journey that inspired it. Creed III, the latest installment in the boxing drama trilogy, ups the ante further by forcing our protagonist out of his self-imposed retirement for the fight of his life. But Adonis’ latest melee isn’t just a physical one; this match is also intense emotional and psychological warfare. The opponent? Trauma
Creed III opens up years after the events of the 2018 sequel, introducing us to a cushier, more laidback chapter in Adonis’ life. After becoming the heavyweight champion of the world, he’s stepped away from putting his body on the line and is now enjoying life as a stay-at-home father; while Bianca (Tessa Thompson, a vision in every single scene) throws herself into music production and songwriting for other artists, Adonis happily attends to their precious daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent), using his leftover energy to provide resources and training for up-and-coming boxers at his elite gym. From the outside looking in, things look pretty perfect for Adonis, but upon closer inspection, there’s a restlessness stirring within him. The transition from boxing champion to regular-degular person hasn’t exactly been easy on his ego, and secretly — hidden from everyone except his wife, who knows him well enough to take notice — he’s having trouble accepting that he’s kind of washed up now. Who is Adonis Creed if not a world-class boxer?
That examination of self-worth only gets more complicated with the sudden appearance of Damian Anderson (Jonathan “Play With Me If You Want To” Majors), the childhood friend that played a key role in Adonis’ interest in boxing. Sure, the sport was in his blood, but it was Dame’s active pursuit of boxing as a kid that made Adonis, too, feel like he could follow in his late father's footsteps. The boys were closer than brothers in the group home they grew up in, laughing and playing and encouraging each other even on the darkest days, but an untimely run-in with police causes their paths to diverge drastically — Adonis into the loving care of his mother Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), and Dame into the carceral system for 18 long, lonely years. 
Fast forward almost 20 years later, Dame “randomly” pops up at Adonis’ boxing gym, and the men hesitantly try to pick up where they left off. Even with so much complicated history, they still love each other. But unbeknownst to Adonis, things can never be the same because there’s too much bad blood flowing between the two of them. From the confines of his prison cell, Dame has watched Adonis live what could’ve been — what should’ve been — his life. Because of a fight that Adonis started and Dame finished, only one of them got to chase their shared dream. The wrong one, in Dame’s opinion, so he makes it his sole mission to right that wrong at any cost, even if people get hurt in the process. And people are hurt in the process: Dame’s first match with one of Adonis’ boxers results in a life-threatening injury for the prodigy, and Mary Anne passes away from a stroke after her mental state is agitated by Dame’s sudden appearance and the chaos it stirs up in her son’s life. Spiraling from the heartbreak of their losses, the friends become foes, engaging in a fight that deteriorates not just their bodies, but their psyches as well. 

Michael B. Jordan taps into something truly special for Creed III, easily dispelling any doubts about his abilities on screen and behind-the-camera.

The Rocky franchise has always been about the underdog, with Rocky Balboa (famously played by Sylvester Stallone, who surprisingly didn’t make an appearance in this film) and Adonis typically facing off against challengers that seemed almost impossible to defeat. But in Creed III, the exchange is far more complicated. Adonis has already proven himself as a champion and is respected in the industry as the gold standard of boxing, and it’s Dame who’s the underdog, fighting to prove his place in the world against all odds. Initially, you want to root for Dame because he’s trying to make up for lost time, but his vision quickly becomes blurred as the end goal shifts from success to revenge. Here, we see two powerful men allowing their trauma to inform their actions to the point that it destabilizes them. Furious with each other, furious with life and the cards it has dealt them, Adonis and Dame’s fight is so much bigger than the ring. It’s the manifestation of the unaddressed, unhealed pain of the past.
Playing double duty as the star and the director, Michael B. Jordan taps into something truly special for Creed III, easily dispelling any doubts about his abilities on screen and behind-the-camera. Adonis has always been an interesting character, but Jordan’s approach to him in this film is peculiarly captivating because it involves the exploration of Adonis’ inner child’s trauma and the deep-rooted existential insecurity that he grapples with as a result. What happens when the man who has it all isn’t quite sure that he deserves any of it? 
The nuance of Adonis’ internal dialogue is elevated further by the stellar performances of Jordan’s talented ensemble cast. Majors’ Dame is the perfect multi-faceted foil for our protagonist; his dreamer nature and hardship-imposed humility clash with a righteous indignation and resentment that quickly give way to absolute rage. As always, Majors’ uncanny ability to relay massive emotions in the tiniest ways — the light leaving his eyes, the muscle ticking in his cheek, the half-smile that curves down at the corners ever so slightly to take a menacing turn — results in character work so impactful that you’ll never be able to get it out of your head. (Jonathan, if you’re reading this, more antagonist roles, please. I love your villain era.) And Thompson’s third round as Jordan’s work-wife is just as remarkable; even while struggling with her own challenges, Bianca is the steady support that her husband needs even when he doesn’t fully appreciate it, her constant emotional openness and vulnerability standing in clear juxtaposition to the men using violence to avoid fleshing out their real issues. (Look at what actively doing the work can do!)
Without being preachy or condescending — a credit to the storytelling of Ryan Coogler, Keenan Coogler, and Zach Baylin — Creed III is one the best advertisements for men going to therapy that we’ve seen in Hollywood in a long time. Adonis Creed and Damian Anderson’s conflict may be a work of fiction, but the turmoil that they experience as a result of not working out their respective and collective grief is very real and very relatable. We can see unhealed trauma all around us, specifically in men, and we know that it rarely ever exists in a vacuum; the longer these emotional wounds are left to fester, the more they ooze onto and infect other people, resulting in a culture of toxicity passed down from person to person, from generation to generation. 
Resolving the pain of our past is no easy feat, but leaving our trauma unaddressed only makes life more difficult for us and for the people we love. Working through that hurt is the difference between a TKO and a championship belt.
Creed III is now playing in theaters.

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