Too often, when we see deeper and more complicated reflections of masculinity, particularly Black masculinity, on screen and throughout media, the reaction becomes about how those images hurt Black men or distort our ideals of them.
Take, for instance, what some folks said about Jonathan Majors’ colorful Ebony magazine cover. Or, how some others felt about A$AP Rocky cradling his baby in the background of his and Rihanna’s British Vogue cover.
There is never enough conversation about how these images can empower women and challenge archaic perceptions of them and/or highlight the complex aspects of masculinity that are rarely celebrated or even acknowledged.
This all came to mind while watching “Creed III,” a movie that does all these things at once while also showing how rigid embodiments of masculinity can marginalize or entirely disregard the experiences of Black women.
That is far from the Sylvester Stallone-led “Rocky” franchise that began in 1976, which barely ever meaningfully considered how one male underdog’s all-encompassing fight to be a boxing champion could affect the woman he loves.
When that spun out to “Creed” in 2015 and “Creed II” in 2018, the issue persisted, except this time with Black people: Michael B. Jordan as the eponymous boxing heir and new champion, Adonis Creed, and Tessa Thompson as his ever-beleaguered romantic partner, the musician Bianca. (Cue this “SNL” spoof of “every boxer’s girlfriend from every movie about boxing ever.”)
These otherwise satisfying films are unquestionably about the male protagonist’s relatable struggle to win, overcome and achieve redemption. It’s such a domineering part of these movies that a more female-focused subplot, or even one about a less alpha male fighter, becomes unimportant. We unflinchingly want to root for him, and on his terms.
That shifts a bit with the Jordan-directed “Creed III,” which is a lot more interested in complicating our hero and expanding the world in which he’s lived — as well as its view of the people around him. Jordan helms the gripping new film with surprising ease, settling comfortably and confidently into a character he’s played for the last eight years.
“The women run this house,” Adonis says with a proud grin early in the movie. “I just live here.”
You believe this because he believes it. And you’re happy about this because he genuinely seems happy about it. He and Bianca are the thrilled parents of an equally determined little girl named Amara (Mila Davis-Kent), who is deaf and communicates through ASL. Bianca now has multiple gold albums and has pivoted from singing to writing and producing following her own hearing loss.
And Adonis’ mom, Mary-Anne (Phylicia Rashad), is always around to help serve as the voice of reason with Bianca or to braid Amara’s hair before bedtime. She and Bianca are not just floating heads in their gorgeous home, though. Their presence is just as crucial to the story as the title character’s.
This is all to say that the main women in Adonis’ life feel more lived-in than ever, and not just like ornaments around him. Their fears, accomplishments and frustrations are all fully realized and articulated, giving way to a more balanced film.
As for Adonis, he’s now retired and owns a gym where he nurtures the next generation of boxers.
Things are looking pretty great until a blast from Adonis’ past in the form of his childhood friend Damian Anderson (a ferocious Jonathan Majors), who reenters his life to threaten everything our hero has built. And with Damian’s introduction comes a more intricate meditation on Black masculinity.
This all continues to build in the background as Jordan, with screenwriters Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylin, takes his time setting up increasingly high-stakes drama in “Creed III.” Die-hard fans won’t be disappointed to see that some of that involves many breathlessly choreographed scenes in the ring. First, with some of the promising rookies. And then, of course, with Adonis.
As thrilling as the boxing sequences are, including a particularly artful black-and-white moment at the climax of the film, it’s the conflict outside of both the ring and the gym that sticks with you even more.
Part of that comes from interesting questions the film poses. Like, who is Adonis now that he’s no longer fighting — both metaphorically and physically? What is your relationship to your music if, like Bianca, you’re no longer able to sing your own songs?
Most urgently in “Creed III,” though, is: Who are you when you’re no longer connected to the streets? That’s the question Adonis attempts to swipe away when Damian shows up. Damian is fresh out of jail after spending 18 years there for a crime he committed when he was only 18.
The streets are still with Damian, even though his former friend seems to have put them, and him, in his luxury rearview mirror.
Heartfelt flashbacks reveal that Damian and Adonis have a connected past, primarily through their shared boxing skills, but most tragically through one critical event during which they each made choices that dramatically altered the course of their lives in different ways.
And the always-brooding Damian has “a chip on his shoulder” about it, as another character accurately describes it.
That, in and of itself, creates such great tension whenever both characters are in a room together. Even with Jordan serving double duty in his directorial debut, which proves to be an impressive first feat, he’s generous as a scene partner with Majors, who just commands every scene he’s in and sucks up all the air inside it — but in a good way. A great way.
Or maybe it’s more of a combination of Jordan being generous and Majors being just that good. To Damian’s own admission, he’s not missed a workout in prison and, perhaps like his onetime friend, he feels he has something he needs to prove.
As all this brews, an internal conflict manifests within Adonis, making him almost insufferable to have as a romantic partner at home. Bianca calls him out on it, pleading with him to open up. A woman encouraging a tough guy to talk about his feelings initially goes as miserably as you might already assume.
But in a refreshing change for a “Creed” film, Adonis admits that emotions don’t come easily for him — not, he adds wrongly, as easily as they come for Bianca. This becomes a perfect opportunity for his partner to express some of her own vulnerabilities and struggles at this stage in her life.
Frustratingly, “Creed III” doesn’t actually deal with any of what Bianca reveals about herself in this scene (akin to when Beth tells Randall about her own mental health struggles on “This is Us,” and he … barely acknowledges them). But the movie does deserve credit for developing Bianca as a fully complex human.
And it helps dispel the myth that women somehow have a better handle on their mental health simply because they can accurately identify an emotion. (The bar is apparently really that low if we’re talking about gendered reflections of emotional well-being.)
But those tender moments, like the one between Bianca and Adonis, in a film filled with such emotional and physical ferocity, provide a far more interesting look at heroism, masculinity and even Black excellence than what we’ve seen in earlier “Creed” films.
So when Adonis, very inevitably, steps back into the ring, this time with Damian (after an obligatory workout montage, of course), it’s not really about which one of them wins. We’re watching two former play brothers knock each other bloody when it’s really other things they’re fighting for and against.
That’s the space “Creed III” most profoundly sits in, underscored by a question Bianca asks at a particular point. Each moment of violence or brutality in the film has an entirely external impetus. Sometimes, it’s a response mechanism. Other times, it’s a really extravagant display of masculinity. And sometimes, it’s just about winning and overcoming.
All of that provides for a fascinating film from a new director who seems unafraid of moments of teary defeat that manifest into something far more introspective and self-nourishing — even when that’s between two brawny Black men at odds with each other and themselves.
Maybe these moments in “Creed III” will reignite another oversimplified conversation online about how Black masculinity is somehow in turmoil. But for this film, and certainly for this franchise, the filmmakers have highlighted a way forward as we continue to explore the subject both on screen and in real life — and, hopefully, make more room to nurture strong Black female voices and the next generation.