It’s been a wild ride for the Rocky franchise. The first installment was a Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards, but over the course of five subsequent films, things slowly devolved into redundancy, spectacle, jingoistic nonsense, incoherence, and absurdity. The sixth film, 2006’s Rocky Balboa, starred a sixty-year-old Sylvester Stallone somehow not getting killed in an exhibition fight against a young heavyweight champion. Simply in contrast to the films that preceded it, which included a friendly robot and involved Rocky ending the Cold War by winning a boxing match, it was heralded as a return to form. Rocky hasn’t always been pretty—but like its hero, we’ve always rooted for it anyway.
But then, in 2015, a downright implausible thing happened to the franchise: It got really, really good again. Writer-director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan—forever an honorary Texan because of his time on Friday Night Lights—created Creed, a continuation of the series that pivoted the focus off of Stallone’s title character and onto the legacy of the series’s other protagonist, telling the story of Adonis Creed, son of Rocky’s rival-cum-trainer Apollo. Creed would have been fine if it had just been pretty good—an ordinary sports movie, with the nostalgic headwinds that come from playing in the iconic sandbox that is the Rockyverse—but what Coogler and Jordan turned in was instead transcendent, a meditation on families and how they’re formed, bodies and how they fail, and courage and how it guides us. Incredibly, a movie that was effectively Rocky VII was somehow, perhaps, the finest of them all.
Creed II, which was made without Coogler’s active participation (he was busy making Black Panther), was an exercise in diminishing returns. Stallone, the writer of the first six installments in the series, wrote the screenplay and shifted the focus onto mining the sillier ideas from the franchise’s original run—specifically, the goofy Cold War antics of Rocky IV—into something that attempted gravity. Creed II is fine, but it’s not special; rather, it’s what most of us would have expected from Creed, had it been more invested in nostalgia.
On Tuesday, MGM released the trailer to the third installment in the Creed series, and the Rockyness of it all is barely present. It’ll be the first film in the series without Stallone (whose only participation is as one of nine credited producers), and it’s the directorial debut of Jordan, who returns as the title character. Instead, Creed III appears to dive deeper into Adonis’s own mythology, bringing him into the ring with an opponent who has no connection to anyone from the original series: a childhood friend, played by North Texas–bred rising star Jonathan Majors. (It also includes a “story by” credit for Coogler, whose brother Keenan cowrote the screenplay with King Richard writer Zach Baylin.)
When Majors’s casting was first announced, fans speculated on who he’d be playing, and the guesses were kind of a drag. In Creed II, Adonis stepped into the ring with the son of Rocky IV antagonist Ivan Drago; would Majors be playing the son of Rocky III’s Clubber Lang (famously played by Mr. T)? Fortunately, the trailer resolves that question with a firm no. His character, Damian, is tied to the first few minutes of Creed, where we meet Adonis as a child in juvenile detention who spends his time alone in a cell because of his tendency to fight other kids. The themes of the film appear to be grounded in real life, the same way the best films in the Rocky franchise are. Instead of “what if you had to carry on the legacy of your father, the bio-engineered super fighter built by the Soviets to be the face of Cold War aggression,” the stakes here seem to be about what happens when a stroke of luck means that one kid from a tough background grows up to be a huge success while another is left to find his own way.
Majors hinted at this in an interview with Men’s Health this month, explaining how his training routine for the film was geared toward crafting a body that could hide a lost little boy’s pain. “There are certain reasons you build your body,” he told the magazine. “Dame’s body was built from loss. He had lost something, and that hole is what made him work the way he worked. When you see Dame’s body, you go, ‘Oh, that makes sense. You don’t look like that and be happy with life.’”
Majors, who emerged as a breakout star after 2019’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco, is the sort of actor who applies that level of craft in deciding how to bulk up for a role in a boxing movie. Jordan, of course, has—in Creed, Black Panther, Friday Night Lights, The Wire, and others—proved himself as one of the brightest talents Hollywood has to offer. The Rocky franchise has a bumpy relationship with sequels, but any movie that puts these two toe-to-toe in the ring to explore themes from the series’s best installment is one that has our attention. Creed III won’t hit theaters until March 3, but the first look at the film is as promising as we could hope for.