Caution: Spoilers for Creed III ahead.
If you were one of the many people who went to see Creed III this past weekend, you would note that this would be the first in the trilogy that genuinely felt like an Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) story. That’s not to say there isn’t Rocky franchise DNA inside the story. Adonis comes out of retirement to face his most significant test, just like Rocky did with Ivan Drago in Rocky IV — and of course, the training montages and “never give up” attitude play a big part.
Besides this, the film dives into the deeper Creed family dynamic, beautifully splitting time between how Adonis deals with his past traumas and Bianca (Tessa Thompson) expressing how she’s trying to adjust to her new reality regarding her music. It’s a Black family coming together to work through generational trauma in ways that Apollo didn’t. You can already see the growth in Adonis there. Creed III also centers around two Black men on the opposite side of the consequences out of their control and finding their way through the anger and guilt.
Rocky’s (Sylvester Stallone) character is not here for the first time to provide this story with proper breathing room. It may feel odd initially to have the classic character (the rights issues are a mess, and Stallone should at least have a piece of it) not be present. However, Rocky got his sentimental sendoff in Creed II. The purpose of Rocky is to be an indomitable pillar of human perseverance – not just a tentpole expected to move tickets.
We’ve seen him walk off the street and battle (and beat) a world champion, get his spark back, fight off Mr. T, and fly to Russia to avenge the loss of his best friend. Audiences have even witnessed Rocky lose it all – his fortune, Adrian, Mickey, Paulie, Apollo, and almost his life to cancer. Still, just like in 2006’s Rocky Balboa, where he, as an older man, decided to get back into the ring and give the heavyweight champ a fight, Rocky made us believe he could pull it off.
This is why the character deserved a happy ending and a clean break. By the end of Creed II, Rocky helped Adonis conquer his most formidable foe to date, confront a ghost of his past, and fix things with his estranged son while meeting his grandson for the first time. Conversely, Adonis finally made peace with Apollo’s legacy, thus stepping into his light. That’s what the ultimate Rocky aura is about – you going out there to make your dreams happen.
There is nothing more that Rocky could teach Adonis. The basement is empty and cleaned out. I highly doubt that longtime fans would want to see Rocky pass away – that’s just not how ethos is meant to end. It also comes back to the story part, where Stallone disagreed with Creed III’s tone in speaking to The Hollywood Reporter:
“I’m much more of a sentimentalist. I like my heroes getting beat up, but I just don’t want them going into that dark space. I just feel people have enough darkness.”
This is the thing – Creed III is all about people walking out of the darkness of the past. At the end of their fight, Adonis and Dame (Jonathan Majors) forgive each other for what happened. Adonis even gives Dame the words he needs – that it wasn’t his fault. Then, Adonis is able not to feel guilty about everything he worked hard for. Do you know how meaningful it is to see Black people come to arrive at these emotional peaks together? Rocky’s long legacy can still live on, but it would cheapen it to have him show up for the franchise's sake.
I can think of many prominent film and television characters who get trotted out to gain money and fail because they’ve overstayed their welcome. That hasn’t happened with Rocky, and it shouldn’t. We should be proud those films have spawned off a narratively rich and diverse set of stories out of the template. That’s the actual stamp of legacy.