Much has been made of the Creed franchise star and producer Michael B Jordan graduating to director with Creed III. But the sequel, out now, marks another creative ascension: that of Keenan Coogler—filmmaker Ryan Coogler’s brother—who wrote the script.
Coogler, who has worked with Ryan on projects going back to 2013’s Fruitvale Station,took on a special challenge with Creed III, which is the first movie in the franchise not to include Rocky (Sylvester Stallone exited the series over rights disputes). This opens up space to tell more of Adonis Creed’s story and what he must confront in himself. Jonathan Majors joins the franchise as Damian an old friend Adonis left behind on his path to becoming a champion. Damian’s vengeful return sets off many old emotional triggers and of course, a climactic showdown in the ring.
The result is the most personal Creed film to date. It also reflects a personal interest that Coogler and Jordan share: anime. Coogler cites Easter Eggs like the callbacks to the Cartoon Network programming block Toonami that can be found in Adonis’ bedroom. Coogler talks to GQ about the “therapeutic” nature of writing a character like Damian, how he sees himself and his brother in the franchise’s story, and the day that he recognized his longtime friend Jordan as an actual director.
It must be especially hard to do a sequel for a boxing film because from the outset, we know the beats it will take—we know there has to be a victory. How did you approach that challenge of making it feel fresh and surprising still?
Oh man, my rule I always bring to the room is play the hits. With the Rocky movies, a lot of the conventions can become shackles if you don’t approach them creatively. What we did on this is, I was really passionate about exploring what makes Adonis different. I think the most fundamental difference is that because he’s Black, he has a different relationship with success. The Rocky movies are about opportunity and success, so we just started there. If you look at every beat, macro and micro, it all comes down to [that] nuance: [his] Blackness.
Talk about the specific way you chose to explore Black male friendship here.
Man—I’ll see if I can save you the long spiel. Basically, the first convo me and Mike had creatively as director and writer, we talked about this idea of the warrior in the garden. It’s basically when you have a man that builds his life through violence, whether he’s a soldier or a fighter, a football player or a boxer, there comes a time where he becomes an adult and has to learn how to sit in the garden with himself and not bring the war home. That was something I struggled with personally, and Mike, he identifies with that himself. That’s where a lot of the anime influence comes in, because they tell that [narrative]so well in Eastern storytelling, about these guys who come from worlds of fighting like Naruto or Goku.
But it’s not looked at as this evil thing. It’s looked at as an extension of your internal self. Whether [fighting] is a discipline, or whether that’s your lack of self-control, all that stuff factors in, and they don’t judge it. I think that’s why me and Mike were drawn to anime in the first place. I think that’s also why a lot of Black boys like Dragon Ball Z.
Mike has referenced the anime influence, and it’s clearly there visually. Can you say more about how it actually impacted the story?
It was the first thing we talked about. Mike’s big on Naruto. I was a Dragon Ball Z kid as a youngster. They have a very similar spirit, which is like this very young boy spirit, right? Do you remember how after Goku would beat the big villain, there’d be those episodes where he’d be at home with Chi-Chi and Gohan, and he’d just be like a bull in the china shop? That was [the concept] we decided on because Mike and I had both finished working for a long time so we were at home, and we had found that we didn’t have our coping mechanisms anymore. For me it [had been] football, and for him it was [acting]. We were becoming extremely just like bulls in the china shop, self-destructive, self-sabotage-y just in minor and macro ways. Then you realize, like, oh, wait a minute, the same drive that pushed me into—for me it’s football, for Adonis it’s boxing—you start to question that drive.
The goal was to set it up so that the only way these two dudes could have this conversation was with [their] fists. [We all] know dudes like that in real life. Those people are united by a common internal world, and that’s really what the movie is about. It’s about a Black dude who’s trying to figure out why it’s easier for him to punch his best friend than talk to him.
The initial rumor when Creed III was greenlit was the return of Mr. T’s Clubber Lang was being kicked around. Was that something you actually considered?
No. To be real with you, I think that that idea came from everybody’s…
Assumptions after Creed II?
Yeah, yeah. When you’re making these movies, you have to consider audience expectations. We always knew that there was going to be a new character, and it was going to be an effort to have—okay look, we know the movie’s going to end in a fight. How can we push those boundaries and make [the viewer’s] emotions different? Rocky’s got a crazy rogue’s gallery of villains, so it’s hard to just keep ratcheting up tensions.
He fought Drago, who’s like twice his size, in the last movie. We can’t just keep upping the power hierarchy without really bringing a new story, so that was our fix. It was like, “All right, this fight at the end is going to be a conversation.” Once we knew that, and we knew it was going to have some surreal qualities, we were like, “All right, this is different enough. Now let’s just dump the kitchen sink in there.”
Yeah, that ending… that’s a really bold decision, both on Mike’s part as the director and also in the script.
It was kind of the only way we knew how to do it. First of all, we knew when you’re doing the ninth movie in a franchise, you would be remiss if you didn’t at least attempt to put your own most personal interest in it. I think Jonathan Majors wouldn’t have taken that role if the story wasn’t crafted so that there the only road for them was to fight. They had to end with a friendly fate. That was the only way to have this story be a growth moment for Adonis.
You had a lot of fun with Majors as the villain. He basically pulls a Usual Suspects-like long con. How was that writing to character?
Oh my God, it was fun, bro. First of all, I didn’t know how therapeutic it would be.
Therapeutic in what way?
Well, he’s sort of this manifestation of the opportunity cost in America for black athletes. For any aspirational black male in America, there is this shadow figure who is representative of all the opportunities that had to be lost for you to get yours. We joked about him in the room as the worst version of “Hey, put me on, bro.”d
I think that’s the spectrum, right? You bust your ass in whatever you’re in, and you fucking make it, but no matter what, you’re [closing] the door on 15 other kids. I think that that’s what makes Adonis’s relationship to success different from Rocky’s. Rocky doesn’t tell that story necessarily because he doesn’t think about it, whereas Adonis, that’s all he can think about.
This is the first in the series that doesn’t have Stallone in it. Was there trepidation around that—or were you excited to have more story to devote to Adonis?
We established a working collaboration on that first [Creed] movie. I think Sly went through a bunch of personal stuff on this film that had nothing to do with the movie. I think what happened was he was thrust into the limelight over a movie that he wasn’t a part of that kind of brings him into the narrative [around it] unfairly.
You feel powerless a little bit because you want to defend your friend and defend your collaborator, but it’s never that simple. Ryan is really close to all these guys, and Ryan is really good at being an olive branch between people, and he sequestered us from any sort of weird shit in the room and really just made it about the story. And we crafted a story where Stallone could fit if it came down to it.
You’ve been with Mike for so much of his career. Seeing him in this director mode, what was one one moment on set where you really saw him in that different light?
So the day I hung up the phone and said, “He’s a director now,” was the day he told me to go fuck off over a decision. Which was not a bad thing. Writing is [about making] decisions, everything is A or B, left or right. We all said left, and Mike was adamant that it was right. Directing is small battles, big battles, and how big you make them. I remember that day he was like, “We’re going to do this. Thank you. Moving on.” I was like, “All right, cool. We’re in good hands.” You know what I’m saying?
A big story beat in this movie are the flashbacks and the repeated references to his and Dame’s time in the junior correctional facility. At a certain point, especially when whatever happened there begins to manifest in how Adonis parents his own child, it seems as if you guys are teeing up a revelation of some kind of abuse. Eventually it’s revealed that it was a guard beating them, but I wondered if in the script phase you did consider pulled back on a different kind of abuse, because obviously the franchise has to uphold its own images of masculinity…
All right, so we’re writers. We start everything literally. Creatively, again this story was about the warrior in the garden, right? Adonis finds himself in the garden, and he’s in this position where he is now unpacking why he started fighting in the first place. The reason that’s such a vulnerable feeling, this is something that I learned recently in my life: most people don’t punch each other. No joke, I had to learn that in therapy as an adult. The people that punch each other to solve their own feelings are the people who are so afraid of their own emotions that they have to fight.
The truth is that we knew at Adonis’s core he has this great wound where he was victimized. Instead of leaning into the specificity of it, which you feel inclined and empowered to do just as a person, a creator, we found it was more fulfilling to put the onus on this shared victimhood that they have, and how it changed them. How it became a wall in between them, which is what happens to these kids, all your emotions become a lie after that, because you’re lying to yourself, telling yourself, suck it up, that you’re okay.
Then when you try to venture into manhood, you’ve been lying to yourself about what your emotions are so you’re just not prepared for it. We wanted to portray that through the lens of Blackness, and that’s why you have a fight at the end. But to your point: We wanted to make it very clear this is what they went through, and that Adonis would fucking rather die than talk about it. We thought, performance wise, leaving that room for Adonis to emote was the best thing. Just like that’s Blackness right there, bro, right? Even on your fucking worst day, the one thing we just can’t do is admit that we got victimized.
It holds everything together, so letting go is too much sometimes. And to your point, you’re collaborating with people—a big portion of these films’ fanbase, you want to challenge their perceptions of masculinity, but you want to do it in a way that leaves it up to them to put A plus B equals C.
Changing gears: The decision to kill off Phylicia Rashad is crazy.
All right, so I feel bad because I fought for that scene. For me, the scariest thing about becoming a man, especially a Black man, is being cut off from all your guidances, right? So Adonis loses his mom, but really what it is is we kind of reveal in the process is what Mary Anne actually is to this story, which is, she is Adonis’s opportunity. She came and got this kid out of a jail cell when he was 10. It’s revealing that all the stuff that has to happen for a Black man to become successful, it’s almost like random shit has to happen.
And he has to have the determination of Rocky Balboa for that to work, and he has to have a famous name to get in a fight. All these things have to go right, and I think that when we have a moment of Adonis losing his mother figure that he’s sort of taken for granted,
Looking at you and your brother crafting this trilogy, is it almost like you guys are refracting your own come up in the entertainment industry?
Absolutely. That’s why these movies are so fulfilling to work on. They imitate life whether you like it or not. I think Sly knew that when he made these movies over years ago. There’s a reason Apollo is dressed like Uncle Sam in Rocky one.
Rocky is told through a boxing lens because to me it’s very much a story about America, right? He’s resigned himself to this lower class life, and he’s given this golden opportunity by a Black fighter, who’s dressed as Uncle Sam, right? That’s not random.
Apollo always represents opportunity. He’s that lightning rod a random bolt has to hit. And even with your work ethic to clutch success in America, it’s still going to be ephemeral because Rocky still goes wrong.
What are some other things you want to see with Adonis?
I would love to see him continuing to challenge his own masculinity. I would love that, bro, because that’s something that I have the luxury of doing just osmosis of working with Mike and Majors. They made a man out of me in a way that I don’t think I noticed while it was happening…. just because, bro, I don’t know if you’ve met Majors or not yet, but-
I have, yeah.
I never met a Black dude who felt all of his emotions so… not casually, but respectfully. Mike was the first actor I knew who was, like, a n-gga. I think the first day I met Mike, he came to my house in Richmond and shot hoops in the backyard with no security. I was like, “All right, I get you. I understand what kind of cloth you come from.” But Mike is the first guy I knew who cried and didn’t hide it.
I met Mike as a teenager. For where I was growing up, it probably saved my life. Then it kind of got me intrigued in studying my own theory of mind just because if these big tough ballplayers could do it too, I wanted to.
So, Creed IV is greenlit. Jake Paul for the villain?
I can see that being cool because Jake Paul represents a part of that story. Think about this: Not him as a person, but the figure of a character who can, to get technical, do what Adonis did. He didn’t have any real fights. He stepped in that ring and took a payday. I think if you were to tell that story, it’s got some connective tissue. You could get really crazy and still stay on brand.