Creed III Barely Mentions Rocky, And That's Okay

Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) is unsurprisingly the key figure in the "Rocky" franchise, as its central protagonist, its driving force, and with the franchise starting directly from Stallone's own brain. When the franchise first spun off into Ryan Coogler's "Creed," Stallone's fingerprints were still all over it. New character Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) is, of course, the son of Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), Rocky's antagonist-turned-friend who tragically died fighting Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) in "Rocky IV." The first "Creed" film sees Rocky mentor the up-and-coming young fighter, whose goal is to become the heavyweight champion of the world.

Stallone was also heavily involved in "Creed II," with Rocky training Adonis to fight Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), the son of the man who killed Apollo. There are high emotional stakes in a sequel that adds another great character to the expanding "Rocky" and now "Creed" universe. "Creed III" is now in theaters, and it's an action-packed directorial debut for franchise star Michael B. Jordan. The new movie introduces a memorable antagonist in Damian "Dame" Anderson (Jonathan Majors), but it also marks the curious disappearance of the franchise's most historically important figure, Rocky. It's a bit shocking to have a "Rocky" universe film without the man himself, but here's the thing: His absence actually makes narrative sense.

Rocky was needed for Creed 1 and 2

In a way, a "Creed" movie without Rocky (or the active involvement of Stallone) is certainly weird. On the one hand, he's had a presence in every aspect of the franchise so far, and the name Creed can't help but call to mind Apollo and his legacy. On the other, the Rocky character never really needed the "Creed" stories to fulfill his character arc. In "Rocky Balboa," a retired Rocky comes back to fight unpopular champion Mason Dixon (Antonio Tarver) in an exhibition match that becomes the real thing. The sexagenarian loses in a close match, a lovely echo of the end of "Rocky" and a satisfying closure to Rocky's story. 

The "Creed" films found a wonderful route forward and discovered new roles for Rocky to play beyond a slugger, but Rocky's story was yet again nicely wrapped up in "Creed II," especially after his hopeful reunification with his son. Rocky was a natural addition in "Creed" to support the son of his fallen friend, and the Drago connection in "Creed II" raised the stakes for both alike. Despite already having strong closure as a character, the filmmakers found ways to incorporate Rocky Balboa into the first two "Creed" films that felt organic to the overall story. But after "Creed II,"  Adonis no longer needed a mentor. It was time for the character to stand on his own two feet.

Adonis Creed needed to find the eye of his own tiger

The first two "Creed" films needed to deal with the legacy of Apollo Creed. The first had to handle Adonis' reckoning with his own name and the untimely death of his father, while the second found great dramatic weight in giving Adonis a kind of revenge against Ivan Drago, the man who killed his father, though a poetic rematch of sorts against his son. The next logical step in Adonis' journey is to contend, finally, with his own family, far removed from Apollo's shadow.

Joseph Campbell wrote that a common element of the archetypal hero's journey is the presence of a mentor who aids the hero's efforts to transcend their obstacles. One common, albeit inessential, element of this myth is the death of the mentor that symbolically moves the hero into true and final independence. Here, Adonis is forced to overcome the baggage from his own past, keep his own counsel, and transcend his own issues without Rocky's guidance. 

"Creed III" is the first franchise film in which Adonis is fighting struggles based in his own past, for his own ends, with his own guidance, and it's exactly the step his character needed. Adonis Creed needed a movie without Rocky's mentorship, and Rocky Balboa didn't need another "Creed" film for a satisfying arc (though it's still technically possible for him to return to a future franchise entry). It's the best of all possible worlds, and the franchise's future has never been brighter.