Kramer Morgenthau of ‘Creed III’ on Director Michael B. Jordan and Crafting the Film’s Look

The third installment of the Creed franchise feels more rooted in the perspective of its protagonist than either of its predecessors. The departure of franchise mainstay Sylvester Stallone is one reason why; the shift to an issue affecting Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), not the dynastic drama his late father left behind, is another. In Creed III, Adonis is on his own. It’s the ending of a chapter. But it’s the prelude to a new era, a new icon, and a new legacy.

Creed III is also Jordan’s directorial debut. That, too, feels like something with one foot in the past and another in the future. Jordan has had an eye on the director’s chair for years. Still, he took his time getting there, gleaning all he could from filmmakers like Denzel Washington, longtime collaborator Ryan Coogler, and cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau. With Creed III, Jordan saw an opportunity to apply what he learned to a story he knew well.

“Michael wanted to bring his own voice to the franchise, and I think he very much did,” Morgenthau told me over Zoom. Creed III marks Morgenthau’s third project with Jordan: the duo became “fast friends” on the set of Fahrenheit 451, then reunited for Creed II. Even then, Jordan was curious about what goes on behind the camera. “He always had an interest in what I was doing in the cinematography. He’s always around the camera asking questions.”

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Director Michael B. Jordan, José Benavidez Jr., and Jonathan Majors on the set of Creed III (COURTESY: Eli Ade / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

So Jordan’s transition to the director’s chair doesn’t surprise Morgenthau in the slightest. “I feel like he’s been studying directors and filmmakers since he was a kid,” he continued. “He’s been on set since he was 16 years old, and he’s just absorbed so much over the years, and really paid attention to the camera. He’s closer to the camera than anybody, as an actor, so it was a natural segue when he decided to direct this movie.” Even from the outside looking in, Jordan seems uniquely qualified to tell the next chapter of Creed’s story. After living with this character for something like a decade, Morgenthau said, “[Jordan] knows Adonis Creed better than anybody else. He knows boxing extremely well at this point. He could probably be a professional boxer if he wanted to be. He totally was up to the challenge to be a director.”

For all Jordan’s passion and expertise, telling this story in a fresh and familiar way still posed a challenge. “You’re always trying to see what the last film was like and then what you’re going to do different and how you can make it better,” Morgenthau added. The new vision is probably best expressed through Creed III‘s major fight scenes, all of which were planned out, painstakingly, months in advance. Creed III’s stunt team, led by Clayton J. Barber and Eric Brown, worked closely with Morgenthau and the camera department.

“They shot previs [previsualization] of the boxing choreography with doubles, and we broke that down into shot lists,” Morgenthau explained. “Some things were storyboarded. And my camera operator, Mike Heathcoate, was embedded with the choreographers in the previs.”

Jordan and co-star Jonathan Majors then picked up the choreography from their boxing doubles. “They’re side by side matching their moves and then bringing in their own twist on it. Because it’s part performance, it’s part dance, it’s part violence, stunts, and fighting. It’s speaking with your fists.”

There’s an interesting relationship between dialogue and combat in the Creed films. So much is conveyed without words — it’s the reason why Adonis struggles to express his feelings in Creed III. He’s so used to speaking with his fists that his most meaningful conversations usually take place in the ring. In Creed III, these conversations feel more heightened than those in previous films.

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Jonathan Majors as Damian Anderson and Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Creed in Creed III (COURTESY: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

That has much to do with Jordan’s affinity for Japanese anime and the introduction of Majors’ antagonist, Damian Anderson. As kids, Damian and Adonis both dreamed of becoming world-famous boxing legends. Damian was on the fast track to realizing this dream before a violent altercation sent him behind bars. For 18 years, he’s watched Adonis essentially live the dream he envisioned for himself. When he resurfaces, he is a different man – the personification of a festering wound. The kinship he once shared with Adonis has been tainted by resentment, and he’ll stop at nothing to reclaim the life that was stolen from him.

Adonis and Damian’s fractured bond takes significant cues from shonen anime — a series marketed to teen boys that deal heavily with themes of masculinity. Several of these series focus on childhood friends who are also powerful warriors: think Naruto, My Hero Academia, or Hajime no Ippo. Not unlike Donnie and Dame, the characters in these shows communicate most effectively in battle. When they fight, time slows down; they ascend to a silent, spiritual plane to express themselves.

This profoundly earnest storytelling is rarely replicated in Western media. Though certain superhero films did establish a precedent for it, it isn’t easy to invoke in live action. Still, Jordan was determined to bring that sensibility to Creed III — but he couldn’t do so without first getting the crew on board with his vision.

“We watched a lot of anime,” Morgenthau mused. “Right from the very beginning, that was something he brought in as an influence and as a language that he wanted to bring to the filmmaking.”

Adonis and Damian’s fight in the Void is probably the clearest example of that anime influence in Creed III. Morgenthau called that fight “the ultimate statement” of the film: “It’s when the sound drops out, and the audience fades away, and they’re literally just two actors — two amazing actors — speaking with their fists, living out their childhood trauma, their childhood rivalry, on this ultimate stage.” It strikes a perfect chord between the primal and the ethereal and does a fantastic job of expressing the depth of their connection.

Jordan’s anime influence was also key to getting into Adonis’ head, particularly in his fight against old rival Ricky Conlan. It’s the match that opens the film and introduces something that Morgenthau calls “Adonis Vision.” Creed III prioritizes eyes; when Adonis is in the ring, though, there’s an even bigger focus on capturing his thought process. Morgenthau used “hyperreal” close-ups and a motion control camera to “get into his psychology” and depict it pre-visualization. “That was all anime language or our best interpretation of it.”

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Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Creed and Tessa Thompson as Bianca Taylor-Creed in Creed III (COURTESY: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

Capturing emotions outside the ring was equally crucial for Jordan and Morgenthau. Many of the film’s more intimate sequences take place at night, which called for inconspicuous, “natural” mood lighting in each set piece. In the age of terribly-lit prestige television and equally drab-looking blockbusters, one might expect Creed III to fall flat in these scenes. But Morgenthau is well-equipped to capture each performance while maintaining that “no light light” look.

Nor is Creed’s majority-Black cast ever once lost in the dark. Whether it’s a young Damian and Adonis driving through sleepy Los Angeles streets or the two characters all grown up and huddled around a fire pit in the dead of night, every emotion and every expression come across clear as day. It’s refreshing to see performances prioritized, especially in a film that emphasizes action. But the Creed films are also very much about emotion, and Morgenthau understands that well.

“I always start with a face and then how to light a face, a human face, and a performance,” Morgenthau said. “I think performance is everything in a dramatic movie. I think in today’s big box office movies, human drama has actually become more rare.”

It also doesn’t hurt that Creed III features some of the best actors in the game. “Actors [of] the caliber of Tessa [Thompson] who’s just amazing. And of course Michael and Jonathan Majors…you just want to watch these people and be a fly on the wall in their world. Part of it’s just staying out of the way and letting the performance dictate how it’s lit, and then also honoring the environments that they’re in.”

The Creed films will always be about legacy. Each installment shares DNA with the previous films, mainly concerning training montages. “The montage is one of the pinnacles of all Rocky movies,” Morgenthau said. Rocky wouldn’t be what it is without that iconic jog up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum. It set the bar high and threw down the gauntlet for the films that followed.

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Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Creed in CREED III (COURTESY: Ser Baffo / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

Ryan Coogler’s take on the montage peaked with an indelible image: Adonis sprinting down Philadelphia streets with the neighborhood at his back. Morgenthau told me that Creed II director Steven Caple Jr. “was obsessed with making the montage extraordinary, uplifting.” The montage in Creed III is Morgenthau’s second, and he and Jordan were determined to make it stand out. “It’s always like, ‘How do we do the montage? How do we top the last montage?’…We were constantly trying to figure out how to make the montage even better.”

Creed III splits the focus between Adonis and Damian as they gear up for their long-awaited match. “It’s these two characters, and they’re mirroring each other,” Morgenthau continued. “Each one is trying to best the other one in how they’re training.” Even after an 18-year stint in prison, Damian is in undeniably good shape. His relentless approach also poses a significant threat in the ring. Adonis, meanwhile, has been retired for years. There’s a question of whether he can still hold his own in the ring — especially with all the injuries he’s sustained — and whether he deserves the kingdom he’s built. Morgenthau and Jordan had to convey all this and more with few words, but their final image is as strong a statement as any.

“At the very end, we do this drone shot on top of the Hollywood sign,” Morgenthau said. “That was our take on Rocky I, where he is at the top of the steps and seeing Philadelphia around him. Now we’re in Hollywood, and it’s a whole different world.”

The shot could be the thesis for the entire film. On one hand, it’s a callback to the character’s time as an amateur boxer, fighting as Adonis “Hollywood” Johnson. On the other, he may have shed the moniker to take his father’s name in the first Creed, but that “Hollywood” sensibility is still within him – it’s precisely what sets Adonis apart from his mentors and rivals. To place Adonis at the top of the Hollywood sign is to establish his individuality anew. He’s come a long way from his formative brawls in group homes, training with Rocky in Philadelphia, and his first championship title. He owes a lot to his roots, though much has also changed. Creed stands on the shoulders of those who came before – and must conquer this new world alone.

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