This piece contains mild spoilers for “Creed II.”
In the third act of “Creed II,” the heavyweight champ Adonis Creed squares off in a rematch against Viktor Drago, the Ukraine-based boxer and son of the man who killed Adonis’s father in the ring three decades earlier. Bloodied and weary after several rounds — but ever the tenacious fighter — Adonis gathers the will to keep going with the encouragement of his coach and mentor, Rocky Balboa.
“I’m dangerous!” Adonis sputters through his swollen mouth, echoing the pronouncement he had given Rocky in an earlier scene, under vastly different circumstances.
It is the movie’s “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose,” the inspirational battle cry of the protagonist as he faces the challenge of his life. As said by the actor Michael B. Jordan, who delivers the line not with a guttural oomph but the eager-to-please fervor of a young kid hoping to impress his father, it doesn’t quite carry the intimidation the line seems to demand. Nevertheless, it is both endearing and invigorating — you just know Adonis is ready to conquer Viktor this time around.
It’s this moment that may help explain why, in the same year Jordan has received some of the most glowing reviews of his career for playing Killmonger in “Black Panther,” a debate has percolated on Reddit, Twitter and in everyday conversations among pop culture enthusiasts: Is Michael B. Jordan a good actor?
Where some see a fascinating interpretation of a supervillain, others see bad acting. Critics of Jordan say that he lacks the swagger and menace of the Killmonger character and that he appears to be reading off cue cards. (One of the movie’s most-discussed lines, “Just bury me in the ocean, with my ancestors that jumped from the ships — they knew death was better than bondage,” is usually held up as the prime example.) To some extent, I can understand these sentiments; like Adonis declaring himself “dangerous,” the idea of what Killmonger represents — a problematic, burn-it-all-down philosophy in the name of black empowerment — sometimes overpowers Jordan’s interpretation onscreen.
Still, the arguments made against his acting abilities more generally are perplexing: He doesn’t disappear into his roles (as Jamie Foxx did in “Ray”); he always plays the same character. Such critiques miss the point: Jordan has made it clear he desires to be a capital “M” Movie Star, along the lines of Will Smith (who himself has always been transparent about his box-office aspirations), not a character actor. “I want people to see me win,” he told The New York Times in a conversation alongside Denzel Washington earlier this year, adding, “I want to be the leading man.”
And there always have been actors who are considered great who aren’t chameleons like Christian Bale or Meryl Streep — you never forget you’re watching Denzel Washington, Leonardo DiCaprio or Cary Grant, but you are drawn in nonetheless.
Jordan’s strengths as an actor lie not in his ability to shock or scare or surprise — but in his willingness to be vulnerable and charismatic. These qualities have been evident as far back as his early breakthrough role as Wallace, a bright, baby-faced drug dealer in “The Wire.” Over the course of Season 1, Wallace looks after some of the younger abandoned children in the housing projects and experiences pangs of extreme guilt when his actions inadvertently lead to a murder. Jordan lent the character openness and sensitivity: He embodies the good-hearted kid who isn’t cut out for the ruthlessness of the drug trade, making his death at the hands of his childhood friends — and his pleas to them in those final moments — that much more heartbreaking.
In “Fruitvale Station” more than a decade later, his first major star turn and first collaboration with the director Ryan Coogler, Jordan portrayed Oscar Grant III, a young man who was killed by a police officer in Oakland, Calif., without painting him as a saint.
In one scene, we see Oscar interact with three people over the course of just a couple of minutes, and his demeanor shifts seamlessly between each exchange. He pleads with the manager of the grocery store where he once worked to rehire him, but quickly turns angry and combative when rebuffed, revealing Oscar’s desperation under dire financial straits. Left alone in the aisle, the camera lingers briefly on Oscar, contemplating the severity of his situation, before the voice of a woman he assisted earlier breaks through to thank him for his help; here he effortlessly turns on the charm. Finally, he greets his friend working the deli counter with a warm, genial familiarity, and lies about having convinced the manager to give him his job back.
As he finally exits the store and turns away from his friend, his smile fades, and a sense of helplessness washes over his face. These are subtle exchanges, but engrossing nonetheless — a brilliant, succinct depiction of everyday code switching, and it works mainly because Jordan carries it off so well.
“Creed II” takes the idiosyncrasies Jordan has honed in his onscreen persona throughout the course of his career and fully reveals the kind of actor he is capable of becoming. If not as surprisingly profound as its immediate predecessor, “Creed,” the latest “Rocky” installment portrays Adonis as an underdog despite being a heavyweight champ, a celebrated fighter who still has much to prove. He’s handsome and lovable, but not necessarily smooth, as seen in a lighthearted moment where Adonis nervously asks Bianca to marry him. He feels unsatisfied by his success.
In “Creed II,” Jordan shows how he can translate an array of emotions with just a look. When Adonis and Bianca await the results of a test for their newborn daughter, Jordan displays anxiety, fear and an overwhelming sense of sadness at the recognition of what may be ahead for his family.
Giving such a performance in a crowd-pleasing sequel positions Jordan in the realm of other actors he has name-checked as having the careers he wishes to emulate: Washington, Smith, Tom Cruise and Leonardo DiCaprio. You can see a bit of each of those actors in Jordan’s career moves so far — the transition from troubled youth roles into hunky A-lister (DiCaprio in “The Basketball Diaries,” and later “Titanic” and “The Departed”); the prestigious boxing part requiring tremendous physical transformation (Washington in “The Hurricane” and Smith in “Ali”); ventures into the realm of sci-fi/fantasy (Cruise in “War of the Worlds,” “Minority Report”).
It’s rare these days for actors to open movies on the strength of their names and charming personas alone, but in developing a respected partnership with Coogler — like Washington and Spike Lee, and DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese — and starting his own production company to create the roles he wants, Jordan has molded himself into a performer who takes on prestigious projects that also play up his good looks.
Whether this leads down the path of Oscar nods — still Hollywood’s ultimate marker of having made it, however superficially — remains to be seen. But when he taps into his sensitivity, turns on the charm and lays his feelings bare in any given moment, he’s electrifying.