As a cinephile that’s lived their entire life barely an hour outside of Philadelphia, it’s almost in my blood that I have to love the Rocky films. They’re collectively the archetypical tale of the little guy triumphing in the face of adversity, the American Dream come true, the story about how a nobody became a somebody and proved time and time again that they had what it took to achieve greatness. The Rocky films are engrained in American culture: drive past the Philadelphia Art Museum on any given day and I guarantee you will see people recreating (or trying to anyway) his iconic dash up the stairs. “Eye Of The Tiger” is the pump up sports song and the Rocky score itself is instantly recognizable. Rocky III gave us Mr. T’s iconic catchphrase about who he pities. Stallone cast the rising pro wrestling star Hulk Hogan as the ultimate man Thunderlips. “Yo Adrian!” is something Stallone still hears at least once a day. And, to this day there’s a statue of Rocky outside the Art Museum in Philly. People love these films, and rightfully so.
For years, I struggled with which of these films was my favorite. As a child it was Rocky IV, likely due to Dolph Lundgren’s menacing role as the Russian juggernaut Ivan Drago, a villain that instantly struck a chord with me. As an adult its…well…you’ll see. Since Creed III recently arrived in theaters I’ve been thinking about where I would place each of these films so without further ado, here is my definitive ranking of the films in the Rocky universe.
- Rocky V-for years I truly believed this film was irredeemable, the last gasp of dying franchise wheezing as the final drops of vitality were squeezed out of it. I still think it’s the weakest of the franchise, and for good reason: unlike the rest of the franchise, this film feels extremely dated. Even the prior film which featured the tail end of the Cold War as a central plot point doesn’t feel as dated as this. Maybe it’s the weird early 90s hip hop version of the classic Rocky score. Maybe it’s the a tad past the expiration date versions of Don King and Mike Tyson in the characters of Union Kane and George Washington Duke. Maybe it’s the use of the fighter of the month Tommy Morrisson as Tommy “The Machine” Gunn. Either way, this film just doesn’t have the pizazz of any of the prior entries. It seems to be obsessed with moving past Rocky as a superstar and returning him to his roots and leans heavily on the dream presence of Micky, who at this point had been dead for two films. Even the flashbacks of Mick at the very end telling Rocky to “get up, you sonofabitch cuz Mickey loves ya!”, which by all rights should have the likes of me, king of the softies, moved to tears just felt flat and insincere. I will say that the film does succeed on two fronts: first, it presents us with literally the first time Paulie doesn’t come off as absolutely unlikeable. While Rocky is busy with training Tommy Gunn, his son feels left out. Paulie takes him under his wing and begins training him to fight, out of nothing but the goodness of his heart. It’s a touching moment for a character whose central personality trait was being wholly unlikeable, and it’s kind of referenced later in Rocky Balboa when Rocky Jr. shows up at his dad’s restaurant and kisses Paulie on the cheek to greet him. And secondly, the character arc of Tommy Gunn is sort of fascinating when you look at it as Rocky gone wrong. Tommy is everything good about Rocky: he’s driven, he’s hungry, he’s got a ton of passion. But he’s also everything Rocky isn’t, he’s easily swayed, lacks the heart that Rocky has and most importantly he fights not for the sake of the sport but merely for the fame. He’s rightfully called out after beating Union Kane for being a “paper champion” who might have the title but lacks the heart and character that made Rocky great. Other than that, thought his movie is woefully underwhelming. Rocky Jr. is a caricature of a rich kid fish out of water, the climactic fight feels laughable, and overall, it just feels like a shrug of a movie.
- Creed II-this film came so close to being great it hurts. Had the first time we see Ivan Drago been when he shows up at Rocky’s restaurant unannounced, I truly believe that would’ve been the first time we meet Gus Fring in Breaking Bad level great, or Edward Norton turning the bullshit off in Primal Fear. Instead, by the time that scene occurs, we’ve already seen Drago and his son several times, and we already know where it’s going. There are bright spots here and there: the film humanizing Ivan Drago as a man who cares more for his son’s well-being than he does for his own legacy is an interesting choice. And the further exploration of Rocky’s guilt over Apollo’s death is absolutely compelling. But honestly, I think Adonis facing the son of the man who killed his father in the second film of the franchise felt a little rushed. It was like Superman fighting Doomsday in the second film of the DCEU: you save your best villain for last, not in the second film of the franchise. And not only that, but the film is also just kind of lackluster as whole. Viktor Drago isn’t a bad opponent, and his desire to redeem the honor of his father’s name isn’t the worst motivation a character can have, but it felt like this film just rested on the laurels of having a Drago fight a Creed again instead of trying to make something interesting.
- Rocky IV-ah yes…the film that singlehandedly ended the Cold War. Also, the first Rocky film I ever saw. Ivan Drago might not be the most fleshed out or complex opponent in the franchise, but he’s certainly the most terrifying. A hulking blonde slab of muscle that looks like Richard Spencer’s wet dream, Drago is a juggernaut of a man who in minutes brutally decimates one of the most beloved characters in the entire franchise (and moments after a jaunty James Brown number!) In hindsight this film isn’t really all that great, but it still has a few standout moments, including my favorite montage in the entire franchise: Rocky remembering all his failings and all the times Apollo helped him set to Robert Tepper’s absolute banger “No Easy Way Out”. And, again, Dolph Lundgren is fucking frightening as Drago. Literally every word the man speaks (all, what, fifteen of them?) is dripping with menace. And I’m not even talking about the famous “if he dies, he dies” line. For me, his scariest moment is right before he and Apollo fight: the ref tells them to touch gloves, and when Apollo tells him “it’s time to go to school” and goes to pound gloves with him Drago’s gloves don’t even fucking budge, and as the first look of ‘oh fuck what am I doing’ begins creeping over Apollo’s face Drago coldly intones “you will lose”. And then, you know, beats him to death inside of two rounds. Also, can we appreciate the brilliant manic energy Tony Burton brings to this film as Duke Evers? Him screaming “he’s not a machine! He’s a man! You want it more than he does! NO PAIN!!!” into Rocky’s face after Rocky busts Drago’s eyebrow open is fantastic. It’s also worth mentioning that this is the only film in the franchise where Rocky isn’t fighting to prove anything: his fight with Drago is pure vengeance, an attempt to break the man who killed his best friend. There’s no proving anyone wrong, there’s no showing someone he’s got what it takes to go the distance. It’s just straight violence in the name of revenge and there’s something glorious about that in a franchise that is more about the triumph of the spirit than it is about triumph over an opponent.
- Creed-this movie is a fascinating examination of legacy, and how we can oftentimes live in the shadow of someone we never met and never really knew. Creed introduced us to Adonis Johnson aka Adonis Creed, the bastard son of one of Rocky’s best friends Apollo Creed. Born shortly after his father is literally beaten to death by the human monolith Ivan Drago, Adonis has lived his entire life simultaneously trying to live up to his father’s legacy while trying to forge ahead on his own merits. He’s obsessed with becoming a championship boxer (like his father), but he’s also obsessed with doing so without the name recommendation. And, along the way, Rocky finally forgives himself for letting Apollo get his head caved in by Drago all those years ago. Michael B. Jordan excels at fleshing out a character clearly wrought with pain over never knowing his dad but lacking the emotional mechanism to really deal with that anguish, and the relationship he forges with Rocky is genuinely touching. Plus, we get a breakdown of the word “jawn” and celebrated Cinepunk Liam “Brass Tacks” O’Donnell can be seen in the background of one of the shots.
- Rocky Balboa-say what you will about this film is just Stallone’s attempt at putting the franchise to bed on a better note than Rocky V. Go ahead and call it a cash grab, a shameless example of early-aughts nostalgia run amok, a film absolutely lacking in self-awareness in its depiction of a figure that’s past their prime propping themselves up for one last go of things. If you feel that way about his movie, I get it. But…I still love it. For a movie that came out at the peak of the millennial obsession with nostalgia, nothing about this film rings as insincere. Rocky’s pet turtles grown to the size of dinner plates. Here for it. Spider Rico working in the kitchen of Adrien’s? Yes please. I love all of it. Well…maybe not Little Marie coming back. But whatever. And Mason “The Line” Dixon isn’t exactly a top tier Rocky opponent, and the match at the end is just whatever, but the story around the match, of Rocky getting rid of “that stuff in the basement” and proving to the world he’s still got it, is so compelling it’s totally cool he has a mediocre opponent. Plus, not only does this film have this awesome life lesson, it also has one of my absolute favorite bits of dialogue in any movie ever (and honestly one of Sylvester Stallone’s best moments) that is not only a peek into the inner turmoil Rocky has been feeling in the years since Adrien passed, but it’s a rare moment of vulnerability between two lifelong friends trying to figure out where things went wrong and how they can make them right again. It’s a moment of tenderness between two men who have lived on the harder side of life, and it gets me in the soft stuff every time. Overall, it’s a film that unlike Rocky V is competent and knowingly self-referential, a farewell note from a beloved character that has proven he had enough gas for one more round at making us stand up and cheer.
4.Creed III-okay so hear me out: you’re asking yourself ‘why is the most recent entry in the Rocky franchise this high up? You’re putting it above Rocky IV? Really? Yes really. Creed III is a fantastic movie and I’ll go to bat and say Damian Anderson is the most well written opponent in the entire franchise; he’s not a caricature like Clubber Lang, he’s not a walking monosyllabic beast like Ivan Drago, and he’s not all glitz and glamour like Apollo. Anderson has gone through real shit and has a legit axe to grind with Donnie. He is to Donnie what Tommy Gunn was to Rocky: the weird Jungian shadow that represents the inversion of what’s good into something frightening and dark. He was someone with the future ahead of him, and suddenly his best days were behind him and he was a nobody struggling for a seat at the table. And for a series of films that are based on the concept of legacy, Creed III is the only one that presents our hero as fallible; Donnie legit ran out on his best friend when he needed him most and left him to rot in jail for almost twenty years and is still the one who got the shot at greatness. Dame is, in a very real way, how Donnie could’ve turned out if not for who his father was. It’s a story about how a name can make our break you. Sure, in the first Creed film Donnie rightfully wants to fight under his mother’s name, but Dame isn’t entirely wrong that Donnie only got where he got because of his name and that maybe he hasn’t earned all of the glory he’s got. Which, you cannot say about Rocky or even Dame himself. The climactic fight is one of the most interesting cinematic boxing matches I’ve seen outside Raging Bull, and the epilogue with Donnie and Dame making amends is genuinely touching. Jonathan Majors being an asshole in real life aside, I really loved this movie.
- Rocky-the movie that started it all, the story of a fighter with an iron jaw and an unbreakable will who just needed one shot to prove to the world he was more than a bum from Philly who knew who to throw (and take) a punch. A rags to riches story about a nobody who’s given a chance at the big time, and most importantly a rather poignant story about how winning isn’t everything. Rocky might have lost that first fight to the judges, but he proved what he set out to do, something that no one else before had ever done: go the distance against Apollo Creed, the greatest fighter in the world. That’s all that Rocky wanted, to prove to himself that he could do it. And he did it. This movie might not be my favorite of the franchise, but goddamn when Rocky lands that first punch and puts Apollo down for the first time in his career and Apollo realizes Rocky came here to fucking fight, it’s golden. Duke Evers might have known Rocky meant business the whole time, but when Apollo realizes it the look on his face is priceless.
- Rocky II-Rocky II feels almost meta in the sense that it was a movie trying to prove that the success of the first film wasn’t a fluke by telling the story of a man who’s trying to prove his success in the first fight isn’t a fluke. It doesn’t deviate too far from the first one, except we see a more serious side to Apollo Creed, who privately admits it wasn’t so much that Rocky got lucky but more that he himself wasn’t taking the fight seriously. Unlike the first film where he isn’t so much villainous as he is a bit of an asshole, in this film he is out to ruin Rocky and absolutely is a villain. We also get some top tier Mickey lines in this movie (him quietly badmouthing southpaws, him admonishing Paulie and Rocky for talking about women while Rocky’s trying to train, him threatening to chop Rocky’s arm if he switches back to southpaw too soon, his unhinged “we need speed speed is what we need” speech while illuminated by the projector). It’s also a movie about Rocky doubting his own ability to recreate a great fight. You get the feeling that maybe he himself believes it was a fluke and that maybe he is just some pug who got lucky once and now his best days are behind him. Either way, the final fight between him and Apollo is amazing. Every single time, and I mean literally every time I watch this film, when he and Apollo go down at the same time, I am on my feet like this is a real fight, and when Rocky beats the ten count but Apollo doesn’t, I want to scream with joy.
- Rocky III-and here we are…my favorite Rocky jawn. Maybe it’s because this has one of the saddest scenes in film with Mickey’s death, or maybe because it was the first Rocky that wasn’t a rehash of the first one, but this movie just hits hard for me. It’s not just a story about how success can corrupt an athlete (or in Mickey’s words make them tame) and it’s not just about someone completely re-inventing themselves to overcome another hurdle. I think the most appealing part of this film is that Rocky’s biggest opponent in it isn’t the cartoonishly evil Clubber Lang; it’s Rocky Balboa. After Mick’s death and his subsequent title loss, Rocky is lost. He has no faith in himself. He didn’t take Lang seriously and treated the whole thing as a joke and feels somewhat responsible for Mick’s death. The man with the unbreakable will has become a shadow of his former self. But instead of giving up, he digs deep and with the help of his one-time mortal enemy regains that inner fire, the eye of the tiger. He gets hungry again and then delivers my favorite rebuttal to an opponent trash talking when they touch gloves: Clubber vows to bust him up, to which Rocky replies, “Go for it.” Hard as fuck. He’s a man who feels like he’s lost everything and is ready to take it all back, and goddamn it feels good when he does. Talia Shire nails it as well with an impassioned speech to Rocky about how it’s okay to be afraid and that no matter what she still believes in him. And, as mentioned before, Mickey telling Rocky he loves him just before dying is top five saddest scenes in film for me. His death scene is so raw and unlovely and clumsy that it just gets you right in the soft bits. Burgess Meredith hanging on just long enough to ask how the fight went, and then dying believing that Rocky won is crushing. It’s such a sweet moment for a character who spent most of his time either berating Rocky for one reason or another or badly expressing affection for him.