Rocky, the Oscar-winning film of 1976 that Sylvester Stallone wrote and starred in, created a franchise that not only dominated the 70s and 80s but also gave rise to the fun and successful Creed saga.
Rocky Balboa, also known as the “Italian Stallion,” went from being a down-and-out bum breaking thumbs for gamblers to becoming the world heavyweight boxing champion, while fiercely fighting for opportunities he had never dreamed of.
Since 2015, Michael B. Jordan has starred in the Creed sequels as Adonis “Donnie” Creed, the son of the tragically slain former champion Apollo Creed. With Creed III now in theaters worldwide, it’s time to rank all the Rocky movies.
The Rocky movies have evolved from serious sports dramas into full-fledged superhero stories with high stakes, action, and thrilling premises. This evolution was fitting for a franchise that began in the 70s and transitioned into the 80s. On the other hand, the tone and trajectory of the Creed films are more in line with Rocky Balboa, the 2006 sequel that aimed to offer a sadder and more realistic vision while giving Rocky a better ending than Rocky V did in 1990.
Ryan Coogler’s Creed brought together all the pieces from its predecessors, even the ones with disparate tones, and delivered an emotional knockout. So, which has been the best installment of the franchise? Which is the weakest link? Let’s use our Eye of the Tiger and uncover the true hierarchy of the Rocky/Creed legacy.
Rocky V (1990)
Rocky V, which had the longest gap between Rocky movies at that time (five years), attempted to bring the story back down to earth after the wildly enjoyable but somewhat absurd Rocky IV of 1985. The original Rocky director, John G. Avildsen, returned to recapture the original magic. The story saw Rocky returning to his humble roots in Philadelphia against his will, after his questionable best friend and unquestionable alcoholic, Paulie, squandered the Balboa fortune. With brain injuries preventing him from fighting to regain millions, Rocky chose to neglect his troubled son in favor of training a new boxing prospect, Tommy Gunn. None of this worked, and the audience rejected Rocky’s fall from glory.
Rocky II (1979)
We now enter the territory of “not bad movies per se, but they need to be ranked.” Rocky II is not terrible, but it largely feels like a repetition of Rocky, with the difference being that Rocky wins in the end and defeats Apollo Creed for the title. Like in the first film, Stallone’s character appears as a passive participant in his own success, as if he is living his life with Adrian when another shot at the title comes out of nowhere. This time, it doesn’t work as well, and you end up feeling more sorry for Carl Weathers’ Apollo, who is pushed towards the rematch by a combination of hateful messages and sarcastic sports journalists.
Creed II (2018)
Once again, we find ourselves in the “not bad movie” zone with Creed II, a film that sometimes feels more like a serendipitous occurrence than a genuine story, considering how much fans wanted a Creed/Drago generational rematch as soon as the first Creed movie hit theaters. But Creed II does the best it can with the premise of “Hey, Ivan Drago also has a son who boxes” while subjecting Adonis to many of the same sequel tropes that Rocky went through after his first movie (marriage, baby, humiliating loss, etc.). It was almost like a mixtape of the Rocky sequels. That said, the most surprisingly touching elements come from the Drago side and the relationship between Ivan from Rocky IV (Dolph Lundgren, who returns) and his towering son Viktor (Florian Munteanu).
Rocky Balboa (2006)
Sixteen years after Rocky V, Stallone returned with Rocky Balboa, a much better version (and supposed final chapter) than Rocky V. With Rocky Balboa (which Stallone directed for the first time since Rocky IV in 1985), we had one of the first notable legacy sequels, helping to firmly establish that subgenre while focusing on the franchise’s past (a trend now seen in everything from the Saw franchise to the Fast and Furious saga).
Moreover, this movie was really good and gave Rocky a final boxing match, something that Rocky V failed to deliver. In Rocky Balboa, Rocky’s current life isn’t going so well. Adrian just passed away, Paulie is still alive, and his relationship with Rocky Jr. is tense. Times are tough. But the story ends well, and Rocky finds a new surrogate family in an adult Marie. Rocky once tried to convince her to stop being a bum, while he himself was a bum, but he didn’t succeed, and now they are both bums.
Rocky IV (1985)
Rocky IV was pure mid-80s adrenaline. In the midst of the Cold War, the ruthless and calculating Soviet Union became the villain that Rocky had to overthrow after his former adversary-turned-comrade, Apollo Creed, died in the ring at the hands of super-soldier Ivan Drago during the latter’s “goodwill” exhibition match in the United States.
Rocky IV, the shortest and highest-grossing Rocky movie to date, didn’t have time to explore new emotional territories for Rocky himself. Not when there were Survivor songs to play and montages to show. The first act crackles, and Apollo’s death hits hard (just as hard as Drago’s own death), but then it becomes nothing more than a revenge movie. In fact, much of the hard, heartfelt work of this film is done in the Creed movies decades later. However, Rocky IV is exceptional for what it is, for what it intended to be, and as an interesting example of how much movies have changed over time. Also, “Burning Heart” is a better song than “Eye of the Tiger.” In the end, it’s all Survivor, but it had to be said.
Rocky III (1982)
Rocky III, the best of the pure Rocky sequels, has many gratifying elements: a great villain, a humiliated champion, a tear-jerking death, former enemies turned allies, a hugely popular song… it struck the perfect balance between what came before and what Rocky IV would become a few years later.
It also introduced two stars who would soon become absolute icons of the 80s and the first headliners of WrestleMania: Mr. T and Hulk Hogan. The story was more elaborate, the confrontation more wrestling-worthy, and the training montages brought 100% more jubilation with beach runs and tank tops, but the characters remained the same. The Rocky formula was perfected here. Even when Paulie was revealed to be an occasional racist, nobody was surprised.
Creed, directed by Ryan Coogler, is a triumph on all fronts. It features a captivating new protagonist who breathes new life and a fresh perspective into the decades-long story while serving as an outstanding continuation of Rocky’s narrative (and, as mentioned, addressing much of the emotional core that Rocky IV left untouched). Michael B. Jordan’s hot-tempered Adonis even echoes Rocky V’s Tommy Gunn, the last fighter Rocky agreed to train. So, in that sense, Creed also has elements that redeem Rocky V.
Jordan is sensational as a self-taught fighter torn between loving and hating the father who died in the ring before he was even born, while Stallone garnered an Oscar nomination for his return to the role of Rocky (his first nomination for the character since the original film in 1976), as he faces new struggles of his own. Coogler’s intimate directing style and the fight choreography delve deeper into the world than ever before, resulting in a film that will make you sob and cheer, sometimes simultaneously.
As Sylvester Stallone was not yet a big movie star, he had to fight to star in the screenplay he had written. Rocky instantly became a cinematic classic, not only winning the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars but also becoming the highest-grossing film of that year.
Obviously, Rocky’s training for his big fight, with the iconic theme song playing as he runs up the stairs, is legendary in the film world, as is the third act battle where Rocky goes the distance but nobly loses. But the movie goes beyond that. It is not so much a boxing film as it is the story of two neighborhood misfits (Rocky and Adrian, the shy pet store clerk played by Talia Shire) and their romance. Oh, and there’s also Adrian’s abusive and miserable brother Paulie, who will one day bring the entire family to ruin.
But ultimately, it’s a movie about two sweet dummies falling in love while destiny simultaneously conspires in the background to turn one of them into an unlikely American hero.
What are your favorite Rocky and Creed movies? Let us know!