Are there any moments in cinematic history more exhilarating than hearing the "Rocky" theme song playing in full blast? Whether it's Rocky running up the steps of the Philadelphia's Art Museum, or the on-screen athlete's fighting his strength in the ring, rousing himself up — once again — for the fight?
I can't think of anything so instantaneously pulsating as hearing those musical notes working you up into a frenzy. And that's only a small silver of the indelible success of the Rocky movies, the career-making series that turned actor/writer/director Sylvester Stallone into a world-renowned superstar.
In terms of iconic films franchises, there are few series quite as rousing as the Rocky movies. And it's a cinematic legacy that continues to shine with the perpetually on-the-rise Michael B. Jordan at the forefront of 2015's Creed and 2018's Creed II, respectively. The series has come a long way since its early days, but their legacy has only rarely been tarnished.
Through thick-and-thin, they've picked themselves up and delivered one knockout after another. And in the spirit of celebrating the continued success of the Rocky and Creed movies, we're providing our ranking of the best in the series. The champions, if you will, that have stood the test of time and proven themselves victorious and acclaimed — especially compared to the low points.
Rocky hasn't won every time he's been in the ring, but he has earned a great deal of respect in addition to many lumps to the head. Let's take a look at the Rocky films that have become the best of the bunch, walking up the steps — or to the ring — to their ultimate glory. I hear that theme music now...
8. Rocky V
Every franchise has its low point. When it comes to the Rocky movies, it's undoubtedly Rocky V. While many Rocky movies are not without their respective faults, Rocky V is the first Rocky movie that feels like a complete disappointment, unable to capture the charm of its predecessors — in terms of grit, grime, cheese, heart or shine — and it's a poor, misguided attempt to bring the franchise back down to its more humble, realistic roots.
To its credit, the core components behind Rocky V seemed promising. John G. Avildsen, the Oscar-winning filmmaker behind the original Rocky, came back to take on directing duties again, and there was a clear effort from Sylvester Stallone as an actor and writer to bring the series back to its humble roots. Particularly after the extravagantly, gleefully, pompously over-the-top (in ways both good and bad) Rocky IV, the Rocky film franchise had clearly jumped the shark a bit.
For its first attempt to conclude the Rocky series, Rocky V's promising decision to make the title character totally bankrupt, emotionally astray and ultimately more family-focused was a promising one. Unfortunately, the sequel's execution was severely lacking for this round.
Making movies isn't an exact science. You can have the right people back and not return to your former glory. Ultimately, while Rocky V did take a few risks and tried to produce something that was true to the origins of the series and this character, the result was an emotionally shallow, falsely-felt film that didn't seem true to what made the predecessors so endearing — in both authentic and campy fashion.
The result is a conclusion that was far from appealing to Rocky fans; it was a knock-out in all the wrong ways. Thankfully, Sylvester Stallone went back and gave his most iconic character a more fitting and formidable finale later in life with Rocky Balboa and the Creed movies, because this sequel was from the winning finale the series deserved.
7. Rocky II
Perhaps my perception of Rocky II is a little cold? It has been awhile since I've seen it. And as far as Rocky sequels go, it's not the worst — as you can see by this ranking. It has a good heart, grand emotional gestures, some solid fight sequences, and it's clearly intended to give general audiences the ending they wanted the first time — even if it's removed of the heartwarming grace notes that came with the original's final beats.
But what sticks out about Rocky II is that it's reactionary — and not necessarily in a good way either. Specifically, it's Rocky with broader, more conventional ambitions.
Following the astounding success of the original, Best Picture-winning Rocky, Sylvester Stallone took on directing duties in addition to writing this sequel, providing audiences with a sequel that was meant to give them the one thing that wasn't found in the first movie. Specifically, Rocky beating Apollo Creed inside the ring. As far as sequels go, that's an okay idea, if you can still provide the gritty, emotional dramatic sincerity of the original. Unfortunately, compared to the first Rocky, Rocky II is severely lacking in that regard — most especially with how it handles Adrian's story this time.
Having Rocky become a family man makes perfect sense, and Rocky Jr. is a beautiful addition to the franchise provided by this sequel. Unfortunately, the decision to have Adrian fall into a coma due to the child's premature birth feels ill-advised, to say the least. Gone is the chemistry and the grounded charm of their relationship, one that served as the emotional core of the original movie.
While it does give Rocky the emotional drive to continue fighting and provide his mettle in the ring, this sequel is more about winning the heavyweight championship than it is recognizing that winning in life often means having the people you love be by your side, no matter what happens in the fight. Unfortunately, that's something overlooked in Rocky II.
6. Rocky IV
Here's the thing: Is Rocky IV a good movie? Not really, no. But is it entertaining as hell in its extravagant campy way? Absolutely. The third sequel in the Rocky series might not be the strongest sequel, but it's certainly the most memorable — and based on the success of the Creed movies, it is also be the most impacting to the franchise's legacy. Despite its multiple of flaws, IV really helped shape the future of the Rocky franchise in a major way.
In Rocky IV, the stakes have never been higher. It's not merely Rocky's championship on the line. It's not merely his late friend Apollo Creed's legacy that's on the line. No, it's America that's on the line, buddy.
With the introduction of Ivan Drago, a boxing superhuman that has been chemically made to be the most fit, effective boxer in the history of the sport, Rocky is in the thrust of the Cold War, battling for the proud state of America's hard-earned integrity while hoping to stay alive by all means necessarily. Rocky has a whole lot to prove to everybody, and he is going to make every punch count.
It's as cheesy as sports movie come, and it is completely devoid of the grounded grittiness and emotional integrity that was crucial to the original film's success. Yet, it's hard not to have a smile plastered on your face as you are watching this wildly ridiculous movie.
It's quite possibly the most '80s film ever made, and it prides itself of being of its time and place. There is still a retro charm to be found in Rocky IV, but when you think about how it ties into the Creed movies, Apollo Creed's death is given a resounding emotional honesty that ripples throughout the whole series. And there's a robot too.
5. Rocky Balboa
Once meant to be the final swan song for the Rocky saga, Rocky Balboa is often among the more forgotten titles in the Rocky franchise, and that's a shame. It had a quiet Christmas release back in 2006, and the reviews were generally strong — particularly for a Rocky sequel. Critics praised the film as a nice return-to-form for the series, it wasn't given a glowing response upon release. Over time, it has been overshadowed by the Creed movies, but Rocky Balboa does provide its own satisfying, emotionally-enriching conclusion to the long-winded boxing-based franchise — if only a temporary one.
In this fifth sequel, Rocky Balboa is older, gentler and more subdued. He is a widow, with Adrian having passed away in the intermediate time between Rocky V and this sequel, and Balboa is making peace with his final years running a restaurant named after his departed wife. But his connection with this son is a bit fraught, and he is plagued with grief and other personal demons.
This is decidedly a more downbeat, mature continuation to the franchise, one that is intentionally trying to harken back to the down-and-dirty success of the original. Then it comes time for Rocky to put himself back into the ring.
From there, Rocky Balboa does suspend belief a little bit, and I believe that this is the rare Rocky movie where the moments spend away from the boxing ring are actually stronger than the ones inside the square — though in the right moments, the boxing matches can be as exhilarating as before. But when I think back to Rocky Balboa, the scenes that stand out are not when a 50-plus-year-old Rocky is swinging physical punches to reclaim that former glory.
It's the emotional punches, like when he is at the grave sight, somberly recounting his emotional struggles to his wife's tombstone, or when the aged athlete tries reconnect with his adult son, played by Milo Ventimiglia. For the first time since the original, it's the dramatic moments that stand out. While it doesn't result in the finest Rocky movie, it was a bittersweet, surprisingly touching send-off, until Creed came along nine years later.
4. Creed II
The newest addition to the Rocky saga, Creed II had a great many expectations to live up to — much like Adonis Creed himself stepping in the ring to defend his late father's honor. It's the sequel to the shockingly phenomenal 2015 spin-off/sequel Creed, which found the Rocky series given new life as the character metaphorically passed the torch — or, rather, the boxing gloves — to the next generation.
It was an incredibly impacting, deeply investing return to the ever-extended Rocky franchise, while also providing an emotionally-gripping, narratively-satisfying conclusion to the Rocky saga. Or, at least, one might think that would be the case.
Sylvester Stallone didn't direct this sequel, though he was once in talks to helm the picture, but he did return to co-write and produce this sequel, in addition to reprising his role as Rocky. The result is a sequel that can be a bit lopsided in its focus.
The narrative is still centered around Adonis Creed, and similar to Rocky II, it finds the boxer starting a family life and hoping to reclaim his glory while fighting Viktor Drago, the son of Dolph Lundgren's Ivan Drago, i.e. the man who killed Apollo Creed, Adonis' father, inside the ring. But caught in this story is Rocky's own journey, with the actor/writer trying to give Rocky yet another conclusion, even though both Rocky Balboa and Creed already provided the actor some ample time to say goodbye.
Ultimately, Sylvester Stallone's involvement is both to the film's benefit and detriment. While Rocky's story does get in the way of telling the continuing adventures of Adonis Creed, his mentorship throughout the second half of the film is often key to its emotional success.
Through Rocky's commitment and loyalty to his late friend and his revenge-driven son, we get to see the layers through which this sequel is given more complexity and nuance than most of the Rocky sequels — including Rocky II —were able to find. Particularly when Creed II also spends time focusing on the hard-knocked lives of the Dragos, which is one of this sequel's most unexpected, yet surprisingly great, additions — even if, in the scheme of things, their story is cut down.
Creed II is a bit too long, particularly for such a predictable story, and it's clear that a good amount of the story was cut down to keep things focused. Unfortunately, that often means that the Dragos' scenes are lost on the editing room floor, which is a shame since Dolph Lundgren's performance is surprisingly quite good here, conveying the hurt and the guarded emotional insecurity that comes from his devastating loss to Rocky decades earlier.
It's additions like these moments that make the Creed movies even better than the Rocky sequels that came before it. If they make another Creed movie, I hope we can have more scenes like these quietly devastating and emotionally resonant subplots. Perhaps they'll come when Stallone leaves.
3. Rocky III
Now, when you rank movies, there is always going to be personal preference on some things. I don't know how convincingly I can argue with someone that Rocky III is one of the high points in the boxing franchise, but I'm going to make a valiant effort to make my case.
Unlike Rocky II, which tried to have it a little bit of both ways when it came to capturing some of the original's spark while also infusing some more broadly conventional story ticks, Rocky III leans heavily into the schmaltz and earnest goofiness that would shape the '80s sequels — without going totally overboard like Rocky IV did.
Having a larger-than-life presence like Mr. T (in one of his first cinematic roles and easily his most defining outside of The A-Team) in your movie might make it more heightened and bizarre than it should otherwise be. But in the world of competitive egos and showmanship like boxing, it makes perfect sense to have someone as lyrically menacing as Clubber Lang throwing around colorful insults at Rocky Balboa as if it were the WWE and not the boxing ring.
Again, it easily could've gone totally haywire. But it's a credit to Sylvester Stallone as an actor, writer and director that he recognizes how he can swing more heavily into the silliness and the sensationalism of this series, and provide a rousing sequel that's true to the spirit of the Rocky franchise.
I could go on about how Rocky III is probably the second-best Paulie movie in the Rocky series, in my opinion, or how it provides one of the most iconic endings in the franchise, but it's ultimately a really fun, really splashy, entertaining sequel that also allows a solid number of character beats to work in emotional punches as well. It's all-around a solid sequel, and it's got the Hulkster to boot. How much more do you need in a Rocky sequel?
In true underdog fashion, Ryan Coogler's extraordinary Creed came out of nowhere and became an undisputed champion. A surprisingly thoughtful, extremely well-acted and impeccably spin-off/sequel exploring legacy, perseverance, honor and stability, it was an incredible achievement and is a film that return to the themes and idealism of the original Rocky while also still respecting the impact of the Rocky sequels. The result is a compelling, layered and, above all else, resounding human look at a franchise that has often preferred broader theatrics after its initial success. It's the complete package.
So much credit needs to be given to director/co-writer Ryan Coogler. This deeply personal, intensely emotional studio film could've easily been another lazy, half-hearted attempt to rejuvenate the Rocky franchise. Instead, Coogler's second film is an impacting, engaging look at these iconic characters, and it's often Rocky's relationship with Adonis Creed, played by Michael B. Jordan, that packs the biggest punch.
As much as I love Jordan's romance with Tessa Thompson's Bianca in the film, it's ultimately the bromance between Creed and Rocky that works the best here. Their mentor relationship is filled with heart, nostalgia and quiet grace. For my money, this is Stallone's finest performance as Rocky Balboa to date. He was robbed of that Oscar.
It's hard to determine which film is stronger: Creed or Rocky? Ultimately, after a lot of back-and-forth, I've decided that Creed just barely falls into the second place category, but this successor is perhaps the best continuation of an iconic movie franchise one could hope to create in Hollywood today.
It's the movie that started it all. The truest underdog that worked against the odds to steal everyone's hearts, even if our lead character didn't ultimately win the big fight at the end. It's Rocky, the 1976 masterpiece starring and written by Oscar-nominee Sylvester Stallone in his career-making role.
It is a grounded, resoundingly human look at integrity and persevering, and serves as an authentic, affecting American dream fable that showcases one's deep drive to make something of themselves — despite their impoverished background — and to prove to the world they have greatness with them. As you can imagine, Rocky is a deeply personal movie for Sly Stallone, and it's impossible to imagine any other actor playing this role with the same astounding resonance.
In the wannabe boxer's attempt to work up the ladder and make a name for himself in the cruel, cold world of 1970s Philadelphia, Rocky is a layered and flawed, but instantly lovable title character who might not have the biggest brain in the whole wide world, but he has more heart than you can imagine. He has determination and then some to take on the top prize, and while it doesn't entirely work out on his favor, it is certainly not for a lack of trying.
Beyond the boxing matches and the great motivating montages and the deeply quotable lines from Paulie, Rocky's mentor and trainer, it's ultimately Rocky's relationship with Adrian that really makes Rocky such a great and everlasting movie. Through their hard-luck relationship, there is a beautifully human relationship between them, one that is emotionally felt and sincere in its presentation.
For all the blows and punches thrown throughout the film, what ultimately makes Rocky such a great movie are those final moments, when a wounded, near-blind Rocky yells for Adrian, his lasting love, and the knowledge that she's ultimately by his side is what matters most to this fighter. Rocky might've lost the heavyweight, but he certainly won in the end.
Rocky hasn't always been on top. But through it all, thankfully Sylvester Stallone has kept his greatest character in the ring, fighting the good fight through ups-and-down and proving itself victorious more often than not. Often, I believe the magic of the movies is found within the Rocky movies.
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Will is an entertainment writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. His writing can also be found in The Playlist, Cut Print Film, We Got This Covered, The Young Folks, Slate and other outlets. He also co-hosts the weekly film/TV podcast Cinemaholics with Jon Negroni and he likes to think he's a professional Garfield enthusiast.