The craziest thing about the Rocky/Creed franchise is the range. There are notable Oscar wins (Best Picture for the original), and appearances by Hulk Hogan and Mr. T, and franchise-killing abominations that shut the whole thing down for over a decade. There is an unlikely spinoff that rebooted the franchise in a fresh way, and there’s a movie about a fight with an indestructible Russian that should be shown in college courses about the Cold War. It’s really pretty wild. Stallone has been playing this character for something like 40 years now over eight films. Think about that for a few minutes sometime.
Below, please find an attempt at ranking all eight films. This ranking is fluid and based on a number of factors, some of which I may value more than you. That’s okay. You can make your own list or yell at me or do both. Or neither. You really have a lot of options here. Pretty big opportunity for you. I wish you the best.
8. Rocky V
Rocky V is almost universally regarded as the worst film in the franchise. There’s a pretty decent reason for this: It is bad. It’s frustrating that it’s bad, too, because it was the first movie to really tackle the consequences of being Rocky. It has a formula that loosely follows the one that worked later in Creed: Rocky is in the dumps and has health problems and training a hungry young fighter helps him deal with it. I think it was just too soon to see Rocky beaten and broken down — and just broke — like that. It also didn’t help that it came out five years after Rocky IV but took place shortly after that movie. Or that the big fight was Rocky whomping on his ex-protege in the street. It just didn’t work in a lot of ways.
The best thing you can say about it, historically, is that it makes for a really easy jumping off point for rankings like these. “Okay, so I’ll slot Rocky V in here in last place and then work from there” said everyone ranking Rocky movies, including me, about 20 minutes ago. I do appreciate this attempt to simplify my job.
7. Rocky II
Maybe I’m alone on this. I probably am. But… how much of Rocky II do you honestly remember, right now, off the top of your head? Because I don’t have a lot up there and I’ve seen the movie on basic cable at least eight times. There’s the run through Philadelphia, of course, and the rematch against Apollo, but… that’s about it. It’s just not as memorable as the other films in the franchise, for good reasons and bad. Later films added flashy co-stars and huuuuge plots in ways that burn holes into your brain. Rocky II, today, many years later, feels like the most forgettable film of the lot.
6. Rocky III
Rocky III, on the other hand, is decidedly not forgettable. There’s an appearance by Hulk Hogan (“No one can believe the superhuman strength of Thunderlips!”), and a villainous Mr. T as Clubber Lang (“My prediction… pain”), and a California training montage that featured Rocky and Apollo sprinting on the beach and then hugging in the surf like two brothers who had just been reunited after an invading army separated them as children. Go watch that montage again if you haven’t in the last year or so. It’s incredible.
I’ll hear you out if you want to argue Rocky II is a better movie. I’ll nod and listen and maybe even concede most of your points. You are probably right, to be honest. It’s just that Rocky III is more rewatchable and a little silly and, while those may not be important factors in your own personal rankings, they are in mine. I mean, how many other sequels to Best Picture winners feature Hulk Hogan throwing people out of a wrestling ring like sacks of dirt? Not enough, in my book.
5. Rocky Balboa
The thing about Rocky Balboa is that it had no business being as good as it was. The plot of the film, on paper, sounds insane. A computer simulation shows that Rocky (in his prime) would beat the current heavyweight champion. The champ gets mad about it. The PTI guys holler about it. Rocky does the whole “Ay, you know, I dunno about all that, I mean, ay” thing. Then, boom, they actually do the fight. Sylvester Stallone was 60 years old and it had been over 15 years since Rocky V and I don’t think anyone was really asking for it, and yet, there it was and it was pretty good.
Not great, for the record, though. I wonder if a chunk of the good vibes I feel with this movie are a product of the way they set up what came later with Creed. It was our first real introduction to Wise Old Weary Rocky, who has proven to be a much more charming character than I ever would have expected. Also, it features the Hurtin’ Bombs speech from Duke, which I will now blockquote in its entirety.
You know all there is to know about fighting, so there’s no sense us going down that same old road again. To beat this guy, you need speed – you don’t have it. And your knees can’t take the pounding, so hard running is out. And you got arthritis in your neck, and you’ve got calcium deposits on most of your joints, so sparring is out.
So, what we’ll be calling on is good old-fashioned blunt force trauma. Horsepower. Heavy-duty, cast-iron, piledriving punches that will have to hurt so much they’ll rattle his ancestors. Every time you hit him with a shot, it’s gotta feel like he tried kissing the express train. Yeah! Let’s start building some hurtin’ bombs!
That’s a really good speech.
4. Creed II
It’s a little tricky to place Creed II at an appropriate place in this list. I’ve seen most of the other movies three or four times, at least, and I’ve only seen this one once, a few days ago. I liked it, for sure, especially in the moment. I liked seeing Apollo Creed’s kid fight Ivan Drago’s kid. I liked that it humanized Drago and I liked that Adonis had to work through his own issues with abandonment and fatherhood and other serious issues that don’t get folded into many big blockbuster action movies. That was nice.
But it did feel, in parts, like the movie was playing Rocky’s greatest hits. The nostalgia was thick, from bringing back Drago to bringing back the “well let’s just go train in a barren environment with whatever stuff is lying around” montage to bringing back the plot about our hero training for The Big Fight while his partner deals with a potentially difficult pregnancy. It says a lot about this movie that, even with these issues, I still can’t wait to watch it 5-10 more times and I reserve the right to update these rankings when I do.
3. Rocky IV
I don’t care. I hear you out there, poo-pooing this, saying “Rocky IV is entirely too much and over-the-top in places and you only like it for the reasons that a person doing a serious evaluation of these movies would dismiss out of hand.” Hmm. Maybe. And again, don’t care. I love this movie. It’s ridiculous in a lot of ways and a lot of it — the montages, Rocky ending the Cold War with his fists and a speech, Rocky having a robot for some reason at the beginning — has been parodied over and over in the years since in ways that prevent it from holding up well.
But hot damn is this ever a fun, rewatchable movie and, as I mentioned earlier, that counts for a lot on my list. I would watch it right now if it were on television, especially if I turned it on at the part where Adrian screams at Rocky about the fight being suicide and Rocky proceeds to pout and reminisce while he speeds around Philadelphia in a Lamborghini as “No Easy Way Out” plays. I make no apologies for this.
Be honest here. When you heard someone was making a Rocky spinoff movie about Apollo Creed’s previously unmentioned lovechild, you were skeptical. You probably thought it was another example of reboot/remake/reimagining/continuation madness run amok. And then it came out and you saw it and you immediately denied ever saying any of those things because it was so good. It was so good. Michael B. Jordan and director Ryan Coogler made a movie that felt wholly new and original while folding in enough of the franchise’s history to make it recognizable. That’s no small task.
What’s your favorite part of Creed? There are a lot of options. The dirtbikes chasing Adonis as he runs through the streets, the fight choreography, the chemistry between Jordan and Tessa Thompson. All acceptable, as are other moments. I think my favorite part is the ring entrances for the final fight. Adonis walks in with a long slow single-shot that captures the hugeness of the moment while still feeling intimate and then Pretty Ricky comes in with damn fog machines and fire breathers. That’s how I want to show up everywhere now. Even, like, Applebee’s. The fire marshal will be so ticked off.
I’m sure I’m overvaluing this a bit because it’s the original and it won an Academy Award. I’ll cop to that. A big part of me wonders if Creed is actually better and if I’ll end up flipping these two at some point way in the future. It would almost be fitting, right? A spinoff made 40 years after the much-celebrated original dethroning the original would be some kind of longshot underdog story. Maybe it will happen in the sequel to this list.