From Rocky To Creed 2: The Entire Rocky Series Ranked
By Dan Auty on
Before the modest, low-budget boxing drama Rocky hit theaters in 1976, Sylvester Stallone was just another an unknown actor with a few small B-movie roles to his name. Stallone's big advantage was that he could write as well as act, and the strength of his Rocky script--written in just a few days--allowed him to create a starring vehicle for himself. The huge box office and Oscar success of Rocky changed Stallone's career forever, and created one of the most influential sports movies ever made.
Inevitable sequels followed, and while they were never as popular with critics as the first movie, they continued to dominate the box office through the first half of the '80s. The failure of 1990's Rocky V seemed to end the run, and as Stallone moved on to the likes of Demolition Man and Cliffhanger in the '90s, it appeared that Rocky Balboa, like John Rambo, would remain a character only associated with the past decade.
Except that wasn't the end of the story. In 2006, Stallone decided to bring Rocky back for one last round. Rocky Balboa was his attempt to return the series to its roots as a gritty drama, rather than the ludicrous sports fantasies the '80s sequels had become. The movie was a hit, and was accepted by most fans as a welcome final chapter.
But like the veteran boxer himself, the series refused to stay down. In 2014 it was announced that rising filmmaker Ryan Coogler, who had received much acclaim for his powerful indie drama Fruitvale Station, was to write and direct Creed, a movie focusing on the son of Apollo Creed, Rocky's great friend and rival. And not only that, but Stallone himself would return to play Balboa, taking a supporting role in the series he created. The result--Creed--were better than anyone expected.
With Steven Caple Jr.'s Creed II now in theaters, the franchise is as strong as ever. Coogler and Caple Jr. have created movies that are vibrant, relevant, and designed to appeal to an audience who weren't around for the original films, but that also honor their legacy. Stallone deserves much credit too, for knowing to step aside and allow young, exciting filmmakers to take his creations and put their own spin on the formula he helped establish. Whether Adonis and Rocky return for Creed III or not, this remains one of the all-time great Hollywood series. And never bet against the Italian Stallion returning for another round. So here's our look at the entire Rocky series, ranked worst to best.
8. Rocky V (1990)
Everyone has their favorite Rocky movie--some folks love the heartfelt drama of the original, others the big commercial thrills of Rocky III and IV. But you'd be hard-pressed to find a fan who didn't think Rocky V was the franchise nadir. The movie is so bad it killed the series for over 15 years, and offered only fleeting glimpses of what made the previous films so successful. It's not so much the plot--which was always simplistic--but the attempt to return Rocky to his early life as a struggling boxer on the streets of Philly is so badly handled that what is meant to seem as gritty and moving just comes across laughable and sentimental. From the terrible performances and the plodding direction (by John G. Avildsen, who helmed the first film) to the horribly dated soundtrack, almost nothing here works.
7. Rocky II (1979)
Rocky II is curious movie viewed today, knowing the direction the series was about to take. It starts as a continuation of the first film, with Rocky coming to term with the fame that his bout with Apollo Creed has brought. But it quickly becomes a wish-fulfillment fantasy about Rocky's second chance to claim a glorious victory. The heartfelt love story between Rocky and Adrian is now a cheesy soap opera, while the recreation of the legendary Philadelphia run is just as silly, as Balboa leads dozens of excited kids through the streets. But despite Rocky II's uncertain tone, it's still an entertaining movie, and the final fight is one of the best of the series.
6. Rocky IV (1985)
Rocky IV is a weird movie. By 1985, Stallone had dropped all pretence at setting these films in the "real" world--and while he was at it, dropped traditional narrative convention. Rocky IV is essentially the longest movie montage ever. The movie opens with Apollo Creed's death at the hands of Soviet powerhouse Ivan Drago, and for the next hour we see Rocky train for the inevitable showdown with Drago in Moscow. There's no character development, just montage after montage, interrupted occasionally by a flashback. The movie is a ludicrous celebration of American power, and Stallone's final monologue, as Rocky addresses the Soviet Politburo (complete with Gorbachev lookalike) has to be seen to be believed. But as long you can get into its ridiculous comic book vibe, Rocky IV is entertaining nonsense. Oh, and Paulie has a robot.
5. Rocky Balboa (2006)
Stallone expressed his unhappiness with Rocky V, so more than a decade later returned to give Balboa a more fitting send-off. The results are a mixed bag. While Rocky Balboa gets much closer to the feel of the original movie, Stallone doesn't quite have the sensitivity of John Alvidson or Ryan Coogler, and some of the drama comes across as a bit clunky. But it's great to see some old faces back--from Burt Young's final appearance as Paulie to Spider Rico from the first movie--and the film does hit some impressive emotional beats, as Rocky mourns Adrian's death. As for the boxing, Rocky is of course lured back into the ring with young upstart Mason “The Line” Dixon, and the final showdown is predictable but exciting. Most fans were happy with this as Rocky's final outing, until Creed showed us how it's really done.
4. Creed II (2018)
Creed II is to the original Creed what Rocky II was to the movie that started it all. By this point in the series, the story has become intimately familiar, but it's so well-executed that the story's inevitability really doesn't matter. Like the original Creed, Creed II is about legacy, as Dolph Lundgren returns as Ivan Drago, who killed Apollo Creed in the ring but has been living disgraced for decades in his home country after Rocky defeated him. As a result, the inevitable showdown between Adonis Creed and Drago's son Viktor is breathtakingly personal, and Capel Jr.'s camera often stays uncomfortably close to the action to deliver perhaps the most realistic fights of the series. Creed II is Rocky sequel comfort food: exactly what you want, executed with amazing finesse.
3. Rocky III (1982)
In terms of pure popcorn entertainment, it's hard to top Rocky III. Sure, it has none of the powerful drama of Creed or the first movie, but it doesn't even try for those things. Stallone, who also wrote and directed, delivers exactly what fans wanted--a slick, loud, fast-moving, hugely enjoyable crowd-pleaser. It's light-hearted, with some great training scenes between Rocky and Apollo Creed--now best pals--and Mr T's Clubber Lang makes for a wonderfully memorable adversary (“Pity the fool!”). Plus, Survivor's 'Eye of the Tiger' remains one of the greatest movie songs of all time. Rocky III was a huge box office success, and paved the way for the even more ludicrous Rocky IV.
2. Rocky (1976)
The Rocky series changed so quickly after the first movie that it now seems like a film from a different franchise. Even Creed, which got the closest to recapturing it's gritty, street-level feel, has its foot in the slick, triumphant sports action of the later movies. Without any idea as they made it that the movie would become the era-defining blockbuster, Stallone and John G. Avildsen crafted a simple, small-scale underdog story that never feels clichéd, driven by believable characters, and a sweet love story. Despite loving the script, the studio didn't even want Stallone to star, and only agreed when the budget was reduced. But it's hard to imagine another actor inhabiting the role in the same way, and the fact that it mirrored Stallone's own struggle for years as a bit-part actor who could never get a break adds to its poignancy. The boxing scenes are great, but it's the one movie in the series where they are way less important than what is happening outside the ring. And while there had obviously been sports movies before Rocky, it set a template for the genre that is still used today.
1. Creed (2015)
Rocky Balboa felt like such a final round for the character, the idea he might return again for the best movie in the entire series a decade later seemed ludicrous. And had Creed just been Rocky 7, the world might have shrugged and moved on. But all credit to Stallone for allowing a talented, rising filmmaker to take series from his hands; the end results was a movie that worked brilliantly as a tremendous standalone for younger audiences who didn't grow up with Rocky, and was yet a clever, respectful continuation of the series. Michael B. Jordan delivers a star-making turn as Adonis Creed, son of Rocky's great rival Apollo, and Ryan Coogler returned the movie to its roots as a character-driven drama with some incredibly well-shot action. Stallone, freed from the extra pressures of writing and directing this one, delivers perhaps his greatest performance, resulting in well-deserved Oscar and Golden Globe nominations. The movie follows the formula laid down by the original, but brings it right up to date to deliver a movie with brains, heart, and air-punching thrills.