Now nearing 50 years, the Rocky franchise is just as determined and durable as Rocky “The Italian Stallion” Balboa. Created by Sylvester Stallone, the first film came out in 1976 and the franchise is still going strong to this day. While Rocky won Best Picture, to date there have been 9 films in the franchise, and to say all of them aren’t Oscar winners is like saying Paulie is a decent human being.
Like Rocky’s own career, the series has had its highs and lows, its ups and downs, its Apollo Creed and its…robot Rocky gets for Paulie? Again, the series has had some low points. But like the Philadelphia pugilist when it hits it can knock you out. With that in mind, let’s take a look at this long-running film franchise, starting from the bottom then running up the steps before raising our arms in triumph when we reach the top.
9. Rocky V (1990)
The low point for everyone’s favorite fighting underdog, Rocky V finds the boxer suffering brain damage after his fight with Ivan Drago in the previous film and is forced to retire. He’s also broke thanks to his brother-in-law Paulie (arguably the true villain of the franchise) giving power of attorney to their accountant, who promptly steals Rocky’s fortune. He also loses his house due to unpaid taxes. Broke and unemployed, Rocky and his family move back to the old neighborhood, where he takes on the role of boxing trainer while Adrian goes back to work in the pet store. And that’s the beginning of this movie!
But he starts training a promising young boxer! Until he’s also stolen by a boxing promoter, who successfully turns him against Rocky, leading to a climactic street fight. A reaction to the over-the-top spectacle of Rocky IV, Rocky V has a bleak, dispirited tone that’s out of place for the franchise. It was also a departure from the series’ usual basic theme of triumph over adversity. The film’s bleak portrayal of Rocky’s struggles, including his loss of his home and his fall from grace in the boxing world, is a stark reminder of the harsh realities of life. Which isn’t what people watch a Rocky movie for. Except for completists, a completely skippable entry in the series and much of what it tries to accomplish is succeeded in its follow-up nearly 20 years later, Rocky Balboa,
8. Rocky IV (1985)
Released at the height of the Cold War and showcasing the growing tensions between the US and the Soviet Union, Rocky IV is the most overblown Rocky film.The film’s main antagonist, Ivan Drago (played by Dolph Lundgren), is a Soviet boxer who represented the communist ideology and was portrayed as a robotic killing machine. While Rocky initially declines to fight him, his former foe turned friend Apollo Creed agrees to fight an exhibition match. When he’s killed in the ring by the Soviet boxer, Rocky gets back into fighting shape to fight Ivan.
The wildest movie in the franchise, it’s also too big for a Rocky film, with weird moments (at one point Rocky buys Paulie a robot(!)) and flashy showboating (featuring a live performance by James Brown before Creed’s match), Rocky IV is miles away from the story of an underdog unknown boxer fighting his way to the top. Already at the top, Rocky ends up representing the USA fighting the Soviet Union, represented by cartoonish antagonist Drago. Goofy at times, bad at others, it’s the second-worst Rocky movie overall.
7. Rocky III (1982)
The third installment in the franchise, released in 1982, is the second Rocky film directed by Stallone. Featuring a new antagonist, Clubber Lang (memorably played by Mr. T), a ruthless boxer that defeats Rocky in their first fight. Exploring Rocky’s personal struggles with fame and fortune, and his quest for redemption, Rocky III shows Rocky becoming complacent and losing his edge after a string of victories, only being shaken out of his comfort zone with Clubber Lang’s unexpected win.
A commercial success, grossing over $270 million at the box office, it is an entertaining entry in the franchise, with a highlight performance from Mr. T, who brings something new to the Rocky universe. It’s also rather predictable and lacks the depth of the first two films, and its emphasis on spectacle over substance would be repeated and amplified in the following film. It is an iconic film for the training montage, which is set to the song “Eye of the Tiger,” becoming a hit single and winning the Academy Award for Best Original Song.
It also features one of the best climactic fight scenes in the franchise between Rocky and Clubber Lang, a brutal fight sequence with maybe the best fight choreography of the series during Stallone’s reign. But the wear was starting to show here, as it’s the same story that has been told twice before and once again here. It would take another three decades before Rocky shook off the formula.
6. Creed III (2023)
The Creed films so far tend to feature echoes from the original five films in the Rocky franchise, and Creed III is no different, this time mirroring Rocky III. Taking place five years after Adonis Creed’s fight against Viktor Drago, Creed has achieved great success in his career and personal life, but his world is turned upside down when Damian “Dame” Anderson, a former friend and boxing prodigy, returns to the scene after serving time in prison. The two face off as fierce rivals in the ring, and Donnie is forced to confront his past and personal demons.
Another mirror is that this is the first in the franchise directed by the star of the film, Michael B. Jordan. As Stallone started directing the Rocky films from II to IV, and then again Rocky Balboa, it seems fitting and poetic that the next boxer to pick up the gloves also takes over directorial duties.This is also the first film in the franchise not to have Rocky Balboa as a character. The plot also seems like a mix between Rocky III and Rocky V, along with characters from Creed II. Well-made and delving into Creed’s personal past, it depends on the viewer whether they like how the film leans on tropes and dynamics from the franchise or find it slightly repetitive. Perhaps those only familiar with the 21st century entries will find better favor with it.