It’s been over four decades since Sylvester Stallone wrote a sports drama about an underdog boxer as a starring vehicle for himself and he’s since become one of the biggest movie stars in the world. The character has also remained popular with audiences, as he’s starred in four sequels, a reboot, and two spin-offs.
As with any movie series that spans more than forty years, there have been some great movies swimming in Oscar nominations and some terrible ones wallowing in Razzies nominations – but few franchises have had such disparity between genuine masterpieces and out-and-out stinkers as this one. So, here are the Rocky movies ranked.
8 Rocky IV
Rocky IV was a low point for the franchise. It’s a big, brash, cheesy movie that oozes ‘80s flash, complete with all the corny training montages. What was once an intimate character study was now a political tool. Rocky Balboa was a metaphor for America and Ivan Drago was a metaphor for the Soviet Union.
When Rocky beats him at the end, the whole Russian crowd cheers for him. This was a movie about the Cold War that reflected the resurgence of patriotism brought on by Ronald Reagan. It was great propaganda, but it wasn’t a great Rocky movie.
7 Rocky V
Rocky V marks the death of the Rocky franchise before it was reborn sixteen years later with Rocky Balboa. Rocky used to be about a working-class guy trying to find his feet in a dog-eat-dog world, but by Rocky V, it was a hollow shell of its former glory.
Tommy Gunn doesn’t even stand out as a good Rocky opponent in the way Clubber Lang and Apollo Creed do, despite being played by an actual boxer. Still, at least it wasn’t all about Reagan-era politics. If it wasn’t for Rocky’s politically charged foray to Moscow, this would be right at the bottom of the list. Even Sylvester Stallone is ashamed of it, admitting that he made it out of greed.
6 Rocky II
The second Rocky movie is the only one of the four sequels to stick to the original movie’s ethos of being a love story as opposed to a boxing movie, but it also sticks pretty closely to a lot of things about the original movie. It’s a classic example of a sequel playing it safe by sticking to what it knows the audience wants.
It’s still uplifting and well-acted, and the plot takes Rocky and Adrian’s relationship to new places, but Rocky II is basically a redo of the first one without the expectation-defying ending of Rocky’s loss and the more clichéd ending of a championship victory.
5 Rocky Balboa
Sylvester Stallone made Rocky Balboa to right the wrongs of Rocky V, because he didn’t want to end the franchise on such a bum note. While it does succeed at giving us a better ending to the story that began with the first Rocky movie than Rocky V did, that’s not really saying much.
It starts off as a gritty, real, human story like the first movie, but it doesn’t take long to devolve into schmaltz and sentimentality. The movie has the tone and style of the first Rocky movie, but not the substance or the rawness that made it truly great.
4 Creed II
At first, the premise of the Creed sequel sounded gimmicky. The son of Apollo Creed would fight the son of Ivan Drago. Yawn! But then the movie came out and proved us all wrong. It handled that plot with gravitas and ingenuity. The story was played as Michael B. Jordan’s younger Creed avenging the death of his absent father, who was killed in the ring by the older Drago.
It could’ve easily gone downhill and fallen into the clichés, but it didn’t. Sylvester Stallone has announced that this was his last appearance as Rocky Balboa and that he would be retiring the character – it was the perfect swansong for everyone’s favorite boxing underdog.
3 Rocky III
Rocky III is the best of the Rocky sequels, because it maintains the spirit of the original while taking the plot to fresh places. It follows the same formula without feeling tired. Mr. T makes a spectacular villain as Clubber Lang, and it was a nice development to have Apollo train Rocky as the two had previously been rivals.
Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” might even be a more iconic theme song than Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now.” The final shot of Rocky and Apollo throwing their first punches in a rematch before fading to a painting is one of the most memorable endings in sports movie history.
This spin-off about Rocky Balboa training the son of his fallen rival-turned-mentor Apollo Creed could’ve easily been dreadful, but it was far from it. Thankfully, the movie was put in the hands of Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler (who, of course, went on to direct Black Panther), so it’s far more masterful and emotionally charged than it had any right to be.
Michael B. Jordan makes just as compelling a lead as Sylvester Stallone ever did – if not more – while Stallone himself gives his best performance in years as an aging, ailing Rocky. It might follow a familiar formula, but it works.
The first one will always be the best. It’s not just the best Rocky movie or the best boxing movie – it’s one of the best movies, period. When people talk about the gritty, urban, streetwise cinema of the ‘70s – Taxi Driver, Chinatown, The French Connection – Rocky doesn’t feel out of place being included in the conversation. It’s not a movie about sports or training or fighting; it’s a love story. It’s a character study and about proving yourself and how it doesn’t matter if you fail, because you still have the people who love you.
Like so few other movies, it’s actually about something. It’s no wonder that it made Sylvester Stallone the third person in history, after Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles, to be nominated for the Academy Awards for Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay for the same movie.