What Sylvester Stallone created back with 1976’s Best Picture-winner Rocky — which he both wrote and starred in — exploded into a franchise that not only dominated the ’70s and ’80s but also exists now as the wildly fun and successful legacy spinoffs that are the Creed saga.
From a low-rent bum who broke thumbs for bookies, to a punishment-absorbing underdog the entire country rooted for, to the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, Rocky Balboa (aka the “Italian Stallion”) won our hearts while battling ferociously in the ring for opportunities he’d never dreamed of.
Since 2015, Michael B. Jordan has starred in the Creed sequels as Adonis “Donnie” Creed, son of tragically killed former champ Apollo Creed. And with Creed III uppercutting theaters nationwide it’s time to GO FOR IT! and rank all the Rocky flicks.
The Rocky movies morphed from earnest sports dramas into, for all intents and purposes, superhero stories with heightened stakes, action, and premises. That was fitting for a franchise that started in the ’70s and transitioned into the ’80s. The Creed movies’ tone and traction are much more in line with the 2006 legacy sequel Rocky Balboa, which sought to deliver a sadder, more grounded take while also giving the Rocky character a better ending than 1990’s Rocky V.
Ryan Coogler’s Creed brought together all the pieces from the movies that came before it, even ones with disparate tones, and delivered a knockout punch to the feelings. So what’s been the best outing for the franchise? What’s the weakest link? Let’s use our Eye of the Tiger and find the true hierarchy of the Rocky/Creed legacy.
8. Rocky V (1990)
Rocky V — which up until that point represented the longest time between Rocky movies, at five years — tried to bring the story back down to Earth after the wildly pleasing-but-somewhat-preposterous Rocky IV in 1985. Even original Rocky director John G. Avildsen returned (Stallone had directed all the sequels up until this) so that the original Rocky magic could be recaptured. The story had Rocky returning to his humble Philly roots, albeit against his will after questionable best friend and unquestionable alcoholic Paulie lost the entire Balboa fortune. And with brain injuries preventing him from fighting to get the millions back, Rocky chose to neglect his struggling son in favor of training a new boxing hopeful, Tommy Gunn. None of this worked and audiences rejected Rocky’s fall from glory.
Appalling Paulie Level: 10 out of 10. Paulie at his absolute worst. He f***s up big time and refuses to own up to it. Also Rocky Jr. at one point has to share Paulie’s room and there’s no worse punishment on the planet.
7. Rocky II (1979)
We’ve now moved into “these aren’t bad movies, per se, but we gotta rank them” territory. Rocky II isn’t terrible, but too much of it feels like a re-do of Rocky, except Rocky wins in the end and defeats Apollo Creed for the title. Much like Rocky, more importantly much like what worked in the first Rocky, Stallone’s character feels like a passive participant in his success. Like, he’s just living his life with Adrian when another title shot lands in his lap out of nowhere. It just doesn’t work as well this time around and you wind up feeling more sorry for Carl Weathers’ Apollo, who’s basically goaded into a rematch by a combination of hate mail and snarky sports journalists.
Appalling Paulie Level: 6 out of 10. Jealous, grouchy, too bored to sit in sister Adrian’s hospital room while she’s in a coma (though that’s not the worst treatment she’s gotten from him).
6. Creed II (2018)
Again, we’re in the “not bad movie” zone here with Creed II – a movie that, at times, feels more like an inevitability than a genuine story given how much fans wanted a Creed/Drago generational rematch as soon as the first Creed movie hit theaters. But Creed II does the best that it can with the whole “Hey, Ivan Drago also has son and also he boxes” premise while putting Adonis through many of the same sequel story points that Rocky endured after his first movie (marriage, baby, humiliating loss, etc). It was almost like a mixtape of the Rocky sequels. That being said, the most surprisingly moving elements here come from the Drago camp and the relationship between Rocky IV’s Ivan (the returning Dolph Lundgren) and his behemoth son Viktor (Florian Munteanu).
Appalling Paulie Level: No Paulie here. Move along. Can still smell him though. It lingers.
5. Rocky Balboa (2006)
Sixteen years after Rocky V, Stallone was back in Rocky Balboa, a way better take (and ending, though eventually it wouldn’t be) for the Italian Stallion than Rocky V. With Rocky Balboa – which saw Stallone direct for the first time since 1985’s Rocky IV – we got one of the first notable legacy sequels, helping to firmly establish that sub-genre while also getting a movie that paid deep attention to its franchise’s past (which we now see executed in everything from the Saw franchise to the Fast and Furious saga).
It was also pretty damn good and gave Rocky one final boxing match (which Rocky V didn’t even do). In Rocky Balboa, Rocky’s current life isn’t great. Adrian’s recently dead, Paulie’s still alive, and his relationship with Rocky Jr. is strained. Hard times all around. But it wraps up the story nicely while also giving us Rocky’s awesome “It’s not how hard you get hit…” speech. The antagonist here, champ Mason Dixon, isn’t that impressive, but the story’s mostly about Rocky finding a new surrogate family with a grown-up Marie, who was the sassy girl from the first movie who hung out with the coconuts on the corner. Rocky once tried to talk her out of being a bum, being a bum himself, but it didn’t take and now they’re both bums. The vibe here is bum.
Appalling Paulie Level: 5 out or 10. At this point, everyone just accepts Paulie as an angry drunk who’s usually first mistaken for a potentially violent vagrant. A potentially violent vagrant who paints pretty (yet disturbing) pictures of the cows that find their way into his meat packing plant.
4. Rocky IV (1985)
Rocky IV was pure mid-’80s adrenaline. During the thickest, soupiest part of The Cold War, the cruel, calculating Soviet Union became the villain Rocky had to topple after his former adversary-turned-comrade Apollo Creed was killed in the ring by super-soldier pugilist Ivan Drago, during the latter’s first “good will” exhibition match in the United States.
As the shortest-running and highest-earning Rocky movie to date, Rocky IV didn’t have time for any new emotional territory for Rocky himself. Not when there were Survivor songs to play and montages to be shown. The first act crackles, and the death of Apollo hits hard (as hard as Drago himself), but then it’s just a revenge movie. In fact, a lot of the heartfelt heavy lifting for this film is done in the Creed movies, decades later. But Rocky IV is exceptional for what it is, for what it was designed to be, and an intriguing example of how much the movies had changed over the course of their run. Also, “Burning Heart” is a better song than “Eye of the Tiger.” It’s all Survivor in the end, but it had to be said. We’d bet the robot on it.
Appalling Paulie Level: 3 out of 10. Best case Paulie scenario. Gets a robot, loves a robot, pushes a robot away because he’s afraid of love, falls in the snow. 3 out of 10. This is the best case Paulie scenario. Gets a robot, loves a robot, pushes a robot away because he’s afraid of love, complains about international travel he’d never been able to do on his own, falls in the snow. Paulie’s a mosaic.
3. Rocky III (1982)
The best of the pure Rocky sequels, Rocky III has so many rewarding elements: a great villain, a humbled champ, a big tearful death, former enemies becoming allies, a smash hit song… it was the perfect balance between what came before it and Rocky IV a few years later.
It also introduced us to two stars who, in just a short while, would become absolute ’80s icons, and first-ever WrestleMania main-eventers, Mr. T and Hulk Hogan. The story was more elaborate, the feud was more “wrestling angle”-esque, and the training montages featured 100% more jubilant beach racing and crop tops, but the characters still felt like the ones we knew. The Rocky formula was perfected here. Even with Paulie being revealed as a casual racist, which came as a surprise to absolutely no one.
Appalling Paulie Level: 9 out of 10. It’s played for laughs (oh, nineteen hundred and eighties!) but, yeah, Paulie’s a big ol’ bigot. And he implies that the people he associates with in Philly are also racist. Sometimes layers are bad.
2. Creed (2015)
Creed, from Ryan Coogler, is a triumph in every aspect. It’s got a fascinating new main character who gives the entire decades-long story new life and a fresh perspective while also serving as a superb continuation of Rocky’s story (while, as mentioned, digging into a lot of the emotional core that Rocky IV didn’t make space for). Michael B. Jordan’s hot-tempered Adonis was even reminiscent of Rocky V’s Tommy Gunn, the last fighter Rocky agreed to train. So in that regard Creed also has elements that redeem Rocky V.
Jordan is stunning as an unfocused self-trained fighter unable to decide if he loves or hates the father who died in the ring before he was even born, and Stallone got an Oscar nomination for his return to the role of Rocky — the first time he’d been nominated for the role since the 1976 original — who finds himself with new struggles of his own. Coogler’s intimate directing style and 360 fight choreography deepens the entire world like never before, and the result is a movie that will make you sob and cheer, sometimes simultaneously.
Appalling Paulie Level: N/A (the best use of “non-applicable” is when Paulie is the thing not applicable)
1. Rocky (1976)
Since he wasn’t a big time movie star yet, Sylvester Stallone had to hustle and tussle to actually star as the lead in the script he’d written. Rocky would instantly become a cinema classic, not only winning the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director, but also becoming the top-grossing movie of that year.
Obviously, Rocky training for his big fight, with the theme music playing and the running up the steps, is legendary in the movie world, as is the third act bout where Rocky goes the distance but nobly loses. But the film is amazing beyond that. It’s less of a boxing movie than it is the tale of two neighborhood outcasts — Rocky and Talia Shire’s shy pet shop cashier (say that 10 times fast) Adrian — and their courtship. Oh yeah, and there’s also Adrian’s abusive, miserable brother Paulie, who will one day lead the entire family to ruin.
But, yes, all in all this is a film about two sweet dorks who fall in love while fate also conspires in the background to turn one of them into an unlikely American hero. Still, the fight never matters as much to Rocky as Adrian does.
Appalling Paulie Level: 8 out of 10. We’re introduced to Paulie as a brazenly angry, selfish, and insulting slob. His towering qualities.
But what are your favorite Rocky and Creed movies? Let’s discuss in the comments, and vote in the poll below!