Creed II hits theaters today, the sequel to 2015’s surprise smash and the genesis of a new generation of Rocky films.
And when it comes to the Rocky boxing franchise, evolution has been the name of the game. Starting in 1976 as a gritty character drama, by the late ’80s it was as boisterous as a modern-day Marvel flick before disappearing from theaters for almost two decades. Recent years have taken the series back to its roots, and I’m here for it.
Before you wolf down your potato salad and stumble to theaters to see Creed II, revisit the entire series below from bottom to top.
7. Rocky V
No matter your thoughts on the remainder of the list, can we all touch and agree as a family that Rocky V is BY FAR the weakest of this series? There are way too many plotlines swirling here, from Fake Don King to problems with Rocky’s wayward son to his attempts to train new protégé Tommy Gunn. Trust me, he’d get a MUCH better protégé later in the series.
6. Rocky Balboa
I certainly wouldn’t call Rocky Balboa a bad movie, and after a 16-year layoff, one can’t expect perfection. Rocky deciding to get his groove back because of a computer simulation feels like a stretch, but I enjoyed all the callbacks to Rocky lore. Still, there’s not much to hang your hat on here. Unlike Rocky V, which was blatantly bad, Rocky Balboa just winds up unmemorable.
5. Rocky II
DA REMATCH! Rocky II builds toward the big return bout between Rocky and arch rival Apollo Creed but adds a ton more drama along the way. Rocky and Adrian wed! Adrian gives birth but is in a coma! Rocky might go blind! All the side issues threaten to clutter the big finale between Rocky and Creed but the climax is fantastic and Rocky’s closing speech makes it all worthwhile. “Yo, Adrian, I did it!” is the most iconic line of the series.
4. Rocky III
The second and third installments of the franchise stand on pretty equal ground for me but Rocky III gets the slight edge for two reasons – overbearing bully Clubber Lang is an excellent antagonist who literally knocks now-Cocky Rocky down to Earth; and their brutal final confrontation is hands down the best fight in the series. Rocky’s bromance with Apollo Creed and the death of crotchety trainer Mickey make this one pretty memorable as well.
I’ll be honest, I expected Creed to be little more than a nostalgic cash-in with Hollywood’s new hotness Michael B. Jordan as the centerpiece. I’ll happily admit when I’m proven wrong, especially when the results are this good. Adonis’ journey leans on a lot of tropes from past films, but the back-to-basics approach gives it a grittiness that the series hadn’t captured in decades. Brutal fights, a heartwarming story and a plucky underdog fighting for his life – this is what made Rocky movies legendary and Creed is a masterful extension of that legacy.
2. Rocky IV
Look, I know it’s corny. I know it’s cartoonish. I know beloved characters are needlessly killed for shock value like a bad episode of The Walking Dead. And lord knows some of the jingoism doesn’t age well. But there’s a reason why Rocky IV contains some of the most memorable moments and recognizable elements of the series. The ice-cold Ivan Drago isn’t just the best villain in the series, he’s one of the best baddies of the 80s, period. Rocky’s victory over Drago, and by proxy, COMMUNISM ITSELF, is wayyyy over the top, but it’s an unforgettable thrill ride and arguably the most defining installment of the series.
When I began working on this list, I had every intention of putting Rocky IV in the top spot. Nostalgia is a heckuva drug. But there’s just no denying the impact of the original. In a lot of ways, it’s not even a boxing movie – at least, not in the way the series would evolve. Instead it’s more of a character study, the journey of a man looking for one last shot at his dreams. Every subsequent movie would attempt to mimic the underdog formula pioneered here but would never reach the heights of this one. At the end of the film, after Rocky drops a split decision to Apollo Creed, he doesn’t care about a rematch, he only cares about reuniting with his love Adrian. It still stands as the most powerful moment of the franchise.
How would you rank the Rocky franchise? Leave your lists in the comments below.