It is difficult to conceive of a Rocky movie without Sylvester Stallone, especially because the franchise was entirely his vision. He wrote the screenplay for the first movie, and when it came time to sell it, he turned down a massive payday from a big studio, just so he could play the title role himself.
It paid off; Rocky won Best Picture at the Academy Awards in 1976. And from that moment on, Rocky was iconic. Sometimes he was the underachiever with the steel chin. Other times, he was a red, white, and blue American superhero. But even when the script didn’t hold up or the premise was too far-fetched, Stallone’s charisma pulled it over the line.
The common assumption after Rocky Balboa was that the story was over. Then Creed, starring Michael B. Jordan and directed by Ryan Coogler, came out in 2015, and suddenly, everything old was new again. The underdog story is an enduring one. And now that Stallone is no longer front and center, we will see exactly how durable that story is.
Creed III stars Jordan as Adonis Creed and Jonathan Majors as Damian Anderson, a ghost from Adonis’ past. The movie is the ninth official movie in the Rocky franchise and the third movie in the Creed franchise spin-off. It is also, somewhat notably, the first Rocky movie without Stallone’s involvement, due to a row between him and longtime producer Irwin Winkler. Stallone bears no ill will toward Jordan, however, and wishes him the best. Fans seem to have supported the film even with Stallone’s absence, and it made history as the highest-grossing debut for a sports film on its opening weekend.
For now, here is every movie in the Rocky and Creed franchise, ranked from worst to best.
9. ‘Rocky V’ (1990)
It’s fashionable to bash this movie, and in all fairness, it is the weakest one of the franchise. But it does have some good ideas and themes, which in more capable, motivated hands, could have gelled into something special.
Instead, we got Rocky V. In the film, Rocky is broke again; thanks a lot, Uncle Paulie. He has a traumatic brain injury from fighting Drago in Rocky IV. And forced to retire, Rocky begins living vicariously through a young boxer named Tommy Gunn, while neglecting the actual son he has right in front of him.
There is one indispensable scene: a flashback of Rocky bonding with Mickey (played by a then-82-year-old Burgess Meredith). It is one of the greatest scenes in the entire franchise, which adds insult to injury. To see it, you’ll have to wade through an exaggerated Don King impression and a street fight that, no matter how violent it is, can’t measure up to the drama of a 15-round fight.
8. ‘Rocky II’ (1979)
Rocky II is not bad. But it suffers from its proximity to the original movie, and it adds a lot of cheap sentimentalities that, by Rocky III, became an unfortunate franchise trademark. The 800 kids running up the steps with Rocky? The detached retina and Adrian’s coma? Like many sequels, it’s too much of everything, and it all happens in too short a time frame.
It also undermines the first movie. The point of Rocky was that it did not matter that he lost the fight. He now had Adrian, and he had proven his worth to himself. Rocky II gives us the ending we wanted but didn’t need. Paradoxically, Rocky II manages to be the most inessential and essential movie in the franchise. It was, at the time of its release, an unnecessarily saccharine addendum to the original. But without it, none of the proceeding films would have been possible, which means we have to love it.
7. ‘Creed II’ (2018)
Decades after the “exhibition fight” that killed Adonis’ father—and the subsequent, unsanctioned fight that gave Rocky brain trauma and PTSD—Adonis fights Ivan Drago’s son, Viktor, in a grudge match. In one corner is Rocky. And in the other corner is Ivan, reprised by Dolph Lundgren.
The fights are visceral and intense; you feel the impact when Adonis gets his ribs cracked and his kidney ruptured. And because of the characters’ history, there’s a sinister undertone to all this violence; somebody might end up dead. The story writes itself—of course Adonis would want revenge for his father’s death. But Rocky and Ivan steal the show; they’re essentially fighting a proxy war through Adonis and Viktor. And that isn’t the right focus, especially on a movie called Creed II.
6. ‘Rocky IV’ (1985)
This is the Rocky franchise at its dumbest and most jingoistic. Rocky IV does away with any pretense that Rocky is a down-on-his-luck bum; now he’s an American hero, fighting evil Soviet Russia embodied by Ivan Drago. Everyone is an overblown cartoon character, and the servant robot that Rocky gives to Paulie is a much-mocked, unnecessary distraction.
The movie ends with the anticipated Rocky vs. Drago fight, in which Rocky is so brave, so noble, and good, that the Russians began cheering for him instead of their countryman. And then, Rocky gives a speech to end the Cold War, accomplishing what multiple presidents and diplomats could not achieve after decades of brinkmanship. It’s preposterous, on its face.
And yet, there are so many wonderful sequences. Remember the parallel workout sequences of Drago and Rocky, where Drago uses exercise equipment and Rocky, good old-fashioned America that he is, uses farm equipment? Or how about that scene of Apollo dancing with James Brown, mere minutes before his tragic death?
Objectively, this might be one of the worst movies in the Rocky franchise. But it commits, wholly, to its premise, and it is memorable, which is one of the best things a movie can be.
5. ‘Rocky III’ (1982)
By Rocky IV, Rocky was an All-American caricature. But this process of sanding down the Italian Stallion’s edges began with Rocky III. In Rocky III, Rocky finally has a taste of the good life. He’s raising his family. He’s appearing on The Muppet Show. He’s knocking out opponent after opponent. But then he learns that Mickey has been protecting him by handpicking his opponents. He’s no longer hungry—or “civilized”—as Mickey puts it. And when Rocky faces Clubber Lang, who is hungry and angry, he has to reignite his passion.
Rocky III redeems Apollo, who is a blowhard and a heel in Rocky II. In this movie, Apollo becomes Rocky’s trainer and replaces Mickey after his death. Through Apollo, Rocky learns footwork—a good thing for him to study since he has the unconventional technique of blocking his opponents’ punches with his face. Of all the Rocky movies, Rocky III is the most conventional. The franchise had settled into its groove, and it had a formula that it could repeat, remix, and redeliver, over and over again.
4. ‘Rocky Balboa’ (2006)
Sylvester Stallone was unhappy with Rocky V. He viewed it, as many fans do, as a poor end to the franchise. His attempt at rectifying this mistake was Rocky Balboa. In fact, if you watch Rocky Balboa after Rocky IV, you would never know that anything’s missing. By refusing to reference Rocky V or even use its events in the subsequent movies, it’s as if the movie never existed.
When the story begins, Adrian is dead from “woman cancer” as Rocky puts it. He owns a restaurant called Adrian’s where he tells his old stories, and he spends the rest of his time wandering around his old neighborhood, feeling sad. He’s lured back to the ring, one last time, to face the heavyweight champion of the world: Mason “The Line” Dixon.
Rocky Balboa retreads a lot of the same ground that Rocky V does—the loss of old friends, the pain of growing old, the self-doubt, and the feeling that you might not have “it” anymore—but does it far better.
3. ‘Creed III’ (2023)
It’s still new and thus fresh in our minds. But of the nine Rocky movies, Creed III is one of the best; perhaps it will even place above Creed once the dust settles. It is a natural, logical extension of Adonis’ story, at a time when most franchises would descend into self-parody. Adonis does not forget and relearn the same lessons. He’s always moving forward.
This is Michael B. Jordan’s directorial debut, and Jordan demonstrates both flair and humility. Flair, because of some bold artistic choices: like his decision to take away the crowds from the middle rounds of the final fight and his use of high frame rate IMAX cameras to emphasize the impact of the punches. Humility, because this is a co-headlining feature. Creed III is as much about Damian Anderson as it is about Adonis Creed, and the final fight feels like both a tragedy and a triumph.
What a year Jonathan Majors has had. He attained some mainstream prominence with his performance in HBO’s Lovecraft Country, but now, he’s a bonafide movie star. His character Damian has a legitimate, sympathetic reason to be angry. We can disagree with his actions and how he applied that anger, but we cannot deny the rawness of Adonis’ betrayal, nor Damian’s hurt at being forgotten by the one person who should have remembered him. Creed III is a wonderful film, and time will be kind to it.
2. ‘Creed’ (2015)
Creed manages the unenviable task of being a Rocky movie while also staking out its own identity. It tells the tale of Apollo Creed’s illegitimate son, who got adopted from a youth detention center by Apollo’s widow (imagine the mixed emotions that go into that decision). And when Adonis decides to become a boxer, he needs a trainer, and he goes to Philadelphia to find Rocky.
One of the best things about the Rocky movies is the sense of lineage. Duke Evers trained Rocky. In this movie, Duke’s son, Tony “Little Duke” Evers, trains Adonis. And that’s how director Ryan Coogler anchors this story firmly in Rocky’s world, even though he makes this story about Adonis and his support system. Tessa Thompson is radiant as Adonis’ love interest Bianca, a musician with progressive hearing loss. Phylicia Rashad is perfectly cast as Mary Anne Creed.
Creed is about boxing, but it’s also about social class, belonging, and family. Adonis was raised in wealth and is college educated; he doesn’t have to fight the way someone like Rocky had to fight. But he’s still driven, because, as he says to Rocky, he wants to prove that he’s “not a mistake.” And by embracing the father he never knew, he also embraces Rocky, the father figure he never had.
1. ‘Rocky’ (1976)
The first one is the best one. Rocky is not only the best movie in the Rocky franchise but it is also one of the greatest movies ever made. Before Rocky was the champion of the world, he was a washed-up boxer with nothing to lose, because he had nothing to begin with. Then, he gets a lucky chance to fight Apollo Creed, the heavyweight champion of the world, for the title. He trains, as hard as he can, to beat the odds and prove to himself, and the world, that he’s not a bum.
The striking thing about Rocky, especially watching it today with fresh eyes, is how it dares to be unglamorous and “warts and all” about Rocky’s life. He’s a debt collector for a loan shark. His best friend, Paulie, is an emotionally abusive alcoholic. He is not a smart man, and he is not a good fighter either. The only thing he has that’s working in his favor is his heart.
That heart isn’t enough to beat Apollo; Rocky loses the fight in a split decision. But he’s made such strides in his life that he doesn’t even care. And that’s the beauty of this film; it’s not about winning or losing—it’s about the growth and the journey.