The Definitive Ranking of the RCU (Rocky Cinematic Universe)
by Lou Hare, Guilty Pleasures Host
For years, it had been hard for me to verbalize exactly why the Rocky franchise (henceforth known as the Rocky Cinematic Universe now that the spin-off series Creed prepares to launch its latest installment) is hands-down my favorite movie franchise. Recently, however, it came to me like an Ivan Drago punch to the head. While many franchises veer between quality and tone, no franchise features such a variety of types of movies. Sure, the MCU dabbles in genre-bending within its ever-expanding canon, but the RCU features an independent drama (with Oscar cred), a perfunctory sequel, an 80’s action bombast, a borderline MUSICAL, a pure train wreck of a film, a meditation on old age, and finally a culturally progressive Reboot (I’m personally hoping that Creed II takes the slapstick comedy approach to really round things out). Which movie I watch depends less on which story I want to revisit and more on which mood I’m in. From Prestige Cinema to trashy-fun, no matter what you’re looking for, there’s an RCU movie for that. So in anticipation of our 8th movie of the franchise, let’s review the previous seven films and their overall place in the RCU:
7. Rocky V (1990)
On paper, you could see why this might not be the debacle it became: Rocky is forced to retire, returns to his old neighborhood, trains a young fighter and learns to deal with the loss of his career and fortune. Those ideas prove to be so intriguing that they’re literally the main plots of the next two installments. And yet somehow no one is accusing either of those films of plagiarism. Perhaps it’s because the seeds of a good idea get drowned in a hurricane of bad ideas: Rocky getting brain damage,
Paulie losing the family fortune to a never-seen attorney, Rocky Jr. aging 6 years during Rocky’s trip to Moscow, a shoe-horned subplot about a cufflink whose sole purpose seems to be justifying a Burgess Meredith cameo/flashback (it doesn’t). But for all the sins committed in this mess, the most egregious one is made to Rocky himself. In training young prodigy Tommy Gunn (real-life boxer and tragic figure Tommy Morrison), Rocky neglects his son and spends most of the film treating him like shit. Why anyone thought people would want to see the most likeable hero in cinema be an asshole for the bulk of the movie is almost as baffling as thinking anyone would want to see him throwing leg sweeps in a street fight. The original plan was for Rocky to die in said street fight, but given the assassination of his character in Rocky V, that would’ve just been overkill.
6. Rocky II (1979)
Remember watching Lost and being able to identify when an episode’s purpose was to set up next week’s more important episode? At our house we’d refer to them as “Bridge Episodes.” Meet Rocky II, the Bridge Episode of the RCU. Rocky famously ends with Rocky losing to Apollo despite going the distance. The film was a runaway smash and in the burgeoning Blockbuster Era, a sequel was quickly ordered. But of course a franchise can’t be built around a guy who loses, so here we have Rocky getting his win back. Along the way, he gets married, has a kid, and proves to be lousy with money (not surprising for a guy that would eventually buy a robot). Meanwhile, Adrian goes into a coma, and Apollo goads him into a rematch. Oh yeah, and Rocky may go blind if he fights again (an issue that is never addressed in future films). A lot of stuff happens in Rocky II, and yet, much of it is surprisingly unmemorable and what is memorable is a clone of the first film (this time when Rocky runs up the museum steps, kids run with him). It’s all fine and still works way better than Rocky V (at least this one ends with an actual boxing match), but compared to other entries, it’s perhaps the safest and most bland of the series. That said, it’s still a satisfying sequel that boasts the best poster of the
franchise. The film was a success and now that we had eaten our vegetables, Stallone was ready to serve up some red meat.
5. Rocky Balboa (2006)
I swear this is the last time I’ll bring up Rocky V, but in retrospect, it was foolish to think that late 80’s Stallone would be able to return to the stripped-down gravitas of Rocky. As such, his intended swan song would be a blight on the franchise for years to come. Enter Rocky Balboa: the movie Rocky V wanted to be. It makes sense that Stallone had to wait until he (and his franchise) became a punchline for this final (for almost a decade) chapter to actually work. Stallone’s best work has always been when he feels he has something to prove. Here we get a Rocky wrestling with going out on his terms. Dissatisfied with the unceremonious end to his career Rocky’s given an opportunity for proper closure via one last fight (and a few narrative hoops). It’s a near transparent metaphor for Stallone realizing he missed the mark on Rocky V, ruined his most celebrated creation and is now looking for one more chance to go out on a high note. As for the movie itself, it succeeds where V failed, achieving a tone that is much closer to the original film. Rocky grapples with age, loss (Adrian dies off-screen due to “woman cancer”) and regret while getting that one last fight. We also get a way more satisfying and realistic relationship with Rocky and his son (played by a young Milo Ventimiglia) that gives us maybe the best speech of the franchise.
It ends with a boxing match (what a concept! Sorry, that’s the last time, I promise) that’s way more enthralling than it has a right to be given Rocky’s (and Stallone’s) age. The movie ends with Rocky getting the curtain call he deserves, literally and figuratively. It plays out much like the finale to a long-running TV show: it may not match the highs of the series, but it sticks the landing enough to remind you why you loved it in the first place.
4. Rocky IV (1985)
flashy, noisy, and totally superficial, but in the BEST possible way. It’s also Stallone at his laziest. All of the characters are back, but are given as much dialogue as a sentient robot. Seriously, this movie is 90 minutes long but manages to fit in 3 montages, 2 fight sequences and a James Brown concert. Who has time for words? Rocky IV is the highest-grossing movie of the RCU, and it’s easy to see why. It plays less like a drama or even a sports movie and more like a straight-up action flick. With no obvious internal motivation to fight, Rocky is forced back into the ring by pure vengeance. Apollo Creed is killed in the ring at the hands of Ivan Drago (a plot point that is reintroduced in Creed and looks to be revisited in its sequel), a Russian monster whose punch can crush anything it comes in contact with. While Rocky as a symbol of Americana was always inferred in the series, Stallone literally turns Balboa into the conquering American Hero. By the end of the film, Rocky has not only won the fight, but seemingly the Cold War as well. You can have “Mr. Gorbechav, tear down this wall,” I’ll take “If I can change….and you can change…EVERYBODY CAN CHANGE!!!” any day of the week.
Capitalizing on the popularity of MTV and Regan-era politics, Stallone processed the two together like the most glorious slice of Velveeta cheese. Stallone had gone from indie upstart to millionaire movie star in the 8 years since bringing Rocky Balboa to life and the effects of his hubris are on full-display here, like a roided-up peacock. This Rocky Balboa is so far removed (physically and otherwise) from his origin story that it’s amazing that these two films are even in the same universe. It’s
3. Rocky III (1982)
At the center of the Venn-Diagram of the RCU lies Rocky III. Want character moments? Here’s Rocky losing his edge and overcoming fear (the first time we’ve ever seen Rocky afraid). On top of that we also get the death of Mickey and the reveal that Mickey has been keeping real contenders away from Rocky. When he actually gets a real opponent, Rocky gets his ass kicked, marking the first and only decisive loss of the series, a concept that had to have been shocking to audiences when it first premiered. Last but not least, is the completion of Apollo’s redemption arc, coaching Rocky after Mickey’s death (Apollo is the low-key most interesting character of the whole franchise, don’t @ me). Sound a little too serious for you? Fear not! This movie also features Hulk Hogan as Thunderlips body slamming Rocky into the 3rd row of a charity fight, the feature film introduction of 80’s icon (and my spirit animal) Mr. T, and the ultimate 80’s workout banger, “Eye of the Tiger.” And of course, the most unintentionally (?) homoerotic moment of the whole series. Behold the RCU’s version of the Top Gun volleyball scene.
You could argue that Stallone felt this entry was a little too sensitive and overcorrected for Rocky IV, and you wouldn’t be wrong. Sillier than previous entries, but nowhere near as ridiculous as what’s to come, Rocky III is the one movie in the RCU that tries to be all things to all people, and damn it all if it doesn’t succeed.
2. Creed (2016)
filmed in a way that we’ve somehow never seen before and paved the way for Coogler’s masterful Black Panther. But much like the first film, this is not a movie about boxing, rather a movie about characters within the world of boxing and Coogler’s cast is up for it. Sylvester Stallone gives the performance of his career, Tessa Thompson transcends the typically thankless role of supportive romantic interest while Phylicia Rashad and Wood Harris give glimpses of what we hope they’ll get to contribute in future installments. At the center of it all is Michael B. Jordan as Adonis “Donnie” Creed. With the benefit of being a more seasoned actor than Stallone was when he first played Rocky, Jordan is every bit as charismatic as Stallone at his best, while also being able to make Adonis a more complex character. He is able to go places as an actor that a young Stallone simply couldn’t go. During the film’s climatic fight, Adonis declaring “I’m not a mistake” would be disastrous without Jordan’s unparalleled mix of intensity and vulnerability. It’s not only a perfect reveal of Adonis’ secret motivations, but a statement that the franchise is still striving to be more than a shameless product of Reboot Culture. Complain if you want, but if they were all as good as Creed, I guarantee no one would care.
It may never be able to compete with the cultural sensation that was Rocky, but as a pure film, it stands toe-to-toe with the best of the franchise (spoiler alert). Ryan Coogler, inspired by his father’s love for the franchise, not only resurrects one of cinema’s greatest underdog stories, he creates another one. Coogler follows all of the narrative beats of the original film, but the miracle is that the film never feels like a retread. Much of that is owed to Coogler’s direction. The requisite fight scenes are
1. Rocky (1977)
making a name for himself. He does so with a story of a man who does the exact same thing with basically the same motivating force. It’s understandable why Stallone has been unable to escape the shadow of his biggest creation. From the unexpected highs to the embarrassing lows and finally career redemption in his later age, Stallone is Rocky Balboa. But none of that happens if Rocky isn’t an unqualified classic. Every sports movie since has stolen something from Rocky, from the impassioned speeches to its iconic training sequences. But what few fail to steal is the intimacy in its smaller scenes, namely Rocky & Adrian’s first date at an empty ice rink, or Rocky’s “Go the Distance” monologue that proceeds the climatic fight. Much of that is out of necessity (the film was only greenlit with the understanding that the budget not exceed $1 million – it made $225 million), but a lot should be credited with Stallone’s script, which treats all of the main characters as the flawed, human beings they are, not the archetypes they would inspire (and become in later films). The end result is a miraculous hybrid: a crowd-pleasing blockbuster in indie cosplay. Pointing out its iconic moments is superfluous: one only has to say the name Rocky Balboa, and it immediately conjures up images of Rocky running up the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, or shouting “Adrian!” in the final moments. That final moment may be the greatest ending in the history of film. Apollo is celebrating his victory, the crowd is erupting around him and Rocky couldn’t care less. He’s proven to himself that he’s more than what the world has labeled him as and he’s embraced by the only other person who gets that. That moment crystalizes what makes Rocky a universally enduring piece of art. For all of the machismo associated with the RCU, it is this singular, tender concept that elevates the film into transcendence. We’re all seeking to break away from the labels that constrict us and find peace within ourselves and, if we’re lucky, that one person who gets us. We may not always win the fight, but as long as we have that, who cares?
When we were dating and later engaged, my wife and I had a series of conversations about things we needed to clear up before we got married. She wanted to make sure I was willing to curb my more excessive spending habits and not lead us into crippling debt, I wanted to make sure she’d seen Rocky. You know, important shit. The legend of how the film was made parallels the plot of the actual film: Stallone, a struggling actor seeking to break out of the preconceptions studios had of him, is given a fluke shot at
Lou Hare is an adjunct professor at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa. Lou is the host of Guilty Pleasures on the Front Row Network and a regular on many other FRN shows. His greatest joy in life is making his friends watch terrible movies and talk about them..... and being a GIF.