With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.

For someone who inarguably ascended to great heights of stardom, Sylvester Stallone has found success within relatively narrow parameters. Though he’s had some one-off hits like Cliffhanger or Tango & Cash, six of his 10 biggest movies are entries in the Rocky or Rambo franchises. This is true no matter how the math works out; adjusting for inflation only switches which Rocky and Rambo movies rank where, and whether entries in a third franchise, the Expendables movies, make the list alongside them. But while some actors treat franchises as obligations in between passion projects, Stallone is almost always involved behind the scenes of his sequels. So despite his limited range as an actor and even, as it turns out, as a movie star (his ’90s comeback seems minor compared to the box office dominance of the Rocky series in its prime), he does deserve credit for guiding his own career since the first Rocky, for which he was Oscar-nominated not just for his performance but also his screenplay.

Stallone went on to write all of the subsequent movies with Rocky in the title, and direct parts two, three, four, and six (he also has writing credits on all of the Rambo movies, in addition to directing the fourth one). The Rocky franchise’s most recent and least direct entry, Creed, is actually the first time the Rocky Balboa character has appeared in a movie not at least written by Stallone; even moreso than John Rambo or the more generic likes of Barney Ross, Rocky is a character obviously close to Stallone’s heart. Sometimes, perhaps, too close. But this closeness has allowed the series to function as a parallel history of Stallone’s career, even when Rocky takes a different path than his creator. The movies are often more compelling as a series—as an ongoing chronicle of this character’s life—than they are as individual works.

This may be because in an ideal world, Rocky probably wouldn’t receive any direct sequels. After the first film’s big box office and subsequent underdog Oscar win for Best Picture of 1976, when it triumphed over the Apollo Creed-like group of All The President’s Men, Network, and Taxi Driver, it became easy to look at Rocky as a massive crowdpleaser—and it is, but with more signifiers of its New Hollywood era of filmmaking than its reputation suggests. Less a juiced-up boxing picture than a low-key character study, Rocky (directed by John G. Avildsen) often follows its title character with the camera, including an early sequence of Rocky Balboa (Stallone) knocking around Philly streets at night. Rocky, an amateur boxer and collections muscle for a loan shark, has a fight in the first five minutes of the film, then isn’t seen boxing until the second hour, and for an actor probably not often described as verbal, Stallone uses a distinct speaking pattern to define this guy. That mumbly, affable, dorky-joke-heavy style has become very much identified with Stallone himself; he’s doing a more stoic and much lamer-written dialect of this same language in his Expendables movies. For the most part, Stallone is more of an auteur in writing than he is in directing, where a strong visual style hasn’t ever really taken root. In the first Rocky, his writing (and performing) style is especially lovable and distinct, and even marks an unexpected parallel to another (and, in terms of cinema aesthetics, hipper) iconic character of 1976 when he playfully repeats the phrase “he talkin’ to me?” at one point.

Though Rocky and Rocky have become synonymous with scrappy underdog tales, the movie is upfront about the gimmickry afoot when Balboa is plucked from obscurity to fight reigning champ Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) when a more experienced boxer drops out. The movie’s now-famous training sequences are starker and more beautiful than many they inspired, including a lovely pre-dawn training run, and Rocky’s relationship with the meek pet shop girl Adrian (Talia Shire) is delicate and sweet. The camera stays on the pair during a halting, slow-building first kiss that feels as authentic as any of Rocky’s Philly street cred.

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Rocky’s lack of boxing-movie plot and false drama actually serves it well as a first movie; it establishes a lot of characters, from Adrian to Apollo Creed to Rocky’s trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith) and louse of a best friend (and prospective brother-in-law) Paulie (Burt Young), who will return to the series for years to come—characters who are so beloved by Stallone that even their absences from later sequels must be marked as plot points. In its character-study way, Rocky creates a small, believable world for its sequels to exploit.

That said, if Rocky produced no immediate sequels, few fans would likely have complained (though maybe a years-later revival would have happened anyway). And if Rocky II had produced no immediate sequels, it seems unlikely the initial follow-up would have been remembered much at all, probably cultivating a reputation somewhere above The Sting II (for retaining its original cast members) and well below The Godfather Part II or The Empire Strikes Back (for not even getting close to the magic of the original). Actually, that’s more or less how it shakes out anyway. Rocky II is essentially an attempt to recreate audiences’ elation from the end of the first film with an outcome that is more uplifting on paper but less so in practice. The film is also a little less embarrassing in the context of the full series, because it’s certainly more grounded than several of the movies that followed it.

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Stallone, directing himself as Balboa for the first time, does a decent job of approximating what might happen to Rocky next: He’d make some money, get some endorsement deals, maybe prove himself not so great in front of the camera (though the idea that Rocky loses endorsements for being a bad actor flies in the face of much of what we know about celebrity endorsements today), realize he doesn’t have that much money or many non-boxing skills, and return to the ring for a rematch with Apollo Creed, who is seething from fan reactions to the first fight (even though Creed won). It’s easy enough to read as reasoning for Stallone returning to the character three years later, after his unsuccessful Rocky follow-ups F.I.S.T. and Paradise Alley.

As a biographical narrative, this all makes sense. As an actual movie, though, it’s pretty uninspired. Because it picks up immediately after Rocky—indeed, the first four Rocky sequels each begin with the final scene of their predecessors—Rocky II essentially proceeds as a rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches story. This is perhaps too many rags and too many riches for one movie. Rocky Balboa (and, by association, Stallone) can maintain his roots by blowing his lines in a commercial, blowing his money, and maintaining a puppyish devotion to Adrian, but by the second movie, he has nonetheless clearly become a movie character, just as Stallone was a known quantity by 1979.

It comes as a weird kind of relief, then, when Rocky III kicks the series off into a sort of pro-wrestling phase that would last for two entries. Rocky III is the superior example of the silly Rocky movie, wherein recently anointed champion boxer Rocky finds out that the many fights he’s won amidst the pleasures of endorsement deals (for real this time!), hosting The Muppet Show, and reveling in cheesy merchandising (imagining perhaps a greater frenzy than typically afforded a heavyweight boxing champion) have not been against the toughest of opponents. He sets out to prove his mettle by answering the call to fight from Clubber Lang (Mr. T), a fearsome up-and-comer who somehow turns the heavyweight champion of the world into an underdog yet again.

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This is, of course, something of a joke, and it’s difficult to tell whether writer-director Stallone is indulging any meta-commentary about the inherent ridiculousness of a third entry in a mega-successful film series about a charming, scrappy underdog. (Over in Stallone’s actual career, playing Rocky continued to be his version of boxing, though that would change later in 1982 with the release of First Blood.) But on its own ridiculous, puffed-up, pro-wrestling terms, Rocky III is one of the more enjoyable films in the series. Mr. T shows surprising range as Lang, adding to his signature pity for fools an additional disdain for “bums” (also a metaphorical group held in low regard by Rocky’s social circle). He’s a lot of fun, and so is the inspired idea to make Apollo Creed into Rocky’s trainer this time around. The newfound friendship with Apollo also functions as a corrective to the fact that the early Rocky movies trade on the somewhat uncomfortable spectacle of a white boxer repeatedly going after, and usually besting (whether physically or on principle), a powerful black boxer. As entertaining as these movies are, and as good-natured as Stallone makes the character, it’s difficult to watch them without thinking of Eddie Murphy’s routine in his concert movie Raw about how he gets challenged to a lot more fights by white people because of the Rocky series.

Rocky finally does fight another white guy in Rocky IV, and, as students of American history know, wins the Cold War in the process, winning over a hostile Russian audience to the American way just by not dying in the ring with monstrous bruiser Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). Despite its international angle, the story is, to say the least, sub-epic. Rocky IV runs 90 minutes, which is technically only somewhat shorter than many of the other entries’ run times. But take out the end credits, the obligatory repeating of the final scene of Rocky III as the opening scene to this movie, and a somewhat baffling midpoint montage of moments from Rocky movies including Rocky IV itself, and the film actually contains closer to about 75 minutes of new footage. That new footage includes two extended training montages, what amounts to a musical number opening the Creed/Drago fight, and a subplot wherein Paulie receives an extremely sophisticated lady-voiced robot as a birthday present, all of which is great for hilarious descriptions of this weirdly padded installment.

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But the installment itself, divorced from the camp value of individual scenes, is a mercenary ripoff, assembling the bare minimum of elements thought to be necessary for a Rocky sequel, then adding a robot and old footage to run out the clock. Apollo Creed may be the lynchpin of this movie—he shows off a progression from Rocky’s taunting enemy to a friend close enough to warrant revenge boxing against the Soviets—but killing him off early in Rocky IV, of all movies, does a disservice to the character. The emotional component of this plot turn doesn’t really land until Creed, which engages with Rocky history so skillfully that several cheesy touches from the earlier films come out of the new one looking better, smarter, and more satisfying than they ought to be.

For some audiences, though, the retroactive improvements Creed makes probably play as cheerful callbacks to hallowed franchise history; despite it being the most slapdash and insulting of the series, Rocky IV was an enormous hit back in 1985. It was part of an insanely great year for Stallone; his two hits from 1985, Rocky IV and Rambo: First Blood Part II, still remain at the top of his personal box office charts 30 years later. (Imperfect adjustments for inflation put the first Rocky at the very top, but either way, Stallone hasn’t had a movie as big as either of those sequels in the past three decades, though Creed may come close.) Strange, then, that it took five years for Stallone to make Rocky V; that Rocky V very much plays as a corrective to a wildly popular and apparently beloved movie; and, finally, that Stallone later slagged on the fifth film, despite it having much more in common with Rocky Balboa or Creed than it does with its cartooniest predecessors.

Yes, Rocky V more or less kicks off the grittier and more melancholy phase of the series that has now lasted for the majority of its lifespan, if not the majority of its entries. Granted, Rocky Balboa does this stuff better, picking up with a Balboa who is pushing 60, has lost his beloved wife, and is living a quiet, lonely life when he gets an unexpected new shot at proving his mettle in the ring once again. Creed, almost a decade after that, wrings even more pathos out of the character, and Stallone isn’t even the picture’s lead. But back in 1990, Rocky V was treating the character more realistically and emotionally than he had been in years.

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The movie signals its back-to-basics approach by hiring John G. Avildsen back as director, and in many ways, it’s Stallone and Avildsen’s redo of Rocky II, without the vaguely regressive asterisk of re-staging the first movie’s climax to have a shinier, happier outcome. Here, Rocky’s future is pretty bleak: Diagnosed with brain trauma, he’s ordered not to fight again, just as his finances have been ruined (by Paulie, natch), forcing him to return to modest living in Philadelphia. It all chases the empty triumph of Rocky IV with fear and limitations. Rocky’s return to Philly life and his clumsy relationship with his son (Stallone’s real-life son Sage) have more human drama than the movie’s immediate predecessors. Rocky V easily has the most street scenes since Rocky II, including its climactic fight—this is definitely not a boxing movie. Nonetheless, the movie does mark a dispiriting return to the series’ off-putting tradition of black bad guys, with a broad parody of Don King tipping over into cartoonish evil. Ultimately, Rocky V doesn’t work all that well, especially given the better movies that more fully committed to seeing Rocky as an aging, sometimes regretful man. But it sure tries a lot harder to be a real movie about real people than Rocky IV.

“Real movie” cred seemed to be what Stallone was after with Rocky Balboa, his years-later check-in with the character. The film throws a spotlight on Rocky’s greatest tragedy: that his lowlife brother-in-law Paulie somehow managed to outlive Adrian. Oh, and also the melancholy process of aging. Balboa backpedals on the warnings of severe brain damage Rocky received in Rocky V to clear the path for a comeback fight not unlike his initial shot in the first film. Creed then continues the old-Rocky narrative by following him into his Mickey phase, training the son of Apollo Creed, who also follows a narrative akin to Rocky’s original story. All of the Rocky sequels function as remakes of the first film to one degree or another, but Rocky Balboa and Creed gain emotional heft by the years they let accumulate in between their revivals of old plot points. So, too, does Stallone gain more poignancy in those two films, not necessarily by doing things differently (in the worst of circumstances, he’s pretty charming as Rocky) but by allowing his advanced age to sink in on screen.

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The series also feels more inclusive as it ages; it’s Rocky V that has Rocky offhandedly telling his son that he “loves everyone, mostly.” Stallone has a reputation as a Hollywood conservative, and most likely leans further right than the average movie star. But it’s fascinating how apolitical his Rocky movies are. Even in Rocky IV, the Reagantastic fantasy of converting Russians to the cause of an “underdog” world-champion American feels more like ego (or maybe American id) than anything resembling a real political statement. And though Stallone didn’t make Creed, he did welcome in a star and filmmaker who further undercut the series’ early (and, again, possibly unintentional) racial divides.

The late-breaking notion that Creed is the best Rocky movie since the first one may already be something of a critical cliché. But that doesn’t make it any less true; Stallone has been an admirable custodian of his signature character, but Ryan Coogler is a much better director and writer, and the confident brushstrokes he uses in Creed revitalize the series. Stallone, as mentioned, has never been the strongest director (appropriately, he reaches a brief nadir during his biggest hit, when, in Rocky IV, he fixes on a field of lightbulbs in a light-up sign and then zooms way in for no particular reason). Coogler gooses his scenes using actual cinematic technique and showmanship via long takes and memorable images, including a streets-of-Philly run that calls back to this hallmark of the series while, again, besting anything of its ilk in the sequels (particularly the weird Pied Piper version in Rocky II that has Rocky corralling Philadelphia’s children). It doesn’t just coast on affection for the characters.

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That affection obviously remains, though. Stripped of the series’ supporting cast, Creed pairs Stallone with lead Michael B. Jordan, and their relationship weaves in plenty of Rocky history while standing apart as perhaps the most immediately touching of any two-character pairing in a Rocky movie. If Creed represents some sign of retirement for Stallone, it also points to a possible second career as a warm and well-worn character actor. This shot at respectability has presented itself before (supposedly no serious roles materialized after his fine performance in Cop Land failed to receive awards attention), but Creed finds Stallone giving one of his best performances as a character he’s played six times before—a reassurance of his occasional but potent power as both a movie star and an actor.

A revitalization, though, is also something to fear, especially concerning Stallone’s signature series. Creed is easily good enough to inspire the kinds of sequels Rocky did, and there’s already been talk of what might happen to Adonis Creed next. Finding out may make for an interesting meta-narrative, especially in parallel to the original series. But, as with so many Rocky movies, it’s likely that narrative would be more interesting to watch than the movies themselves. Creed feels like a perfect loop-closer on the series, returning to dependable story beats that feel more surprising and heartfelt because of the middling movies that came before. Then again, Rocky Balboa felt like a last entry, too, only to be outdone by the subsequent film. Maybe Stallone, even with all of his fortune and fame, really is a perpetual underdog.

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Final ranking:

1. Rocky

2. Creed

3. Rocky Balboa

4. Rocky III

5. Rocky V

6. Rocky II

7. Rocky IV

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