Rocky vs. Rambo: The Battle for the Greatest Sylvester Stallone Franchise

By | November 8, 2018

Tonight for your entertainment: A bout between two franchises starring the same actor, Sylvester Stallone. In the blue corner, the Rocky series, born in the year 1976, as of November 21 this year (the release of Creed II) encompassing eight films in total. In the red corner, the Rambo series, currently comprising half as many titles, with a fifth in the works for a 2019 release, and, let’s face it, firmly ahead of Rocky in the department of over-the-top ridiculousness (though Weird Al’s powerful need to parody both of them says it all).

Advertisement – Continue Reading Below

Maybe the boxing metaphor is unfair. Rocky Balboa, after all, is right at home in the ring. John Rambo, by contrast, is a swole fish out of water in a state of hyper-awareness and definitely perplexed as to why he’s in a boxing ring, and how the hell he got there in the first place. But with Creed II coming in hot, and Rambo: Last Blood promising bloodthirsty audiences at least an hour and a half of crimson-streaked, thoroughly batshit mayhem come September ‘19, there’s reason to ask anew the age-old question: Which is the better franchise?

If you’re not the competitive type, the answer is simple: You can like Rocky and Rambo! It’s allowed by law. But competition is in Rocky’s blood, and being as Rambo competes with every mass-destructive action movie ever for body-count bragging rights, it’s fair to peg that series as competitive, too. Most of all, Stallone, 72 years young, remains defined by Rocky as well as Rambo. That’s not to say they’re all he’s got to his name; put a notch in his belt for The Lords of Flatbush, Demolition Man, Cop Land, Cliffhanger, and Nighthawks, too. But gun to your head, Stallone’s name sends your brain straight to either Rocky or Rambo, perhaps both.

So who’s the better character? Which franchise tops the other? In pop culture’s canon, which enjoys the most cachet or has had the most seismic impact?

Most times when a fight breaks out on a stage, you have to wait until the end to find out the victor. In this particular case, the victor is Rocky, and it’s not even close.

Advertisement – Continue Reading Below

Everyone has their favorites, and if you’re more down for Rambo than Rocky, more power to you. But pound for pound, the latter has the former beat in every category that matters: In character, in narrative, in iconography, and in overall quality, with the necessary caveat that just as the Rambo movies wade into bonkers waters, so too do the Rocky movies. Neither’s perfect. But to understand why Rocky’s the superior franchise, all you need to do is ask yourself the following totally scientific and qualitative questions aloud:

Who would I rather be?

Be real: You’d rather be Rocky. Rocky has demons of his own to battle — his sense of self-worth, for one, an umbrella that shelters the troubles of his upbringing, his struggle to find meaningful work as an adult, and his wounds in the ring. Over time, those demons are joined by ghosts: Adrian Pennino (Talia Shire), the love of his life, taken by ovarian cancer in 2002; and Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), his best friend, taken by Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) in 1985’s Rocky IV. In 2015’s Creed, Rocky’s diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a new yet grimly familiar opponent, one he’s ill-equipped to fight and which he overcomes with encouragement from his protégé, Apollo’s son Adonis (the great Michael B. Jordan).

Rambo is a whole other set of baggage: a Vietnam War veteran suffering from PTSD and survivor’s guilt, twin components of a built-in trigger mechanism capable of sending him into instant guerilla-combat mode. (Granted, it’s not the easiest trigger to pull; it takes a group hazing session before Rambo goes full ‘Nam on the lawmen of Hope, Washington.) To say you’d rather not live your life dealing with either is, perhaps, insensitive, but you’d be lying if you said otherwise.

Advertisement – Continue Reading Below

Advertisement – Continue Reading Below

You’ve probably walked by guys like John, destitute veterans, in public places and acted like they don’t exist. If First Blood has any merit over Rocky, it’s the pro-soldier sentiment, a critique against the American government’s habit of discarding its troops after they come home from the front lines, all the while trumpeting support of military forces for political brownie points. There’s a contemptuous through line in First Blood, an anger toward a system that chews up fighting men and spits them out, a line carried through the franchise with varied results. Follow it to its logical conclusion. You’ll come out thinking the same as when you went in.

You don’t want to be John Rambo. Maybe you don’t want to be Rocky Balboa, either — a choice between them isn’t much of a choice at all. Still, Rambo is a victim of the American military industrial complex. Rocky is the pinnacle of the American Dream. He’s the kid who, coming from nothing, is able to gain everything. Under gentle light, this analysis is one-dimensional. All the same, “hometown hero boxer” is more appealing on paper than “broken-down Green Beret.” You’ll offer your sympathies to Rambo, but you’ll invest all of your wish-fulfillment fantasies into Rocky.

Advertisement – Continue Reading Below

What would I rather listen to?

Rocky or Rambo” is an argument easily boiled down to theme songs: Without consulting YouTube, try to dredge up their themes from the recesses of your memory. Unless you’re a Rambo stan, or you have an exceptional ear for musical numbers, Rocky’s sticks out. No disrespect to Jerry Goldsmith and his Rambo theme; take a listen and just a few notes in, you’ll feel macho enough to flip over a car with your left pinky finger while chopping down a tree with your right pinky finger while headbutting a grizzly bear. It’s a muscular piece of music, well-suited for its subject (even if its subject is ultimately about institutional neglect and not about rah-rah, ass-kicking jingoism).

But wake up before the crack of dawn, slap in your earphones, and put on Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now,” and you’ll be running marathons up and down the Rocky Steps, pounding raw eggs, and getting yourself into fighting shape for whatever fresh hell the day has in store for you. “Gonna Fly Now,” among pump-up tracks, is an all-timer, crystallizing the spirit of Rocky, the film, and Rocky, the character, into several minutes of engine-revving greatness. You listen to Goldsmith when you’re already going, to keep yourself going. You listen to Conti to gird your backbone with grit and give yourself dogged determination needed to take on the obstacles in your way.

Advertisement – Continue Reading Below

Advertisement – Continue Reading Below

Which would I rather watch?

The most important and self-evident question is best saved for last, because it’s also the most subtly tricky. There’s the matter of subjectivity, sure, but also grading: Do you compare Rocky as a whole to Rambo as a whole, or individual films to individual films?

Say, for instance, you’re faced with watching either Rocky or First Blood. Which do you choose? First Blood, far and away, is the best Rambo movie; 2008’s Rambo is a much better fourth entry than anyone should’ve expected 30 years after Rambo III, but it’s a damn sight lesser than First Blood. Rocky, meanwhile, is a Hall of Famer by any metric: It’s one of the best sports movies of all time, one of the best underdog movies of all time, one of the best American movies of all time, and one of the best movies of all time, period. Maybe there’s no such thing as a perfect movie, but Rocky comes about as close as any of the greats. If you need inspiration, motivation, excitement, or just a good cry, you watch Rocky. It’s always there for you, no matter what you’re going through.

First Blood is a narrower experience, a somber action-suspense tale to be seen in the right frame of mind. It’s still great! It’s just not as robust as Rocky. Then you get into the other Rambo movies, which don’t care as much about First Blood’s central interests, and which, over time, pull a Die Hard and turn to increasingly outré set pieces and feats of superhuman badassery, each undermining what makes the first movie work so well. Not that you should eschew the sensational delights of watching a man drive a tank into a helicopter, or rip out a dude’s throat with his bare hands, but these things are not the stuff of First Blood. They don’t fit into the narrative it sets for Rambo.

Advertisement – Continue Reading Below

You can make much the same argument about Rocky’s progeny, though these, at least, have the good grace to wait to go off the deep end until about Rocky IV. (Rocky III is at the precipice of the franchise’s tipping point. Arguably, it’s worse than IV, but you can decide for yourself if that’s an argument you feel is worth having.) But when the Rocky films circle back around to what makes the series function, first in 2006’s Rocky Balboa, then in Creed, the comeback has ballast that ’08 Rambo lacks. Abruptly, we’re reminded of Rocky’s essence, through Rocky as well as Adonis, the protagonist for the series in our current moment. As Rocky dealt with class, so does Creed, also touching on race in America, filtering its emotional power through Adonis’ guiding purpose: to prove that he’s “not a mistake.” Try watching that moment, caught during the film’s final fight, without getting a lump in your throat.

Emotion, not brawn, is where Rocky draws its power. Boxing sequences make up part of the franchise’s thrill; you watch these movies for the sparring, in part, or else you’ll have very little reason to watch them at all. But unlike Rambo, an action series supported by character and emotion, Rocky is driven by character and emotion, and supported by boxing. Watching men trade punches in the ring is part of the pleasure of Rocky, but it’s not the foundation of the story, and that, above all else, is why Rocky endures and continues to asserts its relevance well past the birth of the franchise.

Latest Content – Men's Health