The original Rocky is the ultimate underdog story, in more ways than one. Struggling actor Sylvester Stallone was so broke that he hawked his dog for $50 the week before he sold his script about a down and out boxer, with the bold contingency that he star in the film. That movie went on to gross $225 million worldwide. And Stallone got his dog back.
But as Stallone wrote and starred in more Rocky films, they continued to echo his own life in a less relatable way. Rocky, who began the series as a lovable failure, digressed into an awkward one percenter–a boxer with a mansion and a robot who relied on a strict plot formula to power his way through each film.
Nowhere is this formula more apparent than in Rocky Morphology, by Fathom. It’s a series of interactive timelines that break down each Rocky film into its core components: dialogue, training, training montage, pre fight scenes, and the big battle sequences the Rockys are so known for. And in a deft bit of coding, each timeline actually scrubs through the full video of its respective Rocky movie, so by clicking anywhere on the timeline, you can match up the broad structural pieces to the film’s related moments.
This deconstructive view of fiction is based upon the work of the late scholar Vladimir Propp, who disassembled Russian folklore into its core narrative elements. Such a clinical approach works particularly well for the Rocky films. In the most simplistic way, the Rocky movies are a lot of talking, some training, an intense montage of training, and a bit of pre-fight jitters, all leading up to the big battle at the end.
That said, Stallone did switch up the format a bit as time went on. For Rocky III and IV, he wrote a sort of teaser battle into the first act of the film. These matches serve as an amuse-bouche for a blood-hungry audience. But each fight also sets up Rocky’s inner turmoil to be overcome (in Rocky III, he fights Hulk Hogan symbolizing that his career has become a sham, while in Rocky IV, a Soviet fighter kills his friend Apollo Creed, leading him down a path of vengeance).
Eventually, in the last film, Rocky Balboa (VI), the series returns quite closely to its original formula roots. (It’s essentially Rocky without the training.) You may argue that it’s the strict adherence to Rocky formula that makes Rocky Balboa the best Rocky since the original. I’d argue something different: Balboa is the first Rocky since the original to actually capture a deep-seeded, universal experience of being a human through Stallone’s pugilistic perspective. A series that began with a young man battling the insecurity of lifelong failure ended with an older man battling the pangs of being past his prime.
Because Rocky was never really about the boxing. It was always about the fight.