In 2006, University of the Arts President Miguel Angel Corzo threatened to resign from the Philadelphia Art Commission. His complaint: Returning the Rocky statue to the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Citing the Commission’s intended purpose to “raise the standards” of Philadelphia, Corzo unintentionally rehashed an old standard of taste that was once applied to the Rocky franchise—to most franchises that reach five or six sequels—by default: This stuff shouldn’t be on the property of an art museum because this stuff isn’t art.
What Corzo likely wasn’t considering was the statue’s origin in Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky III, released Memorial Day weekend almost a quarter century earlier—nor did he likely consider the feelings of the film’s sensitive writer-director, who bequeathed the statue to the city following production by not taking it with him. Contained within that one gesture is the career-spanning gulf between Rocky Balboa’s humble background and Sylvester Stallone’s star-wielding influence—Stallone very sincerely giving the statue of himself to the city, as a token of the city’s generosity for all he’s arguably done for it, by just leaving it there. As the Association of Public Art vaguely describes, “After prolonged dispute, the city formally accepted the gift.”
In 1982’s Rocky III, city officials unveil the statue during a ceremony for Philadelphia’s own son, Robert “Rocky” Balboa, the Italian Stallion and current Heavyweight Champion of the World. Adorned by adoring crowds, a marching band transforming Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now” into diegetic fanfare, a bunch of dumbly grinning cops, Rocky’s trusty and crusty trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith) and Rocky’s fur-donned wife Adrian (Talia Shire) finally beginning to feel comfortable in the finer things her husband’s vocation affords, Rocky stands sleek and triangular in flawless menswear at the top of the museum steps he made iconic in 1976’s Best Picture winner. He looks dapper but confused. This is the face Stallone gives Rocky so often, that of a man dumbfounded, some light not so long ago punched out of eyes which will never quite cease twinkling, but aren’t as lustrous as they once were. This is the face he wears when Clubber Lang (Mr. T) emerges from the crowd just as Rocky announces his retirement. Yelling up at both Rocky and the Rocky statue looming larger behind him, Lang challenges Rocky to a fight with real existential stakes:
Getting out while you can—don’t give this sucker no statue. Give him guts. I told y’all I wasn’t going away. You got your shot, now give me mine… Why don’t you tell these nice folks why you’ve been ducking me? Politics, man. This country wants to keep me down. Keep everybody weak. They don’t want a man like me to have the title, because I’m not a puppet like that fool up there…I’m telling you and everybody here, I’ll fight him anywhere, anytime, for nothing!
Mr. T, in his breakout role, follows up this public lashing by openly propositioning Adrian, traces of terror and disbelief lighting her face as a burly, mohawked Black man emasculates her comparatively small, lithe white husband in front of her, the city of Philadelphia and God. Rocky cannot allow this insult to stand; he throws his body into the crowd, clawing to get a piece of Lang. The steps that once represented how a street kid working odd jobs for the mob could transcend his status through sheer will and work are now the scene of a bitter confrontation over class and race. Metaphors are never less than obvious in Rocky movies, but suddenly, under the shadow of a larger-than-life reliquary for all of Sylvester Stallone’s mythos, Rocky is no longer the underdog.
This is all complicated by how mean Clubber Lang clearly is. In its opening, following the requisite reliving of the previous film’s final, climactic moments, Rocky III introduces Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger”—which would eventually become as ubiquitous as Bill Conti’s theme—to a montage of Rocky’s ascending fortune in the wake of KO-ing Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). Where in Rocky II we waited around for Rocky to stumble his way through a few simple lines at his first commercial shoot—the lovable blue-collar galoot alien to the exigencies of fame—a few years and twice as many high-profile fights later, he seems natural in front of a camera, dividing his time between luxury branding and pretty easily punching the lights out of (predominantly Black) men in the ring.
Meanwhile, Clubber Lang seethes. First we see him in the audience, a head taller than everyone around him and one earring dripping with multicolored feathers, watching Rocky rack up one simple win after another. Then Stallone feeds Lang more time: We see him train in rooms festooned with mold and water damage, fueled by his animosity toward this sheltered Italian who only spars with easy targets. Then we get to watch Lang fight as, in split-screen, Rocky spends more and more time at home with his family, not in the ring and not in poisonous basements, Lang grimacing and covered in sweat while Rocky’s smiling and surrounded by wealth.
If that dichotomy weren’t blatant enough, the opening montage ends on the lumpen schlub Paulie (Burt Young), Rocky’s brother-in-law and consummate drunk racist with a heart of pyrite. In Rocky IV, Paulie falls in love with a robot who serves him beer, but in Rocky III he’s the canary in the coal mine of Rocky’s vanity: The platonic image of meager means and heart disease, living with Adrian and Rocky and their son, Rocky Jr. (Ina Fried), a man taken care of with nothing to take care of. Heaving his blitzed hump of a torso into an arcade, he violently confronts a Rocky Balboa pinball machine with his half-empty bottle, putting an end to his binge of self-loathing and landing him in jail.
Bailed out by Rocky, Paulie leans into the boxer, who wears a three-piece suit even to pick up a chump from jail. Paulie resents Rocky for moving out of the old neighborhood, making money, erasing time. “You fixed your face up handsome,” Paulie slurs (the least offensive of the slurs Paulie has used in his life) and we realize that, yeah, Stallone does look, somehow, handsomer than he did in the first two films. Money can do that; the actor has physical standards to meet, and in 1982 he was also in the first throes of crafting First Blood, establishing another franchise that’d go on to exploit the star’s veiny mass.
Life goes on, Paulie is mollified by drink, and Rocky agrees to a charity exhibition match with gargantuan Thunderlips (Hulk Hogan), the Heavyweight Wrestling Champ and stud-like heel. Undefeated and rich, Rocky takes the event lightly until Thunderlips easily picks up the much tinier fighter and tosses him, as if his body is carried by the wind, into the surprised audience, who never cease cheering Rocky’s name. (In fact, in every scene, no matter what happens to Rocky, the audience is fully behind him. No matter what Rocky does or how poorly he performs or how completely luck abandons him, he is beloved.) What ensues is about as silly as Stallone gets—a claim probably refuted by the aforementioned robot with whom Paulie falls in love because it serves him beer—but amidst the generously absurd elbow drops and pile drivers, Thunderlips exposes everything Rocky has become. Taunting Rocky’s corner, Thunderlips declares that the match will be “The Ultimate Male vs. the Ultimate Meatball” and then proceeds to toss around that meatball like the Hulkster’s a Sicilian grandma. This is the real insult: Challenging Rocky’s manhood, then punishing him for ever taking the physical precision such manhood deserves for granted.
Rocky is punished further. He loses not only his championship title but, in a brilliantly blunt dramatic flourish, his father figure Mickey, whose body can’t sustain getting casually pushed into a metal rail by Clubber Lang, the man to whom Rocky subsequently loses. Mickey’s fragility is ridiculous (and narratively expedient), but then so is his death, and in these moments the true nature of the Rocky franchise emerges. One imagines Sylvester Stallone watching Douglas Sirk films and taking rigorous notes in crayon, because Stallone’s melodrama speaks with the same epochal sweep as Sirk’s, the two men unearthing archetype to apply its power to American ideals—Sirk in the ’50s, and Stallone, with Rocky III, into the ’80s. The longer the Rocky movies go on, too, the more Stallone wields Rocky Balboa as an archetype unto himself, the immaculately tragic victim of late American capitalism, the luxury afterbirth of that booming era four decades ago, a man whose heart will outlast his body.
At his lowest, Rocky’s approached by former nemesis Apollo Creed to train him for a rematch. Knowing that for years Mickey has been “protecting” Rocky, arranging for him to box less-than-prime opponents to keep his title, Apollo brings Rocky, Adrian and Paulie to Los Angeles, where Apollo grew up, to reawaken Rocky’s fighting hunger. As Paulie so succinctly puts it, Apollo must teach Rocky to stop fighting like a meatball and start fighting—assisted by a gym full of young Black men and Apollo’s former trainer, Duke (Tony Burton)—with “rhythm.” This is the only way he can survive against Clubber Lang; where once Rocky persevered on tenacity alone, now he must hone his body down to its elements, abandoning the trappings of wealth and soft-shoeing to hip hop in a basement limned thickly in pipes which comically leak steaming water as if on cue.
The film’s triumphant training montage, scored (once again and as always) by “Gonna Fly Now,” fixates on the bodies of Rocky and Apollo as they flow sounder and sounder in sync—on their thighs especially, pulsating in slow motion, over which Bill Butler, back from shooting Rocky II, allows the camera to linger. Beyond admiration for the human form, in Stallone’s direction there’s fascination for the male figure. For how muscles should look. Halter tops cannot restrict nor should even cover an exquisite abdominal region. Any class struggle or nuance around race, especially within the boxing industry, flattens into an aesthetic issue. Rocky III, and this montage in particular, marks the nexus where blue character study fully becomes a beautiful fetish object, where Stallone’s obsession with his physique—and with his image in Hollywood as a reflection of its impossible expectations—evolves into auteurist vision and moral standard both. These are not hunks we behold, they are sexless Adonises existing to punch, every muscle calibrated precisely to achieve that end.
What you assume will happen does, never subverting tropes so much as fulfilling them with instinctual warmth. And whether Stallone intended to or not, he metaphorically proves to “men like” Clubber Lang that destiny has placed them exactly where they currently reside. It’s a difficult outcome to stomach, especially basking in the glow of Apollo and Rocky’s burgeoning best friendship, but Stallone directs the final fight with a measured grace, doling out just enough spatial context to keep the action moving, surprising but never denying the audience of what they know will come. Rocky must persist, after all. The American flag fills the background of shot after shot.
A holiday box office hit, making more money than any Rocky entry until then, Rocky III’s popularity in 1982—rather than excludes it as art and banishes its legacy to the parking lots of sports stadiums—sets the stage for Rocky IV, in which Rocky’s masculinity solves the generational ills of the Cold War through enduring 1,800 pounds of pressure, pistoned repeatedly to the face and abdomen. Rocky III is a very good sequel, but it’s a greater example of a singular vision, a jambalaya of auteurism filtered through a filmmaker who cannot not make populist fodder. Maybe Stallone could think of nothing better to give a city he loves than his body, encased in bronze and turtleshelled by muscle and metal. He has no more salient tithe than his image, and what can an artist proffer beyond that? Rocky III represents the work of a filmmaker forging pop iconism from spirit-sundering solipsism. It embraces text over subtext until there is no subtext left, just the bone machine cranking away, efficient and magnificent within the context of this world. Even 40 years later, it’s still a gift to bear witness to an American machine that actually works.
Dom Sinacola is a Portland-based writer and editor. He’s also on Twitter.