Is There a Place for Rocky in This New City of Ours?

The Rocky franchise shows no sign on slowing down. But is it time to move past our haggard self-image?
Rocky Balboa Statue in Philadelphia

Rocky Balboa Statue outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art | Photo: Anna Bryukhanova/iStock.com

I’ve always thought of the first Rocky as a love triangle. Two corners belonged to Rocky and Adrian, of course, and the stolen glances and clumsy dialogue that told the story of their awkward courtship. An army of Philadelphians occupied the third corner off-screen, silently enthralled by something they’d never seen on film before: themselves. And so an obsession was born, one that’s still going strong 40 years later. 

Think of the movies that helped define the ’70s: Taxi Driver. The Godfather. Annie Hall. Saturday Night Fever. Ambitious works, all set in Not Philadelphia, a.k.a. New York. Filmmakers who had something interesting to say didn’t bother looking in our direction. And then along came Sylvester Stallone with a little yarn about a boxer who was good but not great, who was down on his luck but still flirting with the idea that he could do something meaningful with his life. He shuffled around the shadows of Kensington, he ran past barrels of fire in the Italian Market, and he had heart — maybe more heart than actual talent. There had never been a better mascot for such a stubborn, unpolished city. A region built on inferiority complexes had its champion.

If you grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, like I did, you probably threw phantom punches every time one of the sequels made its way into the VCR. The training montages were somehow both cheesy and inspiring. The films also offered occasional nuggets of pop-culture gold; mention Ivan Drago in a bar and you’re bound to find at least one person who can spit out “If he dies, he dies” in a stilted Russian accent. But let’s face it: By the time Rocky fought a guy in front of a SEPTA bus in Rocky V, the franchise had become played-out. I thought we should have ended the love affair then, buried it next to the remains of Mickey and Apollo Creed and any future scripts. Philly was changing, anyway. Younger and ethnically diverse families who weren’t raised with “Gonna Fly Now” as their civic soundtrack began moving here in droves. Office buildings and condos sprouted like weeds downtown, and neighborhoods that had been left for dead developed a pulse again. Maybe we didn’t need Rocky Balboa to punch something for us anymore.

But he never really went away. Rocky found a second life as an unofficial symbol of the city, a reliable presence in the pantheon of cheesesteaks, Mummers and the Liberty Bell — Philly’s version of knighthood. Part of me winced whenever his name was invoked at big-ticket events. Every shout of “Yo, Adrian!” reduced us back to a city of one-note caricatures, a mass of heavy-lidded mumblers with a fondness for dime-store philosophy.

Stallone was no better at disentangling himself from Rocky than the rest of us. “Let it go, man,” I thought when I heard he was playing the character a seventh time in last year’s Creed. But the spotlight belonged to a new fighter, Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Johnson, and the movie was a feel-good hit that earned Stallone an Oscar nomination. Even more surprising: The film resonated with the Selfie Generation, including my middle-school-aged sons. As I watched my boys light up while they watched Creed and then the original movies, I realized that we’ll never move on from Rocky Balboa — and maybe that’s a good thing. Making your own luck through hard work and determination is a mantra you can pass down from one generation to another like an old family recipe. Philly might have more going for it now than it did in 1976, but it’s still a city of shadows and pain — one that could always use a guy like Rocky in its corner.

Read Also: Rocky: An Oral History »

This article first appeared in the December 2016 issue of Philadelphia magazine.