What if the key moment in your life has passed? What if there was one thing that defined everything that came after it and could never be overridden? This isn’t an idle question, it’s probably something that everyone addresses at some point in their lives. Well, Cobra Kai manages to address it on several levels, and I’ll be damned if that isn’t impressive for a show that’s a spin-off of one good movie with two terrible sequels, one decent sequel, a weird animated series, and a re-make that didn’t have karate in it. Especially since Pat Morita (Mr. Miyagi), sadly passed away in 2005.
The show starts 34 years after the original Karate Kid. Johnny Lawrence (William “I have a well-deserved Academy Award nomination” Zabka), the “bad guy” from the movie is now a stereotypical unemployed drunk. He’s a little racist, a little sexist, is divorced with a kid he never sees, has almost no comprehension of any technology after 1995, and definitely does not care about being politically correct, or kind, with anything he says.
On the other side of town is our “hero,” Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), who has made it big. He’s married to a beautiful woman, Amanda (Courtney Henggeler), with whom he has a successful luxury car dealership and two children. His wife is notably not Ali (Elisabeth Shue), the girl he fought over with Lawrence, who dumped him before Karate Kid II to go travel through time and get nominated for an Oscar. Daniel advertises himself heavily as being a martial artist and offers a bonsai tree with every sale at his dealership. And, of course, he still talks like he’s Ralph Macchio.
Basically, through a series of unlikely events in the first episode, the two get thrown back into contact with each other, leading Lawrence to decide to restart the Cobra Kai dojo (which has been shut down since Karate Kid III, though Johnny left after the first movie). He takes in a kid from his building who is the chronic target of bullying, much like Daniel from the original film, and starts to mentor him in the ways of Cobra Kai. This, naturally, infuriates Daniel, who hates Cobra Kai for… well, you’d think it’d be for basically trying to brainwash and kill him in the third movie, but it seems like it’s mostly just for bullying him all the time 30 years ago. They keep escalating their rivalry throughout the season.
Now, in the past 30 years, a lot has been said about The Karate Kid, and surprisingly a lot of it has been on Johnny’s side. There’s a theory that has been gaining traction about how Daniel is, in fact, the bad guy of the movie. How I Met Your Mother had a fairly long rant by Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris) about how Johnny Lawrence is the “real Karate Kid.” A lot of this is because Daniel is kind of dickish, and a little bit because one of the only rules stated at the karate tournament in the movie is “NO KICKS TO THE HEAD,” meaning Daniel’s famous “Crane Kick” was illegal. The show itself even points this out right away, though Daniel implies that the judges allowed it to balance out Johnny’s “elbow to the leg” right before it.
It also helps that Johnny comes off as being abused by his sensei, John Kreese (Martin “I’m Lorenzo Lamas’s Brother” Kove), especially since Kreese proceeds to try to beat the crap out of Johnny for losing, while Johnny hands Daniel the trophy. But the nature of the two boys isn’t the only thing.
Some culture commentators, including writer of “John Dies at the End” David Wong, have pointed out that the Karate Kid is a movie that fundamentally undermines any realities of hard work by showing Daniel going from bad at something to good at something with almost no work whatsoever, because we only see the training montages. While Wong includes a shot at the Rocky sequels in his article, I’d counter that Rocky was already a professional boxer when he did his montages, so at least we knew he already had all of the basics down, he’s just elevating his game. Also, Rocky loses, Daniel doesn’t, and one of them is f*cking Rocky!
Daniel LaRusso, in under two months of training while still attending school, manages to win a karate tournament against Cobra Kai, people who have been doing karate for years. Johnny had been doing it for 6 years at that point, 1/3 of his life. Now, I love Mr. Miyagi as much as the next guy (God rest you, Pat Morita), but that’s logistically impossible even if Daniel is some kind of prodigy who was in good shape to begin with. Hell, the Karate Institute of America doesn’t allow someone to be eligible for a Black Belt (although apparently the All-Valley doesn’t require a Black Belt, Johnny is one) unless they’ve been enrolled for 36 continuous months, because of-f*cking-course they don’t. It’s not that “guy who practiced most always wins,” but it’s “no one attains mastery in any complex skill in a few weeks.”
People complain about Luke Skywalker being able to fight with Darth Vader after only training with Yoda for a few months in The Empire Strikes Back, but 1) Vader toys with him for most of the fight and 2) that involves the Force which is basically magic. Harry Potter goes to school for 6 years, he only beats Voldemort through tricking him into killing himself, and that series involves actual magic.
So, yeah, over the years, people have formed surprisingly strong opinions about who the bad guy is in The Karate Kid, and what’s good and bad about the movie. What’s great about Cobra Kai is that this show clearly listened to all of that, and came to the conclusion: “Eh, they’re both just people hung up on the past.” And that’s absolutely the best thing they could do, because it let them make a show that is more nuanced than “Johnny bad, Daniel good” or vice-versa.
Johnny is the guy who is hung up on his past failures, believing that he was cheated out of his future and the love of his life, Ali (who, incidentally, is not his ex-wife), by a kid who showed up out of nowhere, stole his girl and rendered all of his efforts at karate meaningless. He left the dojo and his mentor, and since then, he has had no direction. He isn’t on the path he was carving for himself, and he doesn’t know who he is without it. As the show progresses, he starts to clean up his act because re-starting Cobra Kai gives him purpose.
Meanwhile, Daniel, while definitely objectively more successful, is also caught in the past. His self-image is almost entirely derived from the events of the first movie, which, again, were more than 30 years ago. The things he likes: Karate, sushi, luxury cars, and bonsai trees, are all just things that Mr. Miyagi liked. He thinks he knows himself, but, really, he’s just been trying to carve himself into the image that he believes Mr. Miyagi would have wanted. He still feels lost without Miyagi’s guidance, despite now being FOUR YEARS OLDER THAN PAT MORITA WAS IN THE ORIGINAL (feel old yet?).
Miyagi was his surrogate father, but he also never really learned the truth about Miyagi’s lessons on balance and bonsais: You need to learn the lessons of your elders and appreciate their guidance, but you still need to be your own man. Oh, and he’s still a little hung up on Ali, despite not having seen her in 30 years and having been married for 20 (awkward). At the same time, Daniel’s family has its own issues, partially because his children don’t do Karate, which was his own father figure’s primary way to relate to him, and partially because he still feels he needs a mentor to answer his questions. However, as he finds his own students, he becomes more of a master himself.
The fact that both of them are still so mired in the past is also reflected in the fact that they are both unable to really be mature about anything related to each other. They’re two men, in their f*cking 50s, who are almost instantly driven to blows over petty bullshit that could easily be talked out or ignored. At several points, other, more actually mature, characters seem to find the entire situation ridiculous, and they’re entirely correct to do so. The fact that the kids in the show mirror what they’re doing makes it even more obvious that their behavior is childish.
This is carried over on the meta-level with the stars of the show: William Zabka and Ralph Macchio. Both of these men are remembered mostly for roles they played more than 20 years ago. Now, to be fair, Macchio’s natural youthful looks allowed him to play Vincent Gambini’s early-20s nephew when he was 31 in My Cousin Vinny, and Zabka co-wrote and produced an Oscar-nominated Short Film in the 2000s, but, let’s be honest, you mostly remember them from The Karate Kid. They’re two people whose identity is tied up with… well, the movie that they’re now making a show about. Their lives have basically constantly been tied back to that film and, while they’re both good sports about it, it’s likely not been helpful to their careers that audiences have a hard time not envisioning them as those characters.
There’s also a bit of an extended meta-commentary on the idea that society is too hung up on old stories and old ideas, even ones that weren’t really that amazing, to the point that it’s slowing down our growth, but, frankly, nothing about wanting to revive mediocrity is new, even within television and movies. They revived Leave It to Beaver in the 80s, guys. They made a sequel series to The Likely Lads. What the hell is The Likely Lads, you ask? Exactly. Does it set us back a little that we make it so much more marketable to play to youth-colored nostalgia than to show us something exciting? Yeah, it absolutely does, but it’s not inherently bad to be nostalgic, and not all revivals, re-boots, or re-imaginings are bad. It’s good to re-address old ideas and concepts, especially if you can put a new twist on them or change them to better reflect Hell, this show’s an example of that. It’s just about balance, which brings me to the show’s big, brilliant point and why everyone should watch it.
Unfortunately, I can’t talk about that point without spoilers, so go watch the damn thing, then click below. First Episode’s free here: