Back in the summer of 1984, John G. Avildsen’s The Karate Kid took theatres by storm and introduced a generation of moviegoers to the uplifting story about a young kid from New Jersey who gets transplanted to Southern California and must learn to defend himself against a group of bullies, all with the help of his mentor who teaches him the timeless art of Gōjū-ryū karate. For most people, the heroes of The Karate Kid were Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) who both had to contend with the hot-headed aggressors of Cobra Kai, led by the dojo’s sensei John Kreese (Martin Kove) and his star pupil Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka).
Of course, that was only the beginning of the story. In the Karate Kid Part IIprologue, we learn that Kreese has turned on his students after Daniel wins the tournament, to the point where he physically assaults Johnny. Then, in the third Karate Kid film, the maniacal teacher grows so desperate for revenge that he fakes his own death and enlists the help of his war buddy Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith) so that he can enact his own twisted brand of retribution on both LaRusso and Mr. Miyagi. For decades, fans have believed that this trilogy wrapped up the story between these characters, but when Cobra Kai resurrected the Karate Kid storyline (or karateverse for lack of a better word) in 2018, it showed us that in life, things aren’t always so black and white, and just maybe, the traditional concepts of heroes and villains are a somewhat antiquated way of viewing characters, beloved or not, in this day and age.
Right off the bat, with this newest chapter in the Karate Kid saga centring its narrative around Johnny Lawrence, Cobra Kai challenges our loyalties by asking us to sympathise with the original film’s bully from the onset. Many ‘80s kids (and generations beyond, too) grew up hating Johnny Lawrence because nobody likes a bully, right? Especially not one who gangs up on a poor defenceless kid along with his group of karate buddies. And even if the opening scene of The Karate Kid Part II portrays Johnny in a much more sympathetic light than its predecessor does, especially as Kreese physically attacks him following his loss to Daniel at the All-Valley Championship, there’s still no denying the fact that Johnny was still an aggressor who got what he deserved after beating up Daniel and continuing to harass him for months.
But Cobra Kai wants to challenge those ideas, as the series continually demonstrates throughout all three of its seasons that the old days of good guys and bad guys is something of the past. Throughout the first season, as the various storylines flip back and forth between both Johnny and Daniel, and as we follow both protagonist’s journeys, our allegiances waver with just who exactly is the more empathetic character in the new series. At times, we’re left rooting for Daniel, like whenever he’s contending with his car sales rival Tom Cole (David Shatraw) or fighting off thieves at the Encino Country Club.
In other instances, we’re firmly entrenched in Camp Johnny — even when he’s doing less than ideal things (like spray painting a dick next to Daniel’s mouth on a billboard, which is HILARIOUS, but childish and demeaning, or drinking himself into a stupor whenever things don’t go his way, which is often). And because most of us have spent decades of our lives following and rooting for Daniel, Cobra Kai smartly leaning heavily in the favor of Johnny, who hasn’t nearly been as successful as Daniel, is something that revitalises these characters and their stories in a new and exciting way, as we cheer Johnny along on his path to redemption during that first season.
In Season 2, the showrunners change things up a bit, and we see the traditional Daniel versus Johnny dynamic in Cobra Kai shift focus a bit with the reintroduction of John Kreese, who is thrilled (of course) that his “number one student” has resurrected Cobra Kai Karate in his absence. At first, Kreese appears to be a sympathetic character this time around, as he seemingly has nothing left in his life, beyond rekindling his relationship with Johnny and getting to spend some time sharing his knowledge with this new generation of Cobra Kai students. But in true Kreese fashion, the sinister sensei has other motivations behind his reappearance, and by the time we get to this second season’s explosive finale, Kreese’s dastardly plan is finally unveiled, and it changes everything for both Johnny and Daniel, as well as for all their pupils, too.
And when Cobra Kai returned for its third season, the theme of redemption was front and centre again, as both Johnny and Daniel had a lot to answer for in the aftermath of the brutal fight between Robby (Tanner Buchanan) and Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) that not only had dire consequences for the young men but it also completely rocked their families, their school and the community-at-large to their very core. Kreese goes into full-blown villain mode (probably the most “typical” thing Cobra Kai has done throughout all 30 of its episodes), leaving Johnny and Daniel with no choice but to put their differences aside and team up so that they could try and rid the world of karate from the venomous Kreese once and for all. And only time will tell if they’re successful in Cobra Kai season four.
There’s a lot about Cobra Kai that works incredibly well, but one of the ways that the series truly excels is how it continually examines and re-examines the concept of villains and heroes, and that is one of the show’s greatest storytelling assets. By not putting its characters in those conventional boxes that we saw utilised throughout the Karate Kid films, or pretty much most films of that era, it demonstrates a thoughtful and nuanced way of exploring the human condition that somehow makes the films that preceded it even better in its wake. And what’s even more remarkable is that Cobra Kai teaches us that almost unanimously, no one is beyond redemption, which is an ideal that we could all use a bit more of in the world today.
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