At this point, the announcement of a franchise revival elicits an immediate dread in said franchise’s fans. We’ve been duped too many times to get our hopes up for a worthy sequel that makes us feel anything close to the magic of the original film, series, or whatever piece of art is set to be defiled. Star Wars is the most obvious example – an update that managed to be both too dependent on and too dismissive of its progenitor – but there are plenty of other instances. Ghostbusters is currently being celebrated for mediocrity after a disastrous remake/reboot/whatever that became a punchline rather than a feminist shock to the system (except the digestive one). The Terminator series has attempted to revive the success of its first two movies several times, culminating in one that replaced messianic figure John Connor with a more politically correct stand-in and had Sarah Connor regret her role in the story. Disney keeps remaking its animated classics with a soul-crushing modern bent, and while these tend to make a lot of money, it’s difficult to find anyone who actually likes them. Even the MCU is besmirching its older and most popular characters in its current output. (According to The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Captain America is now a racist). And if you check out YouTube channels like Nerdrotic and HeelvsBabyface, you can learn about – or share a cry with fellow fans Gary and Az over – the deconstructions and demolitions of Star Trek and Doctor Who. It seems only a matter of time until everything we once loved is resurrected and destroyed.
And then, there is Cobra Kai. The far-removed sequel series to the Karate Kid movies, Cobra Kai is the diamond in the rough, the revival of an old property that not only does the past justice but actually makes it better. Catching up with the old characters, especially Daniel LaRusso and his nemesis Johnny Lawrence, is a joy, one that reinvigorated my interest in a story I hadn’t thought much about since before my teens. (I recently re-watched all three Karate Kid movies to refresh my memory so I’d catch more of the callbacks in Cobra Kai. The first one is a legit classic, drawing fantastic characters and making you believe in the unlikely friendship between a troubled Jersey teen and an elderly Japanese karate master. The sequels are not so good, kept afloat solely by Daniel and Mr. Miyagi, and the always-honest performances from Ralph Macchio and the late Pat Morita.)There are many ways in which Cobra Kai gets it right while its peers get it disastrously wrong.
Cobra Kai has eschewed the notion of “Let the past die; kill it if you have to” and embraced the Karate Kid films as something almost magical, a time in Daniel and Johnny’s lives that, despite their vastly different circumstances in middle age, they long to revisit, or at least look back on fondly. They remember the karate tournaments, the friends they made and have lost (even Johnny, which is examined in a pair of beautiful episodes during season 2), or the pretty girl they romanced. When they have visions of those scenes from the films, there’s a very “Summer of ‘69” vibe that jibes with our own reminiscences of times past. (Compare that to the endless clips of The Matrix in The Matrix Resurrections, which come off as cheap ploys to trigger the nostalgia sectors of our brains.) Like Disney Star Wars, Cobra Kai puts the past in a different perspective, but does so without denigrating it or destroying the old characters. The most prevalent example is Johnny’s perspective that Daniel was the real villain of The Karate Kid, stealing his girlfriend, pulling pranks on him and his buddies, and using an “illegal move” to win the All Valley Karate Tournament. On its face, this is little more than a bully trying to rationalize his own malevolent behavior, but through the writing and William Zabka’s sincere, human performance, we realize that this is how Johnny really sees what happened. And, God help us, there are moments where we feel like Johnny’s position has merit; from his point of view, this little Jersey punk did move in on his girl. And, while Cobra Kai was a destructive influence, we learn that it also saved Johnny from feeling like a victim and gave him a place where he belonged and found friends and purpose – until Daniel LaRusso and his sensei put it out of business.
It is that sense of belonging and purpose that Johnny hopes to bring to the new generation of Cobra Kai students. He doesn’t simply want to repeat what happened to him but to take the best of it and discard the worst, then use the positive elements – self-confidence, self-defense, discipline, responsibility – to shape modern kids who don’t get that anywhere else. And once Daniel throws his hat into the ring, he does much the same through his new dojo, Miyagi-Do. Aside from being a metaphor for the show and for what these revivals should be but rarely are, this is how the importance of the past is reflected in the new, younger characters. They aren’t little Reys who are going to show these crusty old men a thing or two about a thing or two; they’re students learning at the feet of masters. They’re good at karate because Daniel and Johnny teach them how; they’re confident because their gradual mastery of this forgotten technique makes them confident. Look at Hawk’s remarkable transformation – one that, we see in season 4, still isn’t complete. Look at Miguel, going from target to avenger to champion to aggressor. Look at Daniel’s daughter Samantha, the kind girl who becomes a protector of the bullied, then is so overcome with fear that she abandons the kids she’d drafted into her war against Cobra Kai, and, once she’s passed that, slips into the bully role herself. You can take virtually any of the new characters and trace an arc like this, one in which they come into their own as people, but stumble along the way.
The same is true of the “villains,” such as anyone is on Cobra Kai. Tory starts as a dark mirror of Sam, the highly skilled girl who becomes a bully instead of a defender. But there are layers to Tory, and while, at first, they seem like they’re simply there to humanize a villain – which is a fine enough endeavor in its own right – they slowly become a way to show a different shade to her, to show that she’s capable of being the person no one believes she can but everyone assumes Sam is. That this happens while Sam is giving in to her baser instincts and seeking revenge instead of trying to help Tory (which is a violation of the Miyagi-Do principles) is perfect. And Tory comes to this in the same way Johnny eventually saw the evil in his sensei, John Kreese, in the movies; it’s karate, and the Cobra Kai dojo, that leads Tory to this, even as its new sensei, Terry Silver, is using it to push her in the opposite direction. Miguel and Robby, Johnny’s son, have similarly complementary trajectories, with sweet, innocent Miguel slowly becoming aggressive and angry while lying, thieving Robby learns the value of restraint and honesty from Daniel, only for them to reverse courses after season 2. When season 4 begins, Miguel is studying the defensive inner peace of Miyagi-Do while Robby is Cobra Kai’s new star fighter, bitter and vengeful against two would-be fathers while being molded by a monster. In all of these instances, there is an importance cast upon the characters and institutions from the movies, even Kreese and his corruption of the youth.
The kids aren’t the only flawed characters in Cobra Kai, though. Johnny and even Daniel are shown to be deeply flawed people, despite their genuine desire to do good. But Cobra Kai doesn’t make the mistake of, say, Disney Star Wars and cast them as useless, miserable old fools who need to die so their replacements can fix what they bungled. Daniel isn’t a weird recluse who wants to destroy karate forever and drink the milkings of a strange creature. He is, however, willing to do some pretty underhanded things to stop Johnny from reopening Cobra Kai and, later, from entering the All Valley Karate Tournament. His heart is in the right place – he remembers how Cobra Kai turned his classmates into violent thugs and doesn’t want that happening to today’s kids, especially since his children will have to go to school with them. But he resorts to cajoling Johnny’s landlord into evicting him and demeaning him at an All Valley Committee meeting. Johnny, on the other hand, is struggling to be a better man than he was when he was a student, and his affection for the kids in his charge is genuine. He sees the modern world as destructive, and he wants to give wayward children somewhere to go where they can learn strength and self-reliance. But his old tendencies are alive and well, and he often goes too far, turning the Cobra Kai students into bullies and, in some cases, borderline sociopaths. This reaches its apex when he allows Kreese to return; Johnny lets the Devil into his church, and soon he’s left with little more than the ashes that were once his good intentions.
But redemption is never out of reach on Cobra Kai (unlike for Han Solo, for example, who died an imbecilic thief who abandoned his family, failed to save his son, and couldn’t fly his own ship). Daniel corrects his antagonistic streak by remembering what Mr. Miyagi taught him and offering kids an alternative to Johnny’s aggressive tutelage with Miyagi-Do – again, looking to the past and treating it with respect instead of discarding it or mocking it. And Johnny makes several attempts to correct some of the inadvertently bad messages his students have taken from him, coupling strength and power with fairness and honor. And over the course of the series, both of these methods are proven to have merit. That is especially true in season 4, when Johnny and Daniel team up to defeat Cobra Kai. Their students start drifting to each other’s dojos, understandably attracted by what’s new to them. And it works for everyone; Miguel and Hawk learn patience and restraint from Daniel, while Sam and Demetri – albeit somewhat reluctantly at first – learn to push themselves and attack when studying with Johnny. And the culmination of these divergent lessons is learned by the senseis at the tournament, where the students all become better fighters because they’ve learned from two different masters whose strengths make up for each other’s deficiencies. This is what the kids teach Daniel and Johnny, and just in the nick of time.
And there’s the rub; it’s okay for the old guard to learn from the new generation, as long as they don’t have to learn everything. Johnny’s disdain for modernity is a major theme on the show, and while it often proves right, it also leaves him adrift in a world he doesn’t understand. Miguel teaches him how to navigate the internet or take attractive pictures to post on social media (despite Johnny still referring to hashtags as “hash browns”), and he pushes Johnny to allow girls to join Cobra Kai, which Johnny is hesitant to do. (“Same reason there aren’t women in the Army; doesn’t make sense.”) But Johnny also has plenty to teach Miguel off the dojo mat, like how to take a girl on a great first date, and he does this by again referring to the movies. Instead of making a joke out of it, the Golf N’ Stuff turns out to be the perfect place for two kids to fall in love, a timeless piece of the franchise’s history that still holds every ounce of its power, even if it’s just a high school hangout. Characters old and new help each other grow, and it’s all organic and true to the story and these people.
But the drama, the respect for the past, the acceptance of the new, the graying moral lines, all of that is complemented by one of the most important things Cobra Kai gets right: it’s fun. There is a lot of comedy in watching Johnny try to navigate a world he doesn’t understand, and he takes swipes at modern culture seemingly every episode. But jokes also come at Johnny’s expense, with his hyper-masculine persona satirized to great effect. And the reason the effect is great is that Johnny isn’t being mocked. The humor at the expense of the old characters and the movies comes from a place of love and respect, and you can feel that in the way the jokes are delivered. For example, in the season 1 finale, Daniel slaps his hands together over a wounded Robby, and the music cue is the same as when Mr. Miyagi used some secret method to heal Daniel in The Karate Kid – but then Daniel turns and shouts, “Medic!” This joke works because it’s actually respectful of Mr. Miyagi while laughing at the situation around Daniel. If Mr. Miyagi did this, it wouldn’t be funny because we know he knows how to do it. But Daniel doing it makes sense because, of course, only Mr. Miyagi could perform this trick. Daniel is constantly chasing the shadow of his old friend, and this is one more example of how he looks up to Mr. Miyagi without completely becoming him (which is also a good thing because Cobra Kai refuses to fall into the trap of replacing Mr. Miyagi, even with Daniel). Compare this to, say, Luke Skywalker throwing away his lightsaber like it’s a candy wrapper. There’s a way to subvert expectations without insulting your story, characters, lore, and audience.
The fun also stems from its avoidance of – and, in the latter two seasons, outright assault on – wokeness. This is the elephant in the room, the refreshing element Cobra Kai brings to the table when so many other franchises cower in fear. Cobra Kai is critical of modernity and its undermining of human nature, its embrace of weakness as it demonizes strength. Johnny is the most obvious vessel through which this philosophy is espoused, and a lesser show would have used him as a punching bag who needed to be taught a lesson by some forward-thinking youngsters who have all the answers because they feel like they do. But Cobra Kai, while maintaining the humor in Johnny’s rants, argues that he’s largely correct; the ultra-sanitized, overly protective, unrealistic woke culture has turned the kids who walk through Cobra Kai’s doors into weak, scared, socially awkward neurotics whose insistence that they’re always right is a mask for their doubts and insecurities. Johnny counters that with some old-fashioned toxic masculinity, a focus on self-determination and confidence that you earn instead of demand. His belittling of the students at first seems like it’s going to be portrayed as wrong; then, Eli Moskowitz – whom Johnny had mockingly dubbed “Lip” due to his cleft lip – returns to the dojo with a Mohawk, a tattoo, and a drive to succeed, earning the new moniker “Hawk.” Hawk goes through tremendous changes throughout the series, and I doubt he’s done yet, but none of his advancements would have been possible without that initial push from a man’s man who refused to coddle him.
The rejection of modern culture is also seen in Daniel. While he’s much less aggressive than Johnny, he also laments that his kids aren’t growing up with the structure and learning environments he did. While he’s supportive, it hurts him that Samantha turned away from karate, the venue through which he learned self-reliance, much as Johnny did. And his heart breaks when he sees his son Anthony glue himself to a video game screen all day instead of being active or learning a new skill. When he begins teaching again, he doesn’t modernize or “fix” what was never broken. He employs Mr. Miyagi’s tried and true methods, replete with “wax on, wax off” and other instances of manual labor. He isn’t as openly hostile towards wokeness as Johnny, but he never succumbs to it; he pushes his students hard, making them strive to be their best under sometimes punishing conditions. Sam eventually comes back to karate, but Anthony seems all but lost to modernity, and that comes to a head in season 4. Daniel has been as understanding as the current year demands he be, and the result is a son who has become a bully because he was never taught how to be a man. Finally, Daniel takes a page from Johnny’s book, adopting a firm hand when disciplining Anthony, even breaking his tablet in half to show the punk he inadvertently raised that he’s not joking. While Johnny occasionally pulls back a little, Daniel finds he has to go further into tough territory than he’d planned.
Beginning with season 3, Cobra Kai takes the fight to wokeness itself, showing it for what it really is. In the wake of the massive school fight that ended season 2 (which is bigger, better, and cooler than almost any action movie made today), the high school has gone full-tilt into wokeness, throwing around terms like “safe space” and discouraging any kind of physical contact whatsoever while emphasizing feelings and comfort. The result is the bullies learning the buzz words and using them to their advantage, playing the well-meaning idiots in the faculty like violins. This culminates in John Kreese appearing before the woker-than-woke city council and saying just the right things to sway them to his side, including his insistence that the chairwoman be referred to as “councilperson” instead of “councilwoman.” These rules not only hamper good people just trying to live their lives in peace, but they become tools for the wicked to manipulate the purveyors of infantilism into believing they’re the virtuous ones. It should also be lost on no one that Daniel’s wife Amanda, a thoroughly modern woman who busts her husband’s balls at every turn and blames karate for all of life’s ills, gives Kreese all the ammunition he needs at the council meeting by using her “evolved” peacemaking methods to try to stop a man who only understands violence. This contrasts nicely with all the instances of these types of women in modern entertainment showing those Neanderthal men how it’s done, and seeing Amanda LaRusso escorted out of that meeting like a deranged lunatic is the TV equivalent of chocolate.
But that doesn’t mean Cobra Kai is devoid of – and I hate myself for typing this damn cliché – strong female characters. On the contrary, it’s brimming with them. But these are actual strong characters, not artificially strong characters like Rey and Carol Danvers and Lady Loki and Batwoman and others. Samantha, Tory, and Aisha are all great fighters, but that’s because they’re taught to be. We see them grow into karate masters instead of just being told they are because they’re already perfect. Their training is arduous, and they fall down many times before they learn to stand tall. Sam is a little different because she’d already received much of her training off-screen before the show’s story began, but once she gets back into karate, she finds she’s still got plenty to learn from her father and, ultimately, Johnny. Moreover, they’re strong because of their characterizations rather than because they can fight. Samantha’s very first scene is her making a big mistake that causes a lot of trouble for Daniel and Johnny, and much of season 4 casts her in a less-than-sympathetic light. She’s also got fears that come to a head after a nasty injury for herself and an even nastier one for Miguel following the school fight. These are balanced with confidence, good humor, and general decency that she no doubt learned from her father. Tory, who I already talked about, is similarly complex, and Aisha suffers from a different kind of bullying than the boys, but an equally destructive one, and through Cobra Kai, she learns the confidence that Sam and Tory have. (I really wish they’d bring her back for more than just a quick scene.) And it isn’t just women; there’s racial and sexual diversity as well, but they’re all treated like real people instead of being reduced to their cosmetic attributes, and they’re allowed to be part of the fun instead of mouthpieces for virtue-signaling writers.
The anti-woke element works so well – aside from being a breath of fresh air nowadays – because it’s rooted in the characters and the mystique of the Karate Kid movies. Johnny and Daniel long for the era in which they grew up, when wokeness would have been called out for the nonsense it is. They’re frustrated that the next generation is trapped in a sea of this sludge, and they don’t have mentors like Mr. Miyagi or John Kreese (despite the latter’s massive flaws) to show them a better way. So, in response, they become those mentors. Instead of complaining, they make the world they want, and they teach their students to do the same, whether by becoming a skilled karate expert or talking to the girl they think will never like them. It’s an honesty that speaks of the show itself instead of just the characters, almost a promise to the audience that the people behind Cobra Kai get it. There’s even a subplot in season 4 that validates the “Go woke, go broke” mantra, wherein Johnny uses woke rhetoric to woo a hippie-dippy feminist to his dojo, only to have her go to toxically masculine John Kreese instead. (“I learned feminism for nothing!”) Johnny then wins over another prospective student with similar modern sensibilities by being honest and true to himself. It makes sense in the story, and it’s an assurance that the show will never do that to us.
And, in the end, that’s it. We know what we’re getting from Cobra Kai, in that we know it will always be true to what it is, respectful of its lore, honest with its characters, and as entertaining as the 80s films it adores. Each new season is further proof that this show is not a mirage; it’s an oasis in a desert of disappointment, letting us relax and have fun before trudging through the dirt and sand of modern entertainment once again.