With Season 3 coming to Netflix next year, here’s a spoiler-lite look at how streaming sequel series Cobra Kai has modernised the Karate Kid franchise so far.
This feature is about the first two seasons of Cobra Kai – if you haven’t seen the series yet, we won’t spoil any major plot points here.
At heart, The Karate Kid and its sequels have always been the teen answer to the Rocky movies. As well as sharing a director with the Oscar-winning Sylvester Stallone film in John G. Avlidsen, the movies have similar peaks and troughs after the great original. It probably hasn’t escaped your notice that the franchise now has its own Creed-style legacyquel going on, in the shape of the streaming comedy-drama series Cobra Kai.
Created by Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg, the series opens with a flashback to the end of The Karate Kid, when Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) musters all he’s learnt from Mr Miyagi (Pat Morita) and comes back from an injury to hoof his bully Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) in the face and defeat rival dojo Cobra Kai in the 1984 All-Valley Karate Tournament. Then it flashes forward to 2018 and find out how Johnny’s life is going 34 years after that outcome.
We find him as an alcoholic, divorced deadbeat dad, who decides to revive and reclaim his old dojo after a series of dispiriting encounters with his high-school enemy, now a car dealership mogul who trades on his local sporting fame in his advertising. Taking on his nerdy teenage neighbour Miguel Diaz (Xolo Maridueña) as his first student, Johnny struggles with and occasionally lives down to the preconceptions that come with Cobra Kai’s lingering reputation and its macho ethos – “Strike First. Strike Hard. No Mercy.”
The premise is definitely a little tongue-in-cheek and could easily have been played out in the length of a Saturday Night Live sketch, (like this one with Bradley Cooper playing Johnny) and yet the show evolves from a watchable treat to a surprisingly involving martial-arts melodrama over the course of its 20 episodes to date. Originally commissioned for YouTube Premium before the platform moved away from scripted content, it’s found a larger audience since Netflix acquired the first two seasons earlier this year, racking up a reported 50 million views in August. It’s been recommissioned for at least two more runs as well.
Similar to how Creed II fleshes out Rocky IV’s Ivan Drago, Cobra Kai recontextualises The Karate Kid not by parodying its story, but by filling out Johnny’s perspective, as briefly glimpsed in the prologue of 1986’s Part II when his psychotic sensei John Kreese (Martin Kove) assaults him. Not only picking up these story threads but also staying true to the teen-oriented story by following Miguel and a new generation of students, the series proves to be a fascinating modernisation of the franchise.
The genesis of Cobra Kai can be seen in another popular TV show. In the later seasons of How I Met Your Mother, it’s a running joke that Neil Patrick Harris’ sociopathic player Barney has skewed sympathies when it comes to watching beloved movies – most relevantly, he roots for Johnny Lawrence as a misunderstood hero who tragically loses a first-place trophy due to an illegal crane kick.
Zabka and Macchio both guest-star as themselves in an episode where Barney’s friends book “the wrong Karate Kid” for his stag do. Later, Zabka’s recurring role is one of the few bright spots of the muddled final season, with one episode hilariously suggesting he has been booed every time he’s showed his face in public since 1984.
Cobra Kai doesn’t make Johnny look so hard-done-by. While the burnout bully who peaked in high school is a character cliché you might expect from the premise, Zabka grows Johnny up from the very first episode, making him more sympathetic and thus more flawed and damaged than he ever was in the movies. Heald, Hurwitz, and Schlossberg hint at a redemptive arc from the off, but his sustained inability to do right is what makes him an anti-hero in the peak TV tradition.
Better yet, the show never holds any truck with the kind of witless contrarian takes that were available elsewhere on YouTube at the time the show debuted, in which it’s argued that Daniel was the real bully all along. Cobra Kai is not a show that glamourizes bullying and although at first glance the pilot looks to be teeing Daniel up as a stuck-up and lofty version of the character we know, the first season has a more nuanced approach to both of its large adult karate kids.
Even while introducing grown-up foibles into the reignited teenage rivalry, the show maintains and even escalates the heightened sports-movie reality in which the original films took place. Employment and fatherhood are going concerns for both of them, but neither has grown up into perfectly well-adjusted men. After all, why else would this old grudge still bother them? Aided by canny and knowing performances from Zabka and Macchio, the writers take Mr Miyagi’s lead and maintain complete balance between the leads’ perspectives.
In Season 1, the supporting cast is largely made up of new characters rather than returning characters, ranging from Daniel’s wife and voice of reason Amanda (Courtney Henggeler) and their daughter Sam (Mary Mouser) to Johnny’s wayward son Robby Keene (Tanner Buchanan) and uninterested ex-wife Shannon (Diora Baird). Meanwhile, Miguel is the teen protagonist and his arc through both seasons mirrors both Daniel’s and Johnny’s by turns.
Ramping up to another All-Valley Karate Tournament in the finale, the series builds on our sympathies rather than toying with them. To its credit, the series is always conscious of how the Cobra Kai mentality could turn lovable nerds into violent bullies as easily as it did Johnny and his popular friends, which makes Season 2 all the more interesting.
With that said, the most obvious difference between the first and second seasons is a renewed sense of drama. Where Season 1 jokes around with the tropes of the franchise a little more and even pokes fun at a few iconic moments, Season 2 leans into its melodrama a little more confidently.
It never goes more over-the-top than the original films, which were given to histrionics by the time of 1989’s Part III, but it also marks the point at which the show really becomes something special. Plus, following on from the previous season finale, a theme that emerges in Season 2 is the toxicity of nostalgia and the dangers of cyclical abuse and trauma.
It’s bedded into the Joe Esposito theme song from the very first film that “history repeats itself”, but the dangers of holding a grudge play into the ongoing stories of teens Miguel, Robby, and Sam, as well as fellow students Hawk, (Jacob Bertrand) Demetri, (Gianni Decenzo) and Tory (Peyton List) throughout the season. Johnny and Daniel both have quick tempers in common, and their squabbles and almost-but-not-quite reconciliations start to corrupt the younger characters too.
With many “legacyquel” properties simply rehashing past glories (and stories), it’s refreshing to see the way in which this show handles its fan service. It refers back to the original films (yes, including Part III) more often, but this time around, it’s always in service of the ongoing story.
Frankly, it’s also a bold step for a show like this to dare to suggest that maybe not all scores can be settled by karate-kicking them, but the excellent scripts back it up. The action sequences get better and better as the show goes on, but the dialogue and character dynamics are just as explosive and compelling to watch. Perhaps the moment that best sums up the series’ approach and grasp of character in one fell swoop is when Daniel completely misses the point of Game Of Thrones by credulously reading it as “a show about how anyone can be a hero”.
Avoiding spoilers here, the second season features more returning actors from the film trilogy at opportune moments, as well as a terrific new addition in the shape of the mighty Paul Walter Hauser, perfectly cast as always, as a more “mature” student who’s buzzing off the nostalgia that’s plaguing everyone else. It all culminates in a season finale that will leave you with your jaw on the floor, wondering where the hell Season 3 can go from here.
Season 3 is set to arrive on Netflix in early 2021, so there’s still time to catch up before new episodes turn up. If you’ve yet to be persuaded that it’s worth watching, the highest compliment we can pay Cobra Kai is that it’s a show that you can get into even if you’re not already a big fan of the Karate Kid franchise. Despite all of its confident use of returning characters and flashbacks to clips from the films, it’s never alienating to new viewers.
Thus far, it’s proven to be a big-hearted show that expands and even improves upon the original series, never going for the easy nostalgic kick when there’s so much juicy character conflict to dig into over the course of each half-hour episode. On top of that, it’s prone to exploring those conflicts with karate battles when a conversation would probably be better for all concerned, and we love it for that too.
In that much at least, it’s renewed the franchise’s concerns about teenage conflicts in a social and pop-cultural landscape that is infinitely more fraught than it was in the 1980s. With its ruminations on the titular dojo’s legacy and the difference between having no mercy and having no honour, it walks the line between self-aware comedy and captivating teen drama spectacularly.
To put it another way, there’s nothing in the two seasons so far that explicitly rules out Hilary Swank’s character from the derided 1994 spin-off The Next Karate Kid from turning up in future seasons, but if she did, we’d immediately be interested in what this constantly surprising series has in store for her.
Both seasons of Cobra Kai are now available to stream on Netflix, with Season 3 landing on Friday 8th January.
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