I watched “Cobra Kai” a few weeks back, but avoided the reflex to review it, at first. Back when I heard this show was in production, I remember being amused by the premise but highly skeptical, after seeing the previous comedy bits (such as the Funny Or Die “Wax On, Fuck Off” sketch and the William Zabka-heavy music video for No More Kings’ “Sweep the Leg) that such a story would be something worth producing as a series. I mean, how much story can you milk out of that without it feeling like a rerun?
And some of the ads I saw, particularly the window cleaning one, didn’t inspire my confidence. Mostly, I really didn’t want to see a modern-day THE KARATE KID with Daniel as the villain. That would have been a waste of time and energy—a rewrite of history and story, and one of those reboots that gets filed under DESTROYS CHILDHOOD NOSTALGIA.
But I was still curious to see what it was like. The tale told from an adult Johnny’s side as a flawed hero trying to take the poison he owns and finally growing up… that could be great viewing. So, I watched it all in a day, and then re-watched it over the next week. And I found I really liked it.
I was prepared to just put “Cobra Kai” out of my mind until season 2 came along… fine to let “Cobra Kai” be a thing I just enjoy for me. But then, I began to see a connection that I thought may just be important to some folks, and so, I thought I’d chime in with my thoughts. There will be some spoilers here, but I’m trying to stay clear of the big ones as much as possible—but I will lay out the first episode in some detail, so beware if you want maximum surprises and still haven’t seen it.
What’s it all about, Roy?
It’s the same thing every KARATE KID story is always about: enlightenment and standing up for yourself. It’s also about masculinity, and the toxicity often inherent in masculinity—and not just from the Johnny side of the equation.
As we catch up with Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), he’s living a pretty shit life in the Valley, and his job as a repairman is taking him nowhere. It appears that his Cobra Kai confidence left him the day his sensei Kreese (Martin Kove) threatened to kill him after the match he lost to Daniel. We meet his timid neighbor, Miguel (Xolo Maridueña), who has just moved into the area and quickly becomes a target for high school bullies. When the mean kids attack Miguel outside the convenience store Johnny is eating a sad slice of pizza at, they hit Johnny’s beloved Firebird. Johnny takes the kids on 5 to 1, and is arrested for attacking minors.
Bailed out by Johnny’s stepdad Sid (Ed Asner!), we learn that that Johnny himself grew up bullied, with Sid using money dependency to put Johnny down. Sid tells Johnny he’s washing his hands of him altogether, cutting all ties and giving him a payout check, which Johnny tears in half.
Johnny’s car gets damaged in a hit-and-run by three popular teenage girls (Yasmine, Moon, and Sam), and he discovers that it’s been towed for service to LaRusso Motors, owned by his nemesis Daniel (Ralph Macchio), the guy Johnny blames most of the things that went wrong in his life on. Johnny tries to wriggle free from the situation but is caught and ribbed by Daniel.
We soon discover that Johnny has a son that doesn’t respect him and wants no part of him. At first refusing Miguel’s plea for Johnny to teach him karate, Johnny decides he needs a win in his life… so, he tapes together Sid’s payoff check and uses it to re-open the Cobra Kai dojo, finding a surrogate son (and free labor) in Miguel.
For his part, Daniel still considers Johnny to be a bully and resists his attempts to re-establish Cobra Kai. As Johnny begins to build momentum, Daniel is constantly looking for ways to undermine him, and begins Karate training an employee (about Miguel’s age) in Mr. Miyagi’s method (Miyagi-do). As the season plays out, we see the positive impact both schools of teaching are having on the kids… but also, the poison at the heart of the Kreese/Cobra Kai method, which is a lesson Johnny is still learning over time.
Is “Cobra Kai” worth the time it takes to watch?
Yes. I love this show. “Cobra Kai” is a great show — IF you like THE KARATE KID, IF you think the conceit that Johnny is the hero of his own story has merit, and IF you want this revamp to hold true to the tone of the original but updated for the present.For me, that’s yes, yes, and yes.
“Cobra Kai” understands nostalgia in a way most things just don’t. I still like THE WEDDING SINGER, but the way that references the 1980’s now feels like Boba Fett turning up in the Star Wars Special Edition—a bit too on the nose. But this show understands how to take your love of a thing, honor that, and take you in a new direction.
“Cobra Kai” isn’t highbrow material, and it doesn’t try to be. It is reverent as much as it is irreverent to the past. The trailer scene where Johnny tells his student Miguel he doesn’t give a shit how he does the windows is a just one example of this. Later, we see Daniel training someone in methods that are similar to the ‘wax on, wax off’ ones Mr. Miyagi taught him, but different—at Daniel’s car dealership instead of his home.
When the kid Daniel trains gets as frustrated with the method as Daniel did in THE KARATE KID, the show is smart enough to sell this with Macchio as Daniel telling his wife he can’t wait for the next part—where he shows him how the muscle memory of each move becomes second nature now. It’s a gleeful look at how Mr. Miyagi must have felt, deceiving Daniel until he finally needed to be shown the fruits of his labor. We know it’s coming, but it feels invigorating and earned… and it’s still new, because this time, we’re on the inside of the joke., getting nostalgia from seeing a new kid shocked with being tricked into learning karate, and watching Daniel take over as Miyagi.
“Cobra Kai” doesn’t settle for a modern-day updating of the past. It celebrates the differences it has with its history, echoing events even as it moves past itself. It is reliving the past from a completely new perspective.There’s love for characters central to the original who aren’t around anymore. Mr. Miyagi is not just felt greatly in the story or in the music… they flashback to actual scenes from the movies, and there’s a great recognition as to how much of Daniel’s life Mr. Miyagi affected.
Although Elizabeth Shue doesn’t perform in “Cobra Kai” (except in flashbacks), Ali’s presence is a constant; whilst she’s still a bone of contention for the happily-married Daniel, it’s Johnny who really pines for her. It’s an unacknowledged metric of Johnny’s evolution that he doesn’t resent her for moving on with Daniel anymore, and in his own time recognized why she quit him in the first place. She comes up many times in the course of season one, and although she is only a flashback or a photograph, she is still a very important character in “Cobra Kai”, much in the way The One Ring is a character in THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RINGS—both as a possible player in the story, or as a reminder of how much stands between Johnny and Daniel as they, at time, teeter reluctantly towards friendship and understanding despite deep philosophical differences.
The music of “Cobra Kai” is a big factor. I felt for sure at any time Joe Esposito’s “You’re The Best Around” would get a montage, and that would be too hokey to keep my attention. (It doesn’t.) But Boston, Ratt, Twisted Sister, Motley Crüe, and REO Speedwagon get play and these songs serve to point out how trapped in the past Johnny still is—and Daniel, for that matter.
Johnny is evolving. Just really, really slowly.
This isn’t a story about Johnny being ground into the dirt or turned into a megalomaniacal supervillain… it’s about him getting a handle on the good things that his time with Cobra Kai brought to his life, whilst removing the toxic parts (albeit slowly).
It’s always been a pet peeve of mine when someone references the character of Ebenezer Scrooge for someone cheap or miserly. To me, Scrooge has earned the change he demonstrated at the end of the story. He has evolved and is entitled to be something other than what he was at the start of the story, because he broke along the way. In that spirit, I don’t think of Johnny as just the guy that hunted Daniel down with a bully posse after the bathroom shower prank, intending to beat him senseless… I think of him as the guy who handed Daniel the trophy in tears and congratulated him, when he was crushed by losing. The guy who finally saw through his sensei in the parking lot. That’s the Johnny we were left with.
And that Johnny is here, but he’s also been kicked in the teeth by a life that didn’t pan out the way he thought it would. He blames Daniel unfairly for his own defeats. He’s regurgitating Kreese-isms to his acolytes, trying to build a life for himself, unaware until he sees the past replayed that he is still seeped in Kreese’s toxins.
Without greatly damaging the development of Johnny or Daniel, it has them still at odds after 30 years have gone past. The level of meta fun the writers have with this scenario… and with keeping Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence just left of center… it’s genius-level work. The balancing act that “Cobra Kai” does is fucking amazing and Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg should be immensely proud of it. It’s not a pretentious thing; it knows the magnitude of the story it is telling and doesn’t overthink itself. It is a level of nostalgic sophistication I never thought I’d see, applied to something as important to my childhood as THE KARATE KID.
What’s So Good About “Cobra Kai”?
For starters, it has a great cast. I’m not even talking about Zabka and Macchio when I say that. True, William Zabka is extraordinary in this, playing faithfully to the Johnny we remember from THE KARATE KID—just with a little more context. Ralph Macchio is also terrific, and this is one of the bravest things I’ve seen an actor do with their most well-known role, because it puts Daniel in a slightly different light, but an honest light; it’s a risk Macchio is taken with a series that’s been the best part of his career, to let Daniel be portrayed in shades of grey like this.
Xolo Maridueña (Miguel) has to carry about 1/5 of the series as Miguel, the Cobra Kai top student, and he does a great job of playing the kid who needs to believe in Johnny’s redemption. He’s not Daniel 2.0, in the least. He’s not exactly Johnny 2.0, either. He’s the major focus of the story, and represents Johnny being doomed to repeat his past unless he can change.
There’s his Miyagi-do counterpart, Robbie Keene (Tanner Buchanan), who I will not explain too much, as he’s a huge spoiler. I really did not want to like this character, from the moment he appeared on-screen. But about the time he makes a choice to be a good guy and takes a strong step in that direction, I’m very much Team Robbie, and I think Buchanan does a great job of selling it, particularly in the season finale. I not only like the character, I like the performance.
There’s a bit of a love triangle forming with Miguel and Robbie, with Daniel’s daughter, Sam LaRusso (Mary Mouser) as the object of their affections. She’s something I don’t want to spoil too much. She’s the smartest possible update on Ali we could hope for, and just so easy to root for. Like other characters, she makes mistakes and those cost her. She also serves as a comment on Ali, about how she didn’t suddenly turn into a Deadite between THE KARATE KID and THE KARATE KID PART II—our Daniel is an unreliable narrator and there’s a lot more to that story than what Daniel said to Mr. Miyagi in the opening moments of Part II... We just didn’t get it in a sequel that needed him to break up with Ali for plot reasons.
If you’ve heard buzz about a character named Hawk (Jacob Bertrand), believe it. It’s like seeing the origin of Tommy in the original THE KARATE KID (that’s the guy screaming “YEAH, PUT HIM IN A BODY BAG, JOHNNY!” just before Johnny gets crane-kicked into second-place). You know when television shows cast obviously too-good-looking kids to play the geeks and social outcasts (“Beverly Hills 90210” / Brian Austin Green, I’m lookin’ at you), and you do not buy it in the least? I bought Bertrand as closed-off, sensitive Eli, and watching him transform himself into vicious, aggressive, mob-ready Hawk was just as fun. The pairing of him with Gianni Decenzo as his best friend Demetri was perfect; as Eli transforms, Demetri doesn’t, giving you a sense of scale as Hawk comes into his own.
I can’t say enough about Nichole Brown as Aisha. She’s this picked-on girl, former BFF of Sam, who joins Cobra Kai after seeing Miguel kick some bully ass at school. She’s endearing and very sympathetic. She does the one thing I have a problem with in the series (I won’t even get into that here, not a hill I want to die on)… but I still like the character, not just for its inclusion, but for the fact that she becomes a very important part of the new Cobra Kai, central to their dynamic and takeover as the cool kids at school. Miguel, Aisha and Hawk are the core of the new Cobra Kai.
May No Mercy be with you.
As I reflected on the first season, I couldn’t help but draw a lot of parallels between “Cobra Kai” and the KARATE KID films to STAR WARS, along the way. And the further I got into this, the more I thought of the Talkbackers who felt burned by STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI. I’ll be discussing “Cobra Kai” plotwork again, so if you want to avoid spoilers, I would recommend you turn back now and come back to it after you’ve had the chance to see the show for yourself.
For me, Episode 8 was the best Star Wars there’s ever been. I didn’t agree with a lot of the hate people dropped on Episode 8, and I still don’t—but I can understand the argument better now, and I believe I can understand why so many people are angry about the way Luke was portrayed. Because I think “Cobra Kai” handles it better than Rian Johnson did with —in part because they had longer to tell the story, but also because Johnson doesn’t have the time or the inclination to humanize acts of villainy; “Cobra Kai” does.
There are many obvious parallels between STAR WARS and “Cobra Kai”: a right way to do Karate (light side of the force) and a wrong way that counts on aggression and puts victory above honor (dark side of the force). There’s a wise light-side master who’s very Japanese, speaks in broken English, and is the absolute bomb when tested in combat (Mr. Miyagi/Yoda). There’s the manipulative evil mastermind trying to weaponize hate in children (Kreese/Palpatine). There’s the theme of two similar people, who each found father figures in martial arts (Anakin and Palpatine/Johnny and Kreese, Luke and Ben & Yoda/Daniel and Mr. Miyagi). There’s the daughter caught in the middle and yet left out of this father/son dichotomy (Sam/Leia). And there’s the guy in the middle of everything, the adult, trying to tell people to grow up and stop getting drawn into the past (Daniel’s wife Amanda LaRusso/Benicio Del Toro’s DJ).
Star Wars has always been polarized, with Luke being an unshakably Good Guy. He is Light Force. Giving him a dark moment of nearly decapitating a sleeping Padawan for being corrupted by a Sith Lord worked against that polarization, but it wasn’t accepted, because Star Wars is very polar. The previous KARATE KID films also seemed coded to tell the audience “Daniel is the good guy”, but when you look at some of Daniel’s behaviors, like that shower stunt at the Halloween party, it’s not so clear cut. And that’s what I love about “Cobra Kai”: in this show, everyone’s imperfect, giving room for drama, as well as character growth. You aren’t compelled to hate any character just because they behave badly now and then. (Except maybe LaRusso’s son—I hate that little shit.)
STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI feels like a soul-brother to this show. Both build on an existing mythology to a reasonable conclusion. But “Cobra Kai” does it without alienating a good part of a very polarized audience. It embraces toxicity as failed humanity, but still humanity. Johnny’s not a Nazi and he has a code of ethics, which even he is surprised by, in the finale. I think “Cobra Kai” actually SUCCEEDS Episode 8—without having to do so as a feature film with a maximum of 2.5 hours to keep the audience’s attention.
And I feel like the show itself does a lot to dispel the idea of good and evil (what Benicio Del Toro’s DJ was on about)—and instead tries to gamely dig into the idea that maybe Daniel was a bit of a punk at times, too. (I’ve long held the way Daniel shines on Chozen in THE KARATE KID PART II to be supreme trollage.) Instead of insisting that Daniel is right and Johnny is wrong, COBRA KAI looks at the weakness in both men and gives them the chance to face it down. Daniel is a little more successful; he’s had a better upbringing and seems to understand cause and effect better. For Johnny, given the bad fathers in his upbringing, it’s a real struggle.
I feel like the point of having Robbie and Miguel in this show is that they are avatars for the conflict between Johnny and Daniel, forced on a new generation. The focus doesn't seem to be on either to be the new ultimate KARATE KID, just for them to be a representation of that tension and these two grown men stuck in a teenage moment, one as a winner, one as a loser. Daniel’s daughter Sam is, I hope, not so much the focus as she is the idea that one of these ideologies doesn't need to be dominant for there to be peace. That the purpose of a Miyagi-do School should be for the students it can benefit, not to relive this 30-year conflict. That as friends, Daniel and Johnny could make each other better.
In short, Episode 9 could learn a lot from “Cobra Kai” season 1.
Hopes and Dreams for Season Two
I had fun watching “Cobra Kai” and I have a long list of hopes and dreams for next season… this series all but begs Elizabeth Shue to show up, while also giving us plenty of reason for her not to ever be in the series (Ali is married and living out of state). As much as it would be great to see Shue guest next season. I almost hope it teases without ever delivering that unnecessary guest role—like, having her walking past Johnny in the airport and not recognizing him and a stunned Johnny realizing it a few moments too late.
I'd love to see some of the ex-Cobra Kai’s in season 2, and in particular, I’d like Bobby to make an appearance. The regret he had after trying to viciously take Daniel out on Kreese’s orders would make him an interesting person for Hawk to have an interaction or two with. He was also one of the Cobra Kai’s who tried to stand up to Kreese, which would make him a great ally for Johnny, would be awesome to see him turn up to help get Cobra Kai back from Kreese. Equally, Tommy (“Body Bag”) would be an interesting Kreese ally.
As unpopular a movie as THE NEXT KARATE KID was, I would still love for Daniel to encounter Julie Pierce (Hillary Swank) at Miyagi’s gravesite the next time he visits it. No big production is needed, just a bittersweet, short cameo, to speak to the loss of Miyagi (and Morita).
The characters I most want to see return from the past are Chozen (Yuji Okumoto) and Kumiko (Tamlyn Tomita). In the first half of season 1, there’s a moment where a parade of women unexpectedly begin entering the Cobra Kai dojo, announcing it is their time (that turned out to be a Yoga class Johnny rented the dojo out to just to keep it afloat). For a brief moment, I was hopeful that we'd find out it was a ballet class, and that Kumiko, Daniel’s KARATE KID PART II love interest, was teaching it—and that Chozen was her husband. Tomita and Okumoto were pretty much flung from further mention after about ten minutes into THE KARATE KID PART III, but as the actors seem to get on pretty well together after all these years, I would love to see them in this… and love to see them together.
Thinking about some of very ugly interactions between Kumiko and Chozen over the story, I wondered if maybe she'd secretly had feelings for him all along, and fell hard for a broken-and-rehabilitating Chozen eventually. It might go towards explaining Daniel's very brief, very ominous "Kumiko will NOT be joining us" comment to his mother at the beginning of Part 3.
What if, before Daniel showed up, these two had been childhood sweethearts before Chozen began walking a dark path of thuggery in his uncle’s shadow? Chozen surely went to jail for what he did at the O-bon festival. I’ve got this theory… that Daniel’s breaking of Chozen reopened those old feelings. What would become of an adult Kumiko who had married into the Sato fortune, and was in the U.S. trying to keep her dance studio alive by renting out spaces to teach ballet? Dunno, but it couldbe a great way to get both Tomita and Okumoto into the “Cobra Kai” story. Kumiko back in Daniel's orbit... that's an itch I'd like to see Daniel scratch, this wound that he never got over... but more for Chozen, who I would love to see interact with both Daniel and Johnny as this changed person with perhaps a deeper understanding of karate then the other two, combined—Sato’s true son, in the end.
The same conceit that makes COBRA KAI possible is also possible for Chozen, as villainous as things got with him... but it requires Chozen actually believing he was wrong then, and trying to put it right now. It would be great if Chozen and Kumiko had a weathered-but-still standing marriage, built on the idea that he would accomplish good and right his past wrongs. Which would have Chozen always measuring himself against ghosts of the past, and never good enough, something to echo the struggle we’re already seeing Johnny and Daniel deal with, alone and together.
That’s my take on “Cobra Kai”; if you haven’t watched it or decided against it, I hope this will make you reconsider. YouTube Red is free for a month, and it was worth the risk of billing over the month to try this out. I’ll be looking at renewing next year just as the season returns…
I leave you with a few of the inspirations for “Cobra Kai”:
– Precious Roy