Earlier today I wrote about Worzel Gummidge, and the way in which it’s highly respectful to the source material, as well as an earlier television series. Cobra Kai falls into the same category.
When I was nine years old, The Karate Kid was one of the hot movies of 1984. Sure, I liked Ghostbusters more that year, but the story of Daniel LaRusso being taught karate by his sensei, Mr. Miyagi, was one of the magical movies of that year, which also included The NeverEnding Story, Footloose, Gremlins, Beverly Hills Cop, and Sixteen Candles. It was a pretty good year to be alive.
The sequel to The Karate Kid was also quite good, expanding on the first film and even taking us to Okinawa which felt like a logical progression, but lightning rarely strikes twice and while karate was the hottest thing in 1984, by 1986 it had lost its sparkle in pop culture. And by the third film, it was off-the-boil altogether – and the plot with the evil toxic-waste businessman was just laughable.
As a franchise, The Karate Kid was dead in the water right there in 1989, although it was bravely tried again in 1994’s The Next Karate Kid (starring Hilary Swank, anyone remember that?!), and a complete reboot in 2010, as a vehicle for Jaden Smith which did surprisingly well in box office terms, but you never hear anyone talk about; it never entered the zeitgeist anything remotely like the 1984 film.
So when YouTube Premium (called YouTube Red at the time), announced it was doing a series based on The Karate Kid, the sound from pop culture was one long ‘meh’. Not only was it a streaming service no one could be bothered with (“You want us to pay for YouTube? Really? Wow…”), it was also an extremely daggy franchise. Over the decades it had become the movie with the, “wax on, wax off” scene, and of course, Daniel’s crane kick pose which has been imitated in a million comedy skits since. As for the sequels, most people I spoke to forgot they even existed. This was not a hot property.
Being an 80s kid and, not only that, in the sweet spot for the first film when it came out, I was still curious what they’d done and was pleasantly surprised when Netflix announced it had picked up Cobra Kai which, by that time, had a couple of seasons under its belt. I recall my main comment on social media at the time was that at least it would be a chance for people to access the damn thing.
I tuned in… and was blown away. Cobra Kai instantly nails the characters of both Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence, well, at least in terms of where we think they’d be in life in 2018. This isn’t a The Last Jedi “subversion of expectations” where Luke Skywalker was turned into a character nothing like we expected him to be, a few decades down the path. No. Here we have Daniel, the hero of the movies, who has risen to become a success, running his own high-end car dealership. And here we have Johnny, the bully, who like all those popular jock-types we knew growing up, finds that real life is a lot different to high school. He’s a home handyman because, funnily enough, being cool in a 1980s kind of way and a bully doesn’t pay the bills in the real world. Hard effort, like Daniel’s put in, does.
But here’s the kicker, while the series starts us off with our protagonists exactly where we think they would/should be, it doesn’t leave us there. We are shown plenty of reasons to care for Johnny. Conversely, we’re shown that Daniel’s maybe a wee bit privileged and, to coin a particularly Australian term, a bit “up himself” at times. OK your brain is thinking… this is interesting… these are definitely the characters we remember (no weird subversion of expectations here), but what the writers are doing is then building on those characters to show us new things. They don’t start by telling us that these guys are completely different, 30-plus years later… because that would be highly unlikely and not ring true to us in the audience. We’d be shaking our heads from the start and not invested in it.
This is such a clever route for the writer’s room to have taken and again, to pick on the Star Wars sequels (because frankly, they deserve it), this is how they should have played out. Show us the characters as we all assumed they’d have turned out (Han and Leia as a functioning couple with kids; Luke as the wise Jedi Master), and then mess things up, and add drama. Draw us in with the familiar, then go somewhere new with it. Don’t start with something that, straight off the bat, people are pointing at the screen and saying, “This doesn’t ring true at all and I’m really not buying into it…”
I believe this is a huge part of Cobra Kai‘s success. Fans of the original movies believe they are actually watching the characters they loved (or hated), back in the day. They want to see where they go next. And for people who never watched the movies, they’re still shown enough of the old footage, and can follow the story easily enough, to realise that what they’re seeing makes sense and it doesn’t feel like any of the characters are massively different to what they’re supposed to be. Even at the time of the most recent series to air, Johnny is still an 80s, metal-loving, call-people-politically-incorrect-names and act a bit dense at times guy. Daniel is still a bit of a softie with a very conservative love of tradition. But push him too far and he does eventually snap. None of this is incompatible with the films.
The only criticism I can honestly make of Cobra Kai is that because it’s not trying to subvert expectations, it’s pretty easy to read at times. At the end of the second season, for example, I made a prediction about season three. In the final episode of that season, boom, it happened. It seemed so obvious to me, how could it not happen? At the same time, however, some material does come out of left field, but it’s not material that retcons the earlier movies or makes us roll our eyes. It’s generally just supplemental stuff. In the third season, for example, we get a lot of background about John Kreese and a huge insight into some of the things that have built his character. We might still think he’s the bad guy we love to hate, but we suddenly understand him a lot more than ever before.
I have no hesitation in saying that Cobra Kai is a textbook example of taking a franchise from decades past and taking into modern times – with a lot of the same cast, no less – and having it not only still ring true to what went before, but to also feel relevant to today. Bullying is probably the biggest topic it tackles, but relationships, family, and social media all gets a run as well. Massively recommended.