Cobra Kai and the aesthetics of fan service
EVEN IN AN ENTERTAINMENT AGE which has offered us a fresh glimpse of Mad Man Mooney’s and a Star Wars film featuring Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford, the sheer unlikeliness of Cobra Kai is fascinating enough to sustain its ten brisk episodes. It’s one of the unlikeliest things I’ve ever seen. Its unlikeliness derives partly from the unlikeliness of its source material, The Karate Kid, so we have to talk about that first.
The Karate Kid was released in 1984, when I was seven. It was a surprise blockbuster, in a ridiculous year which also included Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop, Gremlins, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Police Academy, Footloose, Amadeus, Romancing the Stone, Star Trek III, The Terminator, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Neverending Story, Sixteen Candles, Revenge of the Nerds, This is Spinal Tap, and Splash. I remember seeing The Karate Kid twice on its first release, the second time at a drive-in double feature with Ghostbusters. I remember taping it from TV a few years later — cutting out the commercials — and watching that VHS tape so many times that I still expect to see the words “EDITED FOR TELEVISION” appear after the opening credits. Like countless other kids, I identified so strongly with Daniel LaRusso that I took karate lessons and wore my gi around the house.
I was relieved to find, on recent rewatch, that The Karate Kid itself holds up surprisingly well. It is what it is — a sports movie, a teen movie, an eighties movie, beholden to certain formulas and conventions — but it’s highly entertaining and consummately well done. Despite its status as a commercial mega-hit, it’s a small, personal film, informed by screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen’s experiences with childhood bullies and Okinawan karate, and helmed by John G. Avildsen, the Oscar-winning director of Rocky — another small, personal sports-underdog story that became an unexpected smash. Also like Rocky —and perhaps more so —The Karate Kid is elevated by passages of good comedy and good drama, artful cinematography, an extremely effective use of music, an abundance of iconic and quotable moments, and two outstanding central performances.
As Daniel LaRusso, the young Ralph Macchio is completely natural, incapable of a false moment. It must be one of the most charismatic performances ever by a juvenile lead, but there’s not a hint of Hollywood about him. Daniel is a real kid and an interesting character, full of distinctive quirks and mannerisms which don’t seem mannered. This comparison seems odd, because the two films are so different, but he reminds me of Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate: A role seemingly written for an all-American boy instead went to a small, odd, ethnic New Yorker, who turned it into something far more interesting and idiosyncratic.
The other great performance is Pat Morita’s masterful, Oscar-nominated work as Mr. Miyagi, the Okinawan karate master, bonsai botanist, vintage car restorer, World War II veteran, and building superintendent who becomes Daniel’s teacher and surrogate father. I was afraid some of this would come off as cringe-worthy racial caricature today, but the film seems fairly progressive and respectful in its depiction of Miyagi and his culture — especially considering that 1984 was also the year of Sixteen Candles and Long Duk Dong. In contrast, The Karate Kid was thoughtful and serious enough to offer millions of young viewers their first awareness of the shameful internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. (Miyagi’s backstory, revealed in one of Morita’s most impressive scenes, is that he fought for the United States with the all-Japanese 442nd Regimental Combat Team, won the Medal of Honor, and lost his wife and son in an internment camp. For some interesting Asian perspectives on Mr. Miyagi, see this and this.)
Daniel’s romance with Ali (Elisabeth Shue, in her first film role) seems far more retrograde than his friendship with Miyagi. Ali is mostly there to root for Daniel from the sidelines, and to provide conflict between Daniel and archetypal eighties jerk Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka). Johnny is Ali’s ex, a tough, blond California bully who wears a red leather jacket and rides around on motorcycles with fellow members of Cobra Kai, an evil karate dojo run by John Kreese (Martin Kove), a malicious American sensei whose ethos (“Strike first, strike hard, no mercy”) is the antithesis of Miyagi’s karate. The climactic tournament sequence, in which a battered and bruised LaRusso narrowly wins the All Valley Under 18 Karate Championship with an unlikely “crane kick” to Johnny’s face, is still impossible to watch without cheering, no matter how silly you keep telling yourself it is.
But despite the high quality and huge popularity of The Karate Kid, it never managed to become a credible series. Repeated attempts to expand it carried a strong sense of diminishing returns. The Karate Kid Part II (1986) is a worthy follow-up, further developing the Daniel/Miyagi friendship and transplanting the story to Okinawa. (It also contains one more unforgettable performance, Danny Kamekona as Miyagi’s hometown rival Sato, whose every line reading was recreated by my father and me in casual conversation for years.) But Part III (1989) is a prime example of running-on-empty, why-did-they-have-to-do-this sequelism, and a well-intended 1994 semi-reboot with Morita and Hillary Swank (The Next Karate Kid) was no better. There was even a one-season, best-forgotten animated series. By the time of the 2010 remake (also called The Karate Kid, and starring Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan), the title itself inspired eye-rolls. Enough already! The Karate Kid was one great film, and one decent sequel, and the elements which made those effective were apparently just not on hand anymore.
THIS BRINGS US to the unlikely event that is Cobra Kai, a streaming series from YouTube Red, which takes place in the present day and has the audacity to continue the story of Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence, 34 years later. (Inevitable spoilers follow.)
William Zabka’s Johnny is the — what’s the word? — unlikely principal protagonist of Cobra Kai. Macchio’s Daniel isn’t the villain, of course; he’s another protagonist. But the series expands and explores the internet fan theory (and sitcom joke) that Johnny was the real Karate Kid; that seen through Johnny’s eyes, Daniel was a meddling hothead looking for trouble; Johnny’s “bullying” was actually reasonable self-defense and retaliation; and the famous crane kick was an illegal move.
The Johnny Theory doesn’t completely hold water. Even if you accept its dissenting view of Daniel, there’s still plenty of unprovoked (or wildly excessive) cruelty from Johnny and the other Cobras; they’re not virtuous or heroic in any sense. Johnny himself may not be evil — the film lets him visibly object to sensei Kreese’s outlaw brutality (though he obeys it anyway), and grants him a tearful “You’re all right, LaRusso!” as he hands the trophy over to Daniel in the film’s final moments. Hope for Johnny’s redemption still seems high at the beginning of Karate Kid Part II, when Kreese nearly strangles him in the parking lot after the tournament, and Miyagi intervenes. But after this scene, Johnny Lawrence vanishes from the saga.
The creators of Cobra Kai (Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg, and Josh Heald, of Harold and Kumar and Hot Tub Time Machine) have endowed Johnny with a more detailed backstory, which invites further sympathy, but he’s still a convincing adult version of the kid we met in 1984 — which is to say, he’s still basically an asshole. He’s a down-and-out mess, having peaked in high school; he works intermittently as a handyman and downs Coors Banquets in a filthy apartment in Reseda, still pining for Ali and reliving the crane kick to his face. He seems to have spent his entire adult life stuck in that moment, and he’s somehow missed most of what’s happened in the last three decades. He’s never heard of Facebook, and at one point he refers to a laptop as a boom box.
Johnny’s misery is compounded by the fact that everywhere he goes, he sees the smiling face of Daniel LaRusso — because Daniel has grown up to be the luxury auto king of the Valley, and he’s ubiquitous on billboards, radio, and TV, using karate to slash prices (“We kick the competition!”) and noting with satisfaction that “every customer leaves with their very own bonsai tree.” The second episode of Cobra Kai wittily reintroduces him, happily ensconced in family, wealth, and success, in a montage set to Dean Martin’s “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head?” Daniel’s a little smug, but he always was; it just looks different on a wealthy and successful businessman in his fifties. Daniel is now an influential member of the very same country club where he was once such an alien, entering through the kitchen to witness Ali dancing with Johnny. We still like him, but he’s no longer the underdog.
So Daniel LaRusso is not the Daniel LaRusso of Cobra Kai, but neither is Johnny, underdog or not. The Daniel LaRusso of Cobra Kai is Miguel Diaz (Xolo Maridueña), who reminds us very much of the Daniel we met in 1984 — only his karate mentor and surrogate father is not Mr. Miyagi but Johnny Lawrence. Miguel has an Ali, too; her name is Sam (Mary Mouser), and she just happens to be the actual Daniel LaRusso’s daughter. Miguel’s karate nemesis, and rival for Sam’s affections, is a kid named Robby Keene (Tanner Buchanan), and get this — he’s the estranged son of the actual Johnny Lawrence, and he seeks to upset his father by working for, and learning Miyagi-do karate from, Daniel LaRusso. In one hilarious sequence, Daniel wordlessly instructs Robby in the proper Miyagi technique for everything from mopping the floor to operating a stapler.
Clearly, this is ridiculous; this whole thing is ridiculous. Cobra Kai is asking us to accept an incredible number of wild coincidences. It takes place in a deeply improbable universe, in which large numbers of people live in the shadow of a children’s karate tournament from 34 years ago. The characters in Cobra Kai are blind prisoners of fate, wandering through lives structured as a series of knowing references to The Karate Kid, doomed to reenact its situations and relationships, in various configurations, forever.
Partly for that reason, Cobra Kai differs dramatically in tone from its source material. The Karate Kid is, above all, an earnest film, and its earnestness excuses all that’s corny and contrived about it. Cobra Kai is tongue-in-cheek, somewhere between a sequel and a parody. It has great fun with Johnny’s millennial cluelessness (he invites some kids to check out “a rad internet site” at “W, W, W, period, Cobra Kai, period, C, O, M, all lowercase”) and with the tension between the Cobra Kai ethos and life in 2018 (“Don’t you think you’re doing a lot of genderizing, sensei?”). Most of this is highly entertaining, but gimme a break!
There are interludes of attempted beauty — mostly, proficient tributes to Avildsen’s soaring montages. Cobra Kai only seems sincere when it’s trying to evoke the sincerity of the original film. It stumbles on the serious side of its major themes, never quite reckoning with the problems of the Cobra Kai philosophy; maybe next season. Of course, The Karate Kid also trafficked in the redemptive power of beating people up — but The Karate Kid was earnest about it. There’s a cynicism about Cobra Kai, partly because its spiritual heart is Johnny Lawrence and not Mr. Miyagi. (Miyagi’s presence is felt in the series, and he’s occasionally seen in photos and flashbacks. Daniel has a graveside monologue which begins with the old familiar “Hey, Mr. Miyagi,” and if you watch this three or four times it really starts to get to you.)
Without the old earnestness, the silliness of The Karate Kid’s world becomes extreme, but extremely enjoyable. The exposed contrivances, along with some patches of clunky dialogue, keep Cobra Kai from being great. Or maybe it is great, but not quite good. But if The Karate Kid is dear to your heart, Cobra Kai is such a good time, you wouldn’t change much about it. The blatancy of its fan service is its appeal, and if it were better by normal criteria, it probably wouldn’t be as much fun. I mean, what kind of 34-years-later Karate Kid streaming series do you want to see, one which aspires to be a serious work of art, or one which shamelessly massages your nostalgia for a favorite childhood movie?
If your answer to that question is, “I don’t want to see a 34-years-later Karate Kid streaming series of any kind, thank you very much,” there’s no way your mind will be changed over the five hours it takes to binge Cobra Kai. But if the episode titles “Ace Degenerate,” “Strike First,” and “Different But Same” make you want to see a Golf ‘N’ Stuff montage set to “Young Hearts Beat Fast,” I have some surprising news for you.