How Cobra Kai Flipped The Script
The original series makes us rethink what makes a hero and what makes a villain.
Cobra Kai is a follow-on series from the popular 80s movie, The Karate Kid which sees original rivals Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) reprise their roles over thirty years later.
Where the movie paints Daniel LaRusso as an underdog and hero who battles against vicious bully Johnny Lawrence, the series subverts the narrative to tell things from Lawrence's point of view when he decides to reopen the Cobra Kai dojo (school of karate).
Right from the start, as a viewer, especially one aware of the history of the programme, you are influenced by your original perceptions of the shows principal characters. You are expecting Lawrence to be a bully and an all-around jerk, and you believe LaRusso will play the role of knight once more, riding in to save the day.
From here, this post contains spoilers for all three seasons on of Cobra Kai, currently streaming on Netflix.
Villain is a strong word, but every show needs some sort of antagonist and protagonist, and after the first few episodes, it’s clear that after thirty-four years, LaRusso’s crown sits crooked and Lawrence’s fading horns hold up a halo.
The light no longer shines favourably on Daniel LaRusso to his once championing audience because he is a man who is holding onto the past. Heck, I get it. The Cobra Kai, Johnny Lawrence belonged to in his teens were out for blood. I feel a little sick watching The Karate Kid, specifically for the way Lawrence and his buddies bullied new kid LaRusso, often leaving him beaten and bruised.
Decades later that trauma still haunts him — and rightly so — but it also blinds him. When he looks at Johnny Lawrence, a man in his fifties, he sees the boy he (deservedly) kicked in the face in 1984. One that we come to discover had his own difficulties growing up.
With the shifting scale of LaRusso defaulting to antagonist status, Lawrence rises to the protagonist. We feel bad for the man who doesn’t have much in his life — a man who wants a new lease in life and so resurrects the institution that made him feel like a king among men; Cobra Kai.
LaRusso takes personal offence to something that has nothing to do with him and from there, misunderstandings, rivalries, and a whole lot of karate battles ensue, from both LaRusso and Lawrence and the students they take under their wing.
What the series does really well is paralleling the lives of Johnny Lawrence and Daniel LaRusso with that of their “younger counterparts”; Miguel Diaz (Xolo Maridueña) and Robbie Keene (Tanner Buchanan).
Miguel Diaz, new to the area, and Lawrence’s neighbour is being picked on and wants Lawrence to teach him karate after watching him take on — and win — against a group of his bullies. Sounds familiar right?
Robbie Keene (Tanner Buchanan) on the other hand, seeks out LaRusso to get back at his dad — Johnny Lawrence, but soon takes in LaRusso’s teachings of defence over offence, and begins to see him as a father figure.
Off the bat, one views Diaz as a reflection of LaRusso and Keene as the apple who hasn’t fallen far from his father's tree. However, each boy is paired with the opposite mentor, that is to say, what would have happened if Lawrence was taught by Mr Miyagi and LaRusso was mentored by John Kreese.
The juxtaposition of the two boys leads to an analysis of nature verse nurture.
We watch as Diaz, and the other students, take on the core values of Cobra Kai, as taught to them by Sensei Lawrence: Strike First, Strike Hard, No Mercy. Seen as the lowest on the social food chain the ‘nerds’ and the ‘freaks’ are soon imbued with confidence which boils over to overconfidence until the lines blur and they become the bullies they first began karate to defend themselves from.
Over at the pointedly rival started Miyagi-Do, petty thief Keene begins to turn his life around, with the positive influence of LaRusso. He works hard and attempts to find balance in his life.
Nurture outweighs in the life of both boys'. Cobra Kai gives Diaz the strength and skill, but it also sees him crossing lines he never would have in the past. The same goes for Keene who has had a poor upbringing but is positively influenced by the kindness of the LaRusso’s.
Strike First, Strike Hard, No Mercy
But when it comes down to it, nature will out. Despite all that rage Cobra Kai has imbued him with, Diaz, prompted by his sensei who he respects, takes a step back and switches to offence, refusing to fight Keene during a showdown. Forgetting all LaRusso has taught him about balance and offence, Keene filled with rage responds by showing no mercy.
There are no bad students, only bad teachers. A line LaRusso was quick to use to judge, soon becomes a burden onto himself after Keene’s display which leaves Diaz fighting for his life.
What we are seeing in the present, is history in many ways repeating itself. Johnny Lawrence left his villainous sensei and quit Cobra Kai after the events of the 1984 All Valley Karate Championship, the same way Diaz turned his back on Cobra Kai’s fundamental rules by showing mercy. Though Daniel LaRusso was taught to have balance and let things go — he seems to be unable to get his emotions in check when it comes to Johnny Lawrence, the same way Keene was unable to walk away from Diaz.
Those events lead to a transformation in series three, starting with John Kreese (Martin Kove) reemerging, and taking the reigns of Cobra Kai. His former student Johnny Lawrence is racked with guilt over Miguel Diaz’s hospitalisation as he instructed him to be merciful, and Daniel LaRusso shuts down Miyagi-Do after being publically shunned due to Robbie Keene’s actions.
There are no bad students, only bad teachers
I’ve already said that villain is a strong term when applied to Daniel LaRusso who is a man led by trauma. And Cobra Kai quickly established that though Johnny Lawrence is a drunk and a bit of a prick — he’s not a bad man.
With a spot to fill, we have three men fighting for the two conventional character archetypes of hero and villain. The reappearance of John Kreese gives the viewers a clear antagonist, after all, Lawrence’s former sensei tried to kill him in the past and taught no mercy with an iron fist.
Yet, we are left unbalanced after we check the ‘hero box’ for both Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence.
That is of course because were are forgetting one key villain. Who has existed from the first episode? Who is responsible for setting events in motion and leaving destruction in its wake?
(If your answer is Samantha LaRusso (Mary Mouser) then points for effort!)
The answer is in the name of the series: Cobra Kai.
And so the scales are balanced at the end of the third series as we match two heroes and two villains. The resurrection of Cobra Kai drew in Kreese, ruffled LaRusso, and fanned the flames of hatred in its students who were formerly meek but kind. Its inherent values festered and manipulated those who walked into its lair.
Despite Johnny Lawrence’s initial aim to change the negative connotations and teachings when he resurrects his former dojo, the third season sees Cobra Kai, settle back into its villainous role, now led by a villainous man.
Cobra Kai is a fantastic revival of a much-loved movie. Its comedy works incredibly well and it's effective in stripping back the layers of its characters to show what lies beneath. If you take a step back you also see how powerful the narrative structure is, how it successfully flipped the script by making you see hero as villain, and villain as hero, and kept a cold-blooded antagonist lying in wait for its chance to strike.