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‘Cobra Kai’ is More Than a Fond Trip Down Memory Lane

Old rivalries are re-ignited in the pursuit of finding fulfillment and millennials learn how to take a punch.
By  · Published on May 9th, 2018

Old rivalries are re-ignited in the pursuit of finding fulfillment and post-millennials learn how to take a punch.

The original Karate Kid movie was a cultural phenomenon. Released in 1984, the film follows a bullied teenager who finds solace in karate, which culminates in him winning a regional tournament despite his adversary’s best attempts to crush his spirit. The movie grossed an impressive $91 million upon release (a remarkable feat back then) and created a fascination with Asian culture in the west. So much so that it even launched a craze of non-Asian kids learning karate and using the phrase “wax on, wax off” as part of their lingo. More than anything, though, The Karate Kid — along with its sequels — promoted honor, overcoming obstacles, and the search for purpose above everything else. Those themes are timeless, and the reason why the film still wields a tremendous feel-good power all these years later.

With this in mind, though, it was only a matter of time before the franchise was brought back for the modern era. Sure, they tried it already again in 2010 with a less than stellar remake starring Jackie Chan and Will Smith’s offspring, but with ‘80s nostalgia being a money-maker right now, re-entering the dojo was inevitable. When it was announced last year that a sequel series was in the works starring the original stars Ralph Macchio and William Zabka, the actors compared it to Creed and promised that it would reintroduce these characters in a smart, fun way. I was excited from the get-go, but I was cautiously optimistic.

Thankfully, mild excitement for the series was satiated and then some. This hit my sweet spot like an axe kick full of love. Not only is the show a worthy successor to the original movie that updates the lives of the characters accordingly, but it’s quite possibly the most pleasantly enjoyable series of 2018 thus far.

The original film was Daniel’s (Macchio) coming-of-age story, but the latest incarnation is all about his old enemy, Johnny (Zabka), and his quest to find his sense of purpose. Still haunted by his loss in the final of the All Valley tournament 34 years ago, modern Johnny is kind of an asshole. He thinks the current woke generation are pussies and he spends his nights getting drunk and beating up obnoxious high school brats. However, after running into his old rival and seeing how successful he’s become, Johnny decides to reopen the titular dojo and turn the local “losers” into merciless winners. But he has other problems to contend with besides mild alcoholism and bills to pay: his teenage son hates him. He resents him so much that he drops out of school and forms a bond with Daniel to get back his old man. As you can imagine, that leads to some conflict eventually.

Daniel, meanwhile, is a successful car dealership owner and loving family man, but he’s on his quest for rediscovery. He’s somewhat lost touch with the person his old mentor, Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita), taught him to be. This inspires him to adopt his karate student to impart Miyagi’s wisdom on to, but despite the positive and honorable nature of his intentions, it’s only a matter of time before he — and his protege — clash with Johnny and his students. If you haven’t done the math yet, Daniel’s student just so happens to be the fruit of Johnny’s loins.

The new cast of kids is an entertaining bunch, too. Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) and Robby (Tanner Buchanan) are the main focus as the students of Johnny and Daniel, respectively. The way their arcs are being set up is reminiscent of their mentor’s teenage years to an extent — Miguel becomes a win at all costs kinda guy, whereas Robby is lost and in need of a positive role model — but they boast enough personality to ensure that they’re more than carbon copies of the old guard. Daniel’s daughter, Samantha (Mary Mouser), on the other hand, is somewhat relegated to a love interest for the most part, but she’s extremely likable and capable of kicking some ass when she wants to. By the time the series ends, you get the impression that she’ll get to showcase her fighting skills more often in season two. It’d be a waste of talents if she doesn’t get to kick a few suckers in the face.

The old guard remains the most interesting personalities of the bunch, but the new generation is worthy inheritors to the legacies of their predecessors. The show doesn’t forget where it came from and the nods to the past are frequent, but Cobra Kai is firmly focused on the present and future, and it’s looking bright for sure. There’s a balance here, and an assortment of characters have engaging arcs. You’ll probably know where it’s all going, but it’s satisfying comfort food nonetheless.

Showrunners Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg have retained the franchise’s balance of heart and humor. The best moments are the scenes which poke fun at the generation gap; Johnny is a relic from a bygone era who’s culturally tone-deaf and quite offensive, but there’s enough good in him to suggest his heart is in the right place even if he’s unaware that his foot is in his mouth. Whenever he says something stupid, his young students are quick to remind him how problematic he’s being, but he doesn’t seem to process their advice. However, the beauty of the character is that he’s an entertaining trainwreck. We care about him, though, because, despite his numerous flaws, he deserves to find his happy ending.

The flashbacks to the original movies are used whenever necessary, and seeing Mr. Miyagi in scenes we’ve seen time and again provides some sentimental gravitas that will tug at the heartstrings of anyone who grew up loving these movies. But they also serve to remind us of everything the character represented and the values which he taught. That’s a positive in my book. Maybe they lean toward the side of mushy, but who doesn’t love mushy sometimes? Robots and emotional dinosaurs, that’s who.

If Cobra Kai shows us anything it’s that just because some characters are dated, it doesn’t mean that they don’t still have valuable stories left to tell — and when they’re this good, they should be told. Johnny and Daniel are still trying to find their purpose all these years later, but the hiccups they encounter in their pursuit of being the best they can be makes for a fun journey. And seeing the new characters forge their paths makes me believe that there’s some mileage in this series. Only time will tell, but for now, I’m all in.

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.