The Karate Kid We Need

Cobra Kai

This series shouldn’t have happened.

I don’t mean it was a bad idea. I mean it shouldn’t have been possible to make a TV show that celebrates masculinity, bashes political correctness, and most importantly gives viewers hours of fun, in 2018.

I am referring to YouTube’s in-house production of Cobra Kai, the latest–and yes, the best–installment in the storied Karate Kid franchise.

Therein lies a problem, because YouTube’s parent company Alphabet, which also owns Google, tops the list of rootless cosmopolitan elites who hate people like Cobra Kai protagonist Johnny Lawrence. At the same time, they’ve somehow produced a quality television show that gleefully embraces everything its corporate overlords rail against.

It’s a good problem to have. Suffice it to say, I did not give YouTube money. I did, however, contribute to the blockbuster ratings that saw Cobra Kai trounce soy bubble boy darlings like The Handmaid’s Tale.

The first two episodes of Cobra Kai are available for free. It’s impossible to avoid the series on YouTube, so you will find it. What happens after that is up to you.

Cobra Kai picks up thirty years after The Karate Kid. Following a brief recap of Daniel Larusso’s victory in the 1984 All-Valley Karate Tournament, we catch up with Daniel’s de jure antagonist Johnny Lawrence. It’s immediately obvious that Johnny’s life is a mess. He lives in a small shabby apartment and barely makes ends meet through light contracting work one step above doing odd jobs. His ex-wife and delinquent son both hate his guts.

All you writers out there will instantly recognize what the first episode is doing. It’s starting the main character in a position of weakness. This is a time-tested literary device famously employed by Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Spider-man to create instant sympathy with their protagonists. It works perfectly here–better, in fact, than in the first Karate Kid.

And like Luke, Harry, and Peter, we soon learn that Johnny Lawrence is actually far from weak.

What’s striking about Cobra Kai isn’t that its story is an almost exact negative image of the first movie’s plot. It’s not even that the TV series works better than the original this way. It’s the astonishing realization that the first movie makes vastly more sense when seen from the supposed villain’s point of view.

Consider these observations about the first Karate Kid:

  • Johnny never initiates violence against Daniel.
  • Daniel always initiates violence against Johnny (the Halloween party scene–best example).
  • Contra Mr. Miyagi’s warning, Daniel uses karate for attack instead of just defense.
  • While Johnny does land an illegal hit during the tournament, he is duly penalized. Conversely, Daniel uses a patently illegal kick to the face and wins.
Only the best sequels make us see the original in a new light. Cobra Kai performs this artistic service definitively and with flawless form. After watching the series, it is undeniable that Daniel is not the franchise’s title character. Johnny Lawrence is the real Karate Kid.
Cobra Kai doesn’t stop correcting the record with the first film. It also disqualifies Hilary Swank and Jaden Smith with delightful yet devastating subtlety.

Having masterfully built sympathy for our down-at-heel hero (some might call foul on the “Johnny is a bully because he was bullied” back story, but the Sid subplot has been in the background since the first movie, and Kreese’s abuse of his students was always front and center), the writers deftly establish Johnny’s motivation for reopening the dishonored and disbanded Cobra Kai dojo.

And no, it’s not Johnny’s brawl with a gang of punks from the trailer. That’s just the inciting incident. What keeps Johnny focused on his goal is his constantly and realistically reinforced enmity toward Daniel Larusso. We’re quickly shown that Daniel has everything Johnny lacks: a sterling reputation in the community, a loving family, a beautiful home, and a successful business. Johnny first puts his energy into fixing the last item, but running his dojo gradually brings him closer to achieving the others.

Some have called Cobra Kai a villain redemption story. Frankly, Master Lawrence can only be called a villain in a relative sense, and only by the kinds of people who run companies like YouTube. He’s white (clearly), straight (and quite successful attracting women despite his marriage problems), patriotic (see the eagle picture with American flag background in his living room), and Christian (or at least raised Christian, as revealed when he joins the Diaz family in saying grace).

Johnny’s macho abrasiveness is played up for the safe space crowd. He doesn’t mince words. He’s contemptuous of weakness, and he’s sometimes downright brutal with his students. Yet the show vindicates him again and again as his pupils see drastic improvement not just in their martial arts skills, but in their daily lives.

One might interpret Cobra Kai as the story of a Gen X-er striving–imperfectly but successfully–to repair the severe damage postmodern culture has done to Millennials. I think that’s a valid lens to view the series through, and I think it’s a key element of the show’s success. Cobra Kai is resonating with young adults for a reason. It’s a good bet that many viewers never had anyone like Johnny Lawrence to challenge them and let them earn a genuine sense of self-worth.

Strike first. Strike hard. No mercy. Richard Meyer certainly took Cobra Kai’s motto to heart.

With its runaway success and plans for not just a second, but a third season in the works, hopefully Cobra Kai will teach our smug elites the value of giving audiences fun stories instead of civics lectures. Check out my award-winning Soul Cycle for mind-bending fun in book form.

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