Cobra Kai Masters Karate Kid Storytelling

Netflix’s Cobra Kai has become a pop culture hit, not only for being a brilliant sequel to the original Karate Kid movies, but because this series has found a balance between easy-to-watch nostalgic entertainment and excellent drama plotting.

Its half-hour episodes are part mini-action movies, part sitcom, part high-school comedy-drama, all made in a self-consciously retro style as if filmed 30 years ago, while also incorporating actual footage from those ‘80s movies. Cobra Kai itself feels like a product of the 1980s. Dramatic fight scenes, corny dialogue, and an abundance of‘80s pop music – some of which played in the original films.

The dynamically nostalgic show features original characters from those 1980s films, including karate champion Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and his martial arts rival Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), who are now in their fifties. Both of them, even in midlife, are still fixated on the events that transpired in those films.

As the conflict between the aging karate kickers continues, their roles from the original film franchise of frequently engaging in full-on martial-arts mania is reflected onto their own children, who become rivals with each other. During the first two seasons, both men become Senseis at competing dojos, and they draw their teenage students, including their own children, into the conflict that has fuelled their decades-long mutual dislike.

Their roles were cleverly reversed, as Lawrence portrays the heart of the show, as opposed to Daniel LaRusso in The Karate Kid. Johnny started off as the poor underdog teaching karate to Miguel (Xolo Mariduena) – his bullied teen neighbour, and it seems that this master/pupil relationship is designed to echo the one between Daniel and Mr Miyagi in The Karate Kid. Meanwhile, Daniel had become rich and popular, and strangely ended up mentoring Johnny’s son Robby (Tanner Buchanan) in addition to his own daughter Sam (Mary Mouser). This series smartly capitalised on nostalgia, as it cleverly kept mixing and matching elements from the first movie in a way that made it feel, if not new, then somehow full of life again after all those years.

In its earlier two seasons, Cobra Kai captivated viewers by giving more background to Johnny, who was previously framed as a bully and obstacle to Daniel’s victory at the All Valley Karate Championship in the first film. Cobra Kai tries to repeat that in season three by digging into the backstory of the freakishly fearless John Kreese (Martin Kove) – who was Johnny’s evil, cold-hearted sensei during The Karate Kid franchise.

We get flashbacks of where Kreese came from, and the struggles of his experience in Vietnam when he was young. This was conveyed in a way that’s meant to explain why he is how he is, and where his cruel mindset comes from. In some moments you actually start to like and sympathise with the young John Kreese, but then as the flashbacks fade and the journey returns to his cruel older self, you go back to resenting him. The actor of John Kreese doesn’t fail to keep the audience on their toes, and his character is a prime example of how the story is so addictively rich with dynamics that could go any direction at any time.

Yet, in contrast to all that, the underlying message of Cobra Kai is that holding onto the past can be toxic. This is especially portrayed in the third season, as both Johnny and Daniel begin to realise that they may be able to do better by making peace and working to undo the damage their rivalry had brought onto a younger generation. When Ali (Elisabeth Shue), the woman who fuelled the competition between them as teenagers, comes back into their lives, she serves a wake-up call for both of them. “Sometimes it’s good to visit the past so you know where you are today,” she tells Johnny. “But you can’t live in the past.”

The entire theme of the show is that people can grow and change. This is shown within a heart-warming moment of the season, when Daniel goes back to Okinawa in Japan, where he excavates memories of Karate Kid Part II. As he catches up with both his Part II love interest Kumiko (Tamyln Tomita) and his rival from that film, Chozen (Yuji Okumoto), you can really see how time can change people. Those scenes are some of the most memorable of the new season, as they convey that although bad mistakes might have been made in the past, these mistakes can also help you learn, and grow for the better. Villains can often become heroes, unless of course, you are John Kreese.

Cobra Kai’s third season delivers more delight as the Valley’s dojo war comes with serious consequences for grown-ups and teens alike. With hard hits, cool kicks, and an absolute mastery of tone (which is that of an evolved, self-aware ‘80s blow out), Cobra Kai balances out brilliant drama and entertainment, with utter ridiculousness – a balance that you rarely find these days.

The fourth season that’s teased in the finale already feels like it ought to be a wrap-up for the entire series, and whilst waiting for it to be realised, I’ve found myself watching through all the Karate Kid films again but through a different lens. In a way, it felt like going back into the past and knowing the future of the people you’re watching. For this reason, Cobra Kai hasn’t just followed the Karate Kid way of storytelling, but mastered it.

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