I’m one of those people who wrote off Cobra Kai back when it was first announced. I’ve always liked the movies well enough, and the premise of a series focused on original antagonist Johnny Lawrence seemed interesting, but I wasn’t sure there was much to explore in the Karate Kid universe. Years later, I’ve taken the plunge and binged all four seasons currently out—and I have to express just how impressed I am with how much love, care, and respect the show’s staff and cast clearly put into this.
Cobra Kai continues the story of The Karate Kid series. True to its name, however, this new series focuses on the rival from the first film, Johnny Lawrence. Ever since getting crane kicked in the face by Daniel LaRusso and losing the 1984 Under-18 All Valley Karate Tournament, Johnny’s life has been stuck in the past and on a downward spiral. The fact that he’s living paycheck to paycheck while Daniel has gained (minor) fame and fortune only rubs salt in the wound. But when a selfish Johnny inadvertently rescues his new next door neighbor’s teenage son, Miguel Diaz, from a group of bullies, he finds himself in the role of “Mr. Miyagi”-type mentor to this boy. Only, instead of dispensing wise proverbs, Johnny’s approach is more School of Hard Knocks and 80s metal references, albeit while attempting to remove the cruelest elements from the Cobra Kai karate he was taught.
The premise of Daniel’s old tormentor becoming a sensei who doesn’t want to repeat the mistakes of how he was taught is intriguing in itself, but Cobra Kai does a remarkably solid job of taking the bits of depth present in Johnny in the original film (like how he had some sense of honor and limits to his antagonism) and expanding upon them. Essentially, what was once a largely two-dimensional character is fleshed out into a three-dimensional one.
The cast is split between adults and teens, with a roughly even focus on each group, giving a kind of inter-generational appeal to the series. Cobra Kai does a good job of outlying the contours of both the parents’ and kids’ respective concerns in their lives. Characters like Johnny and Daniel are able to use their experience to give valuable advice to the new generation, but there’s a limit to what they understand about what life is like for teens in an age of social media and greater social awareness.
Each season builds on the previous, adding twists and turns that highlight how the path to improvement is rarely problem-free. Sometimes the developments feel overly dramatic, as if they’re creating conflict for the sake of conflict—though that’s not surprising, given that Cobra Kai is an American-made drama about karate. Even if that element feels a little forced at times, though, the characters end up with interesting arcs where they learn and grow but also falter she stumble.
The themes of Cobra Kai are poignant and valuable, though they are anything but subtle. When Miguel needs to learn to take initiative in life beyond karate, he’s told by Johnny to remember the Cobra Kai mantra of “strike first.” When the inherent aggressiveness of Cobra Kai’s style starts to create as many problems as it solves, the show contrasts it with Daniel’s defensive Miyagi-Do karate. And when the show wants to explore the need for balance in both life and karate, the show talks at length about that too.
Ultimately, there are two important messages. First, it’s never too late to change for the better, but people need to change at their own pace. Second, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to finding confidence and balance. Some need to learn a Cobra Kai mindset, while others need the Miyagi-Do philosophy, and everyone eventually has to pick up at least a piece of each.
To say I’ve become a fan of Cobra Kai is a bit of an understatement. It’s far exceeded my expectations, and I genuinely look forward to each new chapter in the story of past and future generations of karate practitioners evolving physically, mentally, and emotionally.