When it comes to the story of heroes and villains, perspective can change everything. After all, what villain doesn’t think they’re the hero of their own story? And from the perspective of the audience, rejiggering the point of view can alter things in a pretty radical way. That’s partly the aim of Cobra Kai, YouTube Red’s biggest series premiere to date, and, more notably, a sequel series to the 1984 film The Karate Kid. The other part, of course, is to successfully resurrect a beloved franchise that’s attractive to fans of original series while also luring in a new audience along the way. Pulling the latter off was arguably the bigger challenge for the show, which was tasked with flipping the script on a story that ostensibly ended over three decades ago.
The entertainment industry’s love of pre-existing IP is already established with regard to The Karate Kid. Not only did the original spawn three sequels (The Next Karate Kid featured Pat Morita’s Mr. Miyagi but replaced Ralph Macchio’s Daniel Larusso with Hillary Swank as Julie Pierce), but also an uninspiring 2010 remake, starring Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan. With another remake or reboot largely out of the question, then, the writers made the decision to not only go the 30-years-later sequel route, but also to flip the story’s perspective around, and focus (mostly) on Cobra Kai bully Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), exploring where life has taken him since losing the All Valley Karate Championship with a crane kick to the face. The result is a series that will surprise just about everyone with how good it actually is.
That the series was able to get Zabka and Macchio back into the roles they played 34 years ago says something about what Cobra Kai is attempting to do and how well it manages to pull it off. One look at the series and you’d be forgiven for thinking every episode was going to be 28 minutes of meta-jokes and self-referential humor that treats The Karate Kid as not just a joke but a stale one at that. So, when the series kicks off with a look at the dismal state of Johnny’s present-day affairs, and does so without laughing at the character, the audience, or the franchise it’s building off of, it becomes clear Cobra kai has a lot more going on than anyone may have given it credit for.
Like other series or movie franchises that have been gone for decades before making their unexpected return — Twin Peaks and Trainspotting come to mind — Cobra Kai first task is to highlight and accept the changes of its characters. The series isn’t trying to live in the past so much as show, mostly through something as simple as letting the years show on its two main characters’ faces, how much is actually in the past. Steering into the fact that everyone is a lot older and now burdened with a different set of priorities and concerns, is the show’s best move by far. The bad blood between Johnny and Daniel has waxed on and off in the intervening years, growing from a grudge over a karate championship to one that quietly underscores how far they’ve come since.
While Daniel is now a married father of two, the owner of a successful car dealership, and the star of some fairly cheesy local television commercials, Johnny’s path has taken him closer to rock bottom. And with that, Cobra Kai finds its starting point and its hook.
One of the most impressive bits about Cobra Kai is how quickly it succeeds in getting you interested in Johnny’s story. He’s down and out, a functioning alcoholic who’s stuck in the past with his dilapidated sports car and ubiquitous ‘80s rock blasting from its stereo, but Zabka’s performance is so good, and his frustration with his station in life -- due in part to his inability to see beyond his own bullying past -- so palpable , it makes it surprisingly easy to follow along with him. Let’s be clear, Cobra Kai isn’t out to take some revisionist stance on The Karate Kid and reveal everything we thought we knew about Daniel Larusso to have been a lie, but it does expand the audience’s field of vision to a certain degree, just enough to suggest “Johnny Law” is maybe worth a closer look.
Much of that hinges on Johnny’s burgeoning mentorship of Miguel Diaz (Xolo Maridueña), a — you guessed it — bullied high school student in need of some guidance, confidence, and a little self-defense education. It’s in that relationship that Cobra Kai finds its most self-referential humor, holding Johnny’s half-assed “lessons” for Miguel up as a funhouse mirror of sorts to the chore list/training program Daniel went through with Mr. Miyagi. Maridueña makes for a solid present-day counterpart to Daniel, and he has a terrific chemistry with Zabka, but where their scenes really work is in how well the series walks that tightrope of signaling callbacks to the original film and forging its own path going forward. Over the course of the first two episodes, Cobra Kai quickly demonstrates it’s more than capable of delivering on both fronts.
The series also surprises with the breadth of its storytelling. Johnny’s journey back from rock bottom is the main story here, but Cobra Kai also sets up interesting arcs for Daniel and Miguel. Even though it’s a half-hour series, the show manages to color in the lives of its characters with impressive detail. Minus a corny flashback or two looking back on Daniel training his then-young daughter, these moments add an unexpected level of detail. That, in turn, makes the series more fully realized from the start. As the story works quickly to reignite the enmity between Johnny and Daniel — or, more specifically, the disparity in their relative martial arts ideologies — it also does so by first shedding its blinders. The upside of that being, even though it has its sights set on a potential Daniel Larusso vs Johnny Lawrence rematch, Cobra Kai’s doesn't suffer from tunnel vision as much as you'd think. As with nearly everything about the series, the build-up to that rematch works surprisingly well, turning this sequel series from a potential meta-disaster into something that’s actually kinda great.
Cobra Kai is now streaming on YouTube Red.