Cobra Kai Waxes (On and Off) Nostalgic
Alex Hall, 06-04-2019

Hawk (Jacob Bertrand), Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), and Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) don their Cobra Kai dojo gi for the YouTube series continuing The Karate Kid saga.
Guy D'Alema / YouTube
In the summer of 1984, moviegoers were introduced to a young everyman by the name of Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) in The Karate Kid. LaRusso, having moved from the east to west coast at the age of 17 with his mother, quickly becomes the victim of bullying at the hands of his new hometown’s karate badass, Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), when he begins courting Johnny’s ex-girlfriend. After trying over and over to get revenge for the multiple times he falls victim to Johnny and his minions from the local Cobra Kai dojo, Daniel is rescued by Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita), the building superintendent at the apartment complex where he lives, who is revealed to be a karate master when he protects Daniel from the Cobra Kai bullies. When later attempts at diplomacy are unsuccessful at ending the ongoing conflict between Daniel and Cobra Kai, Mr. Miyagi agrees to train Daniel in karate so that he can enter an upcoming tournament and attempt to end the quarrel through competition. In the end, Daniel advances to the final round of the tournament, defeating Johnny once and for all. YouTube greenlit a new series that premiered in 2018 and picks up the story 34 years later: Cobra Kai.

It’s worth noting before any discussion of Cobra Kai that The Karate Kid was so successful that it spawned two sequels, a reboot in which Mr. Miyagi trains a new student (Hilary Swank), and another reboot in which a 12-year-old Jaden Smith moves to China and is trained by Jackie Chan in Kung Fu—yet it is still called The Karate Kid. There was even a short-lived animated series in 1989 that ran for 13 episodes. What’s more, in J. Matthew Turner’s now-somewhat-famous re-reading of the original film, Daniel LaRusso is presented as the villain, despite his having been attacked by Johnny first. Still, this perspective on the film has gained traction, though Turner may have been inspired by an episode of How I Met Your Mother that aired two years earlier with guest stars Macchio and Zabka and floats the same theory.

Cobra Kai was developed by Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg. If the latter two names sound familiar, it’s because they are responsible for the Harold and Kumar film series as well as the American Pie-franchise film American Reunion. Josh Heald, on the other hand, is relatively unknown beyond his having written the Hot Tub Time Machine films. Given these creators, viewers might expect Cobra Kai to be a comedy series, but while it is funny, it is not a comedy per se.

The premise of the series, which focuses more on Johnny Lawrence than on Daniel LaRusso (but not much more), is that Johnny, now a bit of a sad sack, has turned to reopening Cobra Kai as a way to make some money. When his best work prospects are suddenly lost and he finds himself jailed for assault when he uses his karate to protect a high school student living in his apartment complex, he decides to use a check that his elderly stepfather gives him as a symbol of his final disowning of Johnny to rent a retail space and begin offering karate lessons under the Cobra Kai name. Meanwhile, Daniel LaRusso has established himself as a high-end auto dealer with multiple locations, television advertisements, etc., which irks Johnny, who is still somewhat bitter about the events that took place in The Karate Kid. Daniel is revealed to have a wife and daughter who play important roles in the series, as well as a younger son who does not figure very prominently so far in the series. Johnny has a son himself, but the two are estranged, and he is presented as a troublemaker at first, but finds direction by studying with his father’s rival, LaRusso. The first season sees these characters and others through to a reboot of the All Valley Under-18 Karate Championship, while the second season drills down on the character development set up in the first season besides the growth of Johnny and Daniel into their new roles as adult karate sensei. Both seasons are comprised of ten episodes each, available on YouTube Premium, which no doubt sees a bump in subscription with each season’s episode drop.

For fans of The Karate Kid franchise, Cobra Kai is quite frankly awesome. The series creators have truly nailed the series as both a trip down nostalgia lane and a compelling new chapter. One of the great things about the series is how unpredictable it is. Security officers donning red shirts that viewers of Star Trek had never seen until they beamed down with Captain Kirk were easily recognizable as the soon-to-be victims of whatever alien the crew would encounter, but Cobra Kai shirks these dead giveaways, often setting the viewer up and going a different direction altogether. Also, it is largely the series newcomers who do the heavy kicking in the show, leaving Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence to duke it out with words and posturing more than actual fighting—but they do get their respective chances to show off their moves. The fighting that does take place is quite impressive, thanks especially to Tanner Buchanan, who plays Johnny’s teenage son, Robby Keene, even if his karate skill far exceeds his acting ability. Honorable mention on the butt-kicking front goes to Xolo Maridueña, who plays the nerdy neighbor-turned-karate badass in his own right after Johnny saves him from bullies and he becomes the first new Cobra Kai student. Also worth mentioning is Mary Mouser’s turn as Samantha LaRusso, the daughter of Daniel who has at some point in the period of time before the series takes place become a bit too cool for karate school, but gets back to business when duty calls, throwing down Miyagi-Do style in her own right.

Another great aspect of the series is its willingness to engage with the mythology of the Karate Kid universe that precedes it. Although the third Karate Kid film was largely panned by critics and audiences alike, its events are referenced in the second season at an important moment, and footage from the first film appears at times when Mr. Miyagi is needed to remind Daniel-san of an important lesson that might help him as he begins to train his own students or overcome some other obstacle. In fact, the second season seems to hint at the return of Elizabeth Shue as Ali, the girl at the center of the love triangle that precipitates the first film’s events, which leads one to wonder whether Hilary Swank has been approached by the series creators yet, especially considering that Martin Kove’s John Kreese plays an important role in season two. Basically all the Karate Kid manifestations, therefore, seem to be figured as canonical by the series creators, which sets up a lot of potential nostalgia payoffs for fans of the classic film alongside a totally watchable new storyline.

Make no mistake—Cobra Kai is crane-kicking the competition in the face. The pilot episode has been viewed nearly 65 million times, a feat that no other YouTube original series is likely to achieve easily. The second season’s insane finale paved the way for a much-anticipated third season, which should drop sometime in early-2020. The first season will be available to view for free between August 28th and September 11th, while the second season will be free to view after September 11th, no doubt to build anticipation for season three. So after you get done painting the fence and waxing on and waxing off the car this summer, you’ll have some catching up to do in The Karate Kid saga, just in time to gear up for season three. Banzai!

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