Monday, May 07, 2018

'Cobra Kai' Is a Revival of an 80's Property Done Awesomely Right

Like many 80’s pop culture properties, The Karate Kid was a prominent part of my formative years as a 90’s kid.  It was always on cable, so I had seen it – and its sequels – many times growing up.  It was one of the reasons why I, along with the kids who grew up on it, got sold on the idea that all it takes to be a badass fighter is to learn some martial art, attainable through just a handful of unconventional lessons from an aged sensei in a short amount of time.  Not only this, but the zen philosophies inherent in that martial art should also give one a well-adjusted, winning lifestyle as a bonus.  Of course, eventually, I learned that all those things are bullcrap.  Nevertheless, I loved The Karate Kid.

That said, with my fondness for nostalgia, I neither imagined nor wished for a followup for The Karate Kid.  Maybe the 2010 reboot starring Jaden Smith ruined for me any appeal of reviving the franchise.  But after watching Cobra Kai, the new web TV series from Youtube Red (arguably, its first and only hit so far), I was glad that a sequel I never thought I wanted was made.
If you are familiar with The Karate Kid, then you would know that Cobra Kai is the notorious dojo that protagonist David LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) feuded with.   So why is the series titled “Cobra Kai” then?  It’s because the center of the series is Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), David’s rival in the first film. 

The series is set decades after the films, and it reverses the fortunes of the two: David is now wealthy, due to having a successful car dealership, while Johnny is a down-on-his-luck alcoholic recently fired from his job as a handyman.  One night, Johnny saves teen weakling Miguel Diaz (Xolo Maridueña), who recently moved to the area, from getting beaten by a gang of bullies – a throwback to how Mr. Miyagi saved Daniel.  This eventually leads to Johnny reopening the Cobra Kai dojo, in which Miguel and other bullied youngsters are taught by Johnny the way of Cobra Kai karate – “Strike First.  Strike Hard.  No Mercy.” – that they may stand up for themselves.  Understandably, Daniel – who suffered at the hands of Cobra Kai in his youth – is angered of its revival, and proceeds to do what he can to get it closed down.
Cobra Kai starts off looking like a story where Johnny is the new Mr. Miyagi and Miguel is the new Daniel, while the rivalry of Johnny and Daniel heads to the next level where they exchange roles, with the former now being the protagonist and the latter the antagonist.  But that’s not really correct.  The plot is far more multi-layered and elaborate than that.  Miguel definitely starts off like who Daniel was in the original movie, but since he’s being trained in Cobra Kai philosophy, he gradually develops into being more like who Johnny was.  Meanwhile, Johnny as the central character allows the audience to see his perspective and greatly sympathize with him, but there’s exactly no “good guy”/”bad guy” between Daniel and Johnny.  Both are good guys doing some misguided bad guys stuff.  Both are protagonists that have faults.

The characters are fascinatingly complex and undergoing dynamic character arcs.  Aside from Johnny, Daniel, and Miguel, the other main characters are Samantha (Mary Mouser), Daniel’s daughter whom he tries to remain connected to as she undergoes her teenage phase, and Miguel’s love interest; and Robby Keene (Tanner Buchanan), Johnny’s estranged son, whose life of delinquency is impeded when he suddenly finds himself becoming Daniel’s protégé (yep, Daniel becomes a Mr. Miyagi, too, and having Robby, who hates his father, as his student adds another emotional layer to his rivalry with Johnny).
I never expected that Cobra Kai was going to be an awesome show.  The writing is intelligent, resulting to three-dimensional characters, absorbing storytelling, sharp dialogue, rich drama, and hilarious jokes; the fight choreography is exciting; the music choand the performances are effortlessly winning.

Most importantly, though it captures the tone of the original films and has plenty of throwbacks, it doesn’t solely rely on just being a nostalgia trip – though it’s an excellent one, for the record – but it emphatically justifies its existence.  It has a legitimate, interesting new story to tell for its original characters, while a new generation of characters are impeccably incorporated to it, making its audience truly believe that it’s a necessary and worthwhile continuation of the Karate Kid saga.  With nostalgia being used as an excessively exploited, manipulative tool nowadays, this aspect is pretty refreshing.  Thus, Cobra Kai is a perfect benchmark for any attempt of reviving/rebooting old pop culture properties for the present market.

Please hurry up with season 2, Youtube Red.

Miscellaneous musings (w/ SPOILERS):
  • At first, I thought I wouldn’t like Amanda (Courtney Henggeler), Daniel’s wife.  But by thriving as the “voice of reason” or “conscience” for her husband, I started liking her a lot, as she makes him see the light whenever he starts behaving like an A-hole due to his hate for Cobra Kai.  There’s this cool moment where she prevents a Daniel/Johnny fight from erupting, which eventually leads to a day of bonding between the two rivals.
  • Between Miguel and Robby, I care more for the former because: a.) much better acting from Maridueña than Buchanan; and b.) his struggle to be where he is as a martial artist is better explored.
  • So for that obvious upcoming love triangle, I’m Team Miguel.
  • I’m looking forward to the implication that Sam will have a more meaningful, exciting arc next season, i.e. she’s significantly going to do more karate-ing.
  • How Johnny will be torn with the Robby/Miguel rivalry is going to be interesting.  For whom will he care more?  Will he be distracted in training Miguel further when the things he will learn is going to be used against his own son, Robby?  Also, the thought of Daniel as his son’s mentor is definitely killing him.
  • A romance between Johnny and Miguel’s mom is hinted.  How that plays out will also be interesting, as Johnny is already Miguel’s father figure.
  • Kind of disappointed that a Daniel/Johnny fight never broke out in the first season’s ten episodes.  Maybe in season 2?
  • Elizabeth Shue’s Ali Mills needs to show up next season.
  • The transformation from Eli to Hawk is fascinatingly radical.  Among all the losers improved/corrupted by Cobra Kai, he looks to be the one becoming more of a straight-up villain.
  • Speaking of straight-up villain, John Kreese shows up in the finale.  I do hope Johnny won’t be stupid enough to embrace him back, making him a regular cast member in the process.  One of the things I like about this show is that there’s no actual main antagonist.  If Kreese becomes a regular, that unique set up is negated.   Ideal scenario: Johnny kicks his butt in the first episode of season two, and we never get to see him again.
  • I want to see the writers bring an MMA-type character to the show.  Through him, a storyline can be done where the modern relevance and effectiveness of karate is challenged by MMA.  That would be extremely interesting.
  • My most favorite moment in the finale is Johnny instructing Miguel to execute the crane kick, as Daniel watches from the sidelines:
Savage.

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