How Cobra Kai Perfected the Reboot by Matt John
Matt John takes a deep dive into the rebooted Cobra Kai series.
Ten years ago, if you had asked the public what classic franchise would do an exceptional job if it had a reboot sequel greenlit, franchises like Star Wars, The Terminator, or Jurassic Park would be among the most likely answers. And, honestly, no one would have brought up The Karate Kid. In fact, if you had said that The Karate Kid would have a reboot that was not only extraordinary but would be better than the previously mentioned franchises by a significant margin, they would have laughed in your face.
Why’s that? Well, for one, Hollywood technically rebooted it back in 2010, albeit with an entirely new slate of characters. The Jaden Smith/Jackie Chan reboot wasn’t bad by any means, but if anything, it was a modern re-telling of a classic underdog story that didn’t add much new material. It was nothing more than a run-of-the-mill film that the public forgot about not too long after its release.
Second, even though the first Karate Kid film rightfully deserves its status as a classic, the original trilogy as a whole is anything but. The second installment, while not bad and deserves props for not repeating the same formula (at least not entirely), is a vastly inferior sequel. The third installment, though it tries, is so downright ridiculous that it fits the “so-bad-it’s-good” category. And the less we talk about the fourth one that starred Hilary Swank, the better. To sum it up, when fans watch The Karate Kid, they usually don’t bother going past the first one for good reason.
Now that we’re embroiled in Hollywood’s most shameless era of nostalgia, maybe we should have seen it coming that The Karate Kid was going to go down the same path as Star Wars and Jurassic Park. And yet, while those franchises’ reboots have fallen short of expectations of living up to its predecessors, to say the least, Cobra Kai has not only exceeded expectations but its brought this franchise to new heights that nobody dreamed possible.
You know a franchise is doing its reboot the right way when it manages to bring in more and more new fans while simultaneously renewing interest from more and more of the old ones. By doing so, Cobra Kai has become one of the most popular and well-received series on all streaming services. When you see how many franchises have tried and failed to do what Cobra Kai has succeeded at, that makes what they’ve accomplished all the more impressive.
But how have they done this? Well, to start, let’s just get a few facts about Cobra Kai out of the way.
1. If it weren’t for this show being a continuation of The Karate Kid, it wouldn’t have a following.
2. If you’re familiar with The Karate Kid Trilogy, you would know that this series has no right to be as good as it is.
Keeping that in mind, you can see that, on paper, a lot was working against this show from the start. At this point, audiences know that Hollywood will milk that nostalgia teat until that udder is dryer than Arizona. As fun as nostalgic cameos can be, the audiences nowadays are smart enough to know that every franchise that’s rebooting itself is going to provide exactly that for starters. That’s why bringing back these “classic” characters needs to be handled with care so that they’re more than just fanservice. The primary reason why Cobra Kai has pulled off what many others haven’t is because they understand this perfectly and use it to their advantage.
They utilize nostalgia both to develop their characters and the story. They’re not afraid to use callbacks to build on the modern one, whether it’s a specific character or a scene from the original trilogy. They remind their audience of the previous material they enjoyed while also letting them know that this is a modern application of said material. Cobra Kai could not have executed this better than through their two leads.
The heart of Cobra Kai’s quality lies in its two main characters: Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence. Considering that this show was inspired not by nostalgia - again, no one was asking for Karate Kid to get rebooted again - but by the popular fan theory that LaRusso was the bad guy in the original film, the show gives some credence to that theory. It does not validate the theory entirely but gives more nuance to Larusso and Johnny Lawrence’s characters and philosophies.
Both LaRusso and Lawrence are polar opposites because of the combinations of their upbringing, how life has treated them, and their philosophies at their core. Or, more specifically, their philosophies when it comes to fighting. Lawrence’s aggressive nature is derived from his belief that confronting the issue at hand is the best way to resolve your problems. By contrast, LaRusso’s passive nature derives from his belief that one should only engage in combat if they are defending themselves.
The show makes it clear that neither’s mindset is 100 percent correct. They demonstrate why both philosophies appeal to those who listen while also demonstrating how either can backfire. Even though the show itself has given Lawrence more room to grow (because the older fans are much less familiar with him than LaRusso), there isn’t a clear-cut protagonist and antagonist between the two of them. The show leaves it up for the audience to decide whose side they’re on. As a bonus, they also show why it’s so easy for them to be at odds with each other, and yet, if they put their differences aside, why they’d be best friends.
Because all of the other characters are connected to them, they too are all people with morally gray personas. This only makes for another of the show’s strongest points - the character dynamics. Everyone in this show is human. The show constantly changes our perceptions of each character season by season. A character you originally started out rooting for may end up being someone you’re rooting against by the end of the season or the start of the next one. Even when they make a decision you don’t agree with, you understand why they did it.
Even villains previously portrayed as pretty one-dimensional, like Chozen Toguchi from The Karate Kid Part II and Terry Silver from The Karate Kid Part III, actually get believably humanized. You would never have thought Martin Kreese, the PTSD-stricken former War Veteran with seemingly no limits to his aggressive doctrine, would ever gain an ounce of sympathy from the audience. But, by the end of the fourth season, you actually feel sorry for him (strictly speaking)!
Because both the characters and their relationships with each other are fleshed out, the show manages to keep its fans invested from season to season. That’s another reason why this show has kept its flavor four seasons into it. Because the characters change with time, so does the story. As a result, nothing feels rushed, unearned, or repeated.
Cobra Kai may consistently center around the philosophy of fighting, but no season feels like a rehashing of what’s already been done. Sure, the first and fourth seasons have the All-Valley tournament serve as their climax, but everything that happens leading up to each tournament beforehand feels completely different. For a show that has done its fair share of nostalgic callbacks, the last word someone would use to describe Cobra Kai would be repetitive.
Now, here comes the inevitable part where you hear that, despite “Show X” being incredible as it is, it has flaws. In the case of Cobra Kai, it’s not perfect, but it comes pretty darn close considering how well it handles its flaws. There are times when the story gets so ridiculous that suspension of disbelief is required. Luckily the show knows this and never tries to convey that the audience should take it 100 percent seriously. Also, some plotlines are predictable, but you shouldn’t care that you know what’s coming because of how well-developed these characters are.
Cobra Kai isn’t the perfect show, but it’s the closest thing we’ve gotten to the perfect reboot. Because it takes a classic franchise and not only celebrates what previously worked for it but adds to its themes, it may just give Hollywood the proper blueprint it needs to make this era of constant remakes and reboots more than a nostalgic cash grab.