In 1984, a gawky teenager named Daniel LaRusso won the All Valley Karate Tournament, defeating his high school bully Johnny Lawrence and etching the crane kick into the popular consciousness forevermore. Johnny, representing the merciless Cobra Kai dojo, graciously handed Daniel the championship trophy, but was shamed by his abusive Cobra Kai sensei for leaving empty-handed.
Where are they now, over three decades later? That’s the question that Cobra Kai, the Karate Kid spin-off television series, dared to ask when it premiered on YouTube Red (now YouTube Premium) in 2018. Netflix acquired the show in June 2020, and since the first two seasons moved to the streaming platform on August 28, it has quickly become Netflix’s #1 show. The Karate Kid’s aftermath, Mr. Miyagi’s legacy, and the divergent lives of Daniel-san and Johnny Lawrence are explored in this thrilling, surprisingly thoughtful sequel series that now sits at 94% on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s rare that such a sequel, made decades later, can recapture the spirit of the original and attract new generations of fans, but Cobra Kai has done just that.
The show might easily have been a soulless retread of The Karate Kid’s storyline, with Daniel LaRusso serving as the Miyagi-like sensei for some new karate student, teaching them some schmaltzy life lessons about standing up to bullies and training them to win another karate tournament. Johnny Lawrence, who returned for the opening scene of The Karate Kid Part II and then disappeared entirely from the film series, needn’t have appeared at all in this follow-up. The creators of Cobra Kai, however, are very interested in what happened to Johnny in the years following his tournament loss, and thus the ultimate ’80s high school movie villain is now the co-lead of a hit show in 2020. As it turns out, the decision to focus on the rivalry between Daniel (Ralph Macchio) and Johnny (William Zabka), and how their contentious relationship affects their kids, makes for some must-watch TV drama.
Season one begins by focusing on Johnny’s troubled life after losing the karate tournament: his romantic struggles, his near-alcoholism, his strained relationship with his son, etc. Johnny dwells on the past, unwilling or unable to move on from his high school hero days. His misfortunes are soon contrasted with the relatively perfect life that Daniel LaRusso now lives. Daniel is happily married and owns a successful car dealership, and his dramatic crane kick victory in the 1984 All Valley Tournament has made him a local celebrity. To Johnny’s continued irritation, billboards and TV advertisements proudly proclaim that the LaRusso Auto Group “Kick[s] the Competition!”
One night, after drinking his sorrows away yet again, Johnny notices his neighbor’s son being picked on by some neighborhood bullies and uses some long-dormant martial arts skills to defend him, in a scene reminiscent of Mr. Miyagi’s rescue of Daniel in the original film. The kid, a high schooler named Miguel (Xolo Maridueña), wants karate training, and the Cobra Kai dojo is soon revived with Johnny as sensei, desperately seeking redemption for the choices he has made throughout his life. Daniel LaRusso, meanwhile, is busy reviving Miyagi-Do Karate, and he begins training his daughter Samantha (Mary Mouser) and Johnny’s son Robby (Tanner Buchanan). Inevitably, the Lawrence-LaRusso rivalry is rekindled, and their conflicting karate and life philosophies put themselves, their kids, and their students on a collision course at the next All Valley Karate Tournament.
Season two is just as sensational, reintroducing the villainous John Kreese as Johnny’s mentor, business partner, and tormentor. I don’t want to spoil too much in this review, but I will say that the backstories and character arcs of each character, from Daniel to Johnny to Kreese, have been well-thought-out, and the actors are just as engaging and believable now as they were over three decades ago. A teaser for season three, attached to the Netflix release trailer for the series (watch below!), promises even more surprises in our protagonists’ future.
This is a fantastic continuation of the Karate Kid franchise, far better than it has any right to be. What could have been a meaningless, nostalgia-dependent cash grab is instead a thoughtful, thought-provoking, and exciting story of how youthful mistakes, victories, and choices can come to define the rest of a person’s life. Cobra Kai is often funny, always exhilarating, and respectful of the original film series. It strikes without mercy. If you’re looking for a new Netflix series to binge-watch, Cobra Kai is the best around.