Cobra Kai and the Legacy of The Karate Kid

Wax on, wax off. Sweep the leg. It’s been a long journey for Daniel-san and Johnny to get to Netflix.

Ralph Macchio and William Zabka on Cobra Kai
Photo: Sony Pictures Television

Since Netflix picked up Cobra Kai it’s been sweeping up viewership like Johnny on Daniel-san’s leg. When The Karate Kid debuted in 1984, it was a smash hit, delivering returns of $100 million on a modest budget of $8 million. It also earned Best Supporting Actor nominations for the late Pat Morita (Mr Miyagi) from both the Oscars and the Golden Globes. Miyagi was a crowning achievement for Morita whose career spanned 175 roles beginning in 1964. 

The Karate Kid was embraced by pop culture, redefining the martial arts genre. It had a profound effect on the practice of martial arts in the United States. The Karate Kid stands alongside Enter the Dragon and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon as a film that reshaped the way Americans viewed martial arts. Martial arts made an amazing leap, one of the largest in U.S. history, boosting the whole economy. Everyone who ran a Dojo during the mid-80s remembers what a windfall it was. 

The Karate Kid spawned three sequels, a cartoon series, a reboot, as well as several homages outside of the franchise’s canon that starred original cast members. Just like Bill and Ted Face the Music and Star Trek: Picard, the new series updates a time-honored franchise as Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) grapple with the drag of growing old along with a coming of age soap opera of the next generation. Easter eggs sell it to its loyal fanbase with nods of nostalgia while new teen characters share the spotlight to lure fresh viewership. The original cast keeps it genuine, abetted with cameos from other peripheral characters. Daniel and Johnny were career defining roles for Macchio and Zabka, something they’ve long embraced with many non-canon cameos since their last official appearance in these roles in 1989.

The Mr. Miyagi Tetralogy

The success of The Karate Kid guaranteed a sequel, so the bulk of the cast reassembled for The Karate Kid Part II two years later. It picks up immediately following the first film, in the parking lot immediately after the All-Valley Karate Tournament where Kreese (Martin Kove) punishes Johnny for losing, causing Johnny and his squad to leave Cobra Kai. However, Daniel and Johnny’s love interest, Ali (Elizabeth Shue), did not return. Ali is written out with a dismissive comment by Daniel about how she dumped him for a football player. Fans are clamoring for Shue to appear in Cobra Kai and the show references Ali repeatedly. Towards the end of Season 1, Daniel shows Johnny Ali’s Facebook revealing that she’s married and a doctor. The Karate Kid Part II, quickly narrows down to Daniel and Miyagi as they journey to Okinawa, where Daniel finds a new love interest in Kumiko (Tamlyn Tomita). 

The Karate Kid Part II did better than the original, earning $115 million worldwide. While it didn’t garner any major award nominations, it was well received. Since it was set in Japan, it hasn’t been referenced much in Cobra Kai beyond when Johnny’s son Robby (Tanner Buchanan) discovers Daniel’s den-den daiko (rotating hand drum). As an interesting side note, the sequel subtly revealed Mr. Miyagi’s given name in Japanese. When Chozen (Yuji Okumoto) picks Miyagi up, his name is written in Japanese as Nariyoshi Miyagi, which is only one character different than Morita’s actual Japanese given name, Noriyuki (Nari and Nori are alternate spellings of the same character, which means ‘completed’). 

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The Karate Kid Part III also picks up where Part II left off, but it drops the ball. It delivered a disappointing $38 million box office and was the final pairing of Daniel and Miyagi.  Nevertheless, it is referenced by Cobra Kai almost as much as the first film. Daniel and Miyagi return from Okinawa to find the LaRusso’s residence at South Seas complex being dismantled. The implication is that it is to be demolished, and yet it appears in “Different but the Same”, the 9th episode of Cobra Kai (why the new owners kept that painfully 80s South Seas logo is incomprehensible, but it made for a good Easter egg). Daniel’s mom, Lucille (Randee Heller) appears in Part III, who has cameos in both seasons of Cobra Kai, but she is quickly written out, sent away to take care of Daniel’s Uncle Louie (Joseph V. Perry). It’s a short scene to set up Daniel living with Miyagi, but Cobra Kai picks up on it with Louie LaRusso Jr. (Bret Ernst), a pivotal character in Season 1. 

Kreese is supplanted by his fellow Vietnam veteran, Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith) and Karate’s Bad Boy Mike Barnes (Sean Kanen). Both Silver and Kanan had authentic martial arts backgrounds so this installment had the best fight choreography. Ironically, The Karate Kid has had mediocre choreography throughout the series. After the initial film, Zabka continued to train under Pat Johnson, a genuine master of the Korean martial art of Tang Soo Do. Johnson was the choreographer and played the referee for the first three films. Fans complain that in Cobra Kai, Macchio still lacks convincing martial skills (he’s had 36 years to train). However, the Season 2 finale fight in Cobra Kai redeems the franchise with a brilliantly choreographed long take scene in the center of a massive brawl.

Part III flops on several levels. The over-the-top villainy of Silver was too caricatured, complete with the hackneyed ‘bwahahaha’. Furthermore, without Shue or Tomita, there’s no romance. Robin Lively played the new girl, Jessica Andrews, but she was only 16 at the time, and while Macchio’s babyface still allowed him to play a convincing teen, he was 27 so romance with a minor wasn’t an option. Nevertheless, Cobra Kai references Miyagi and Daniel’s Bonsai tree business from Part III with a chiding comment from Daniel’s wife Amanda (Courtney Henggeler) and the special Miyagi-do Kata that Daniel learns in the threequel is the one recited repeatedly throughout the series. 

The Next Karate Kid abandoned Daniel altogether to follow Miyagi’s new pupil, Julie Pierce (Hilary Swank). Despite being a total flop critically and financially, it’s Swank’s breakout role, and her budding talent shines, although not enough to redeem the film. What’s more, Miyagi’s given name is inexplicably changed to Keisuke. The new production crew apparently could not read Japanese.

The Saturday Morning Cartoon

Before Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, kids had to wait until Saturday morning to see cartoons. The Karate Kid was a 1989 Saturday morning cartoon series on NBC. It only ran for one season – thirteen 20+ minute long episodes – with none of the original actors voicing their characters. Daniel (Joey Dedio) and Miyagi (Robert Ho) were joined by a new character, kimono-wearing Taki Tamurai (Janice Kawaye), in a series-long quest to recover a small pagoda with magical powers. Their search took them around the world – London, Paris, Hong Kong, San Francisco, New York and more – a different location for each episode. The plots were all the same: the threesome almost recovers the pagoda, only to have it slip out of their hands again until next week’s installment. Again inexplicably, Mr. Miyagi’s given name was changed to Yakuga. In Cobra Kai, it is restored to Nariyoshi on his gravestone, meaning someone finally read the Japanese in Part II. 

The Karate Kid animated series was available on several streaming networks like Netflix, Hulu and iTunes, but all those services have abandoned it. It’s a weak show. The cheap cell animation is poor quality and horribly dated. Episodes can still be found on the web, but it’s not worth the search. It’s clearly outside of canon because there’s no magic in any of the live-action movies unless you count Mr. Miyagi’s magic healing hands, parodied in the first season finale of Cobra Kai

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That Other Karate Kid

In 2010, a The Karate Kid remake starring Jaden Smith as Dre, the new Daniel, and Jackie Chan as Mr. Han, the new Mr. Miyagi. The project was met with intense internet backlash from the start. Even Macchio jumped on the critic bandwagon at first. In an MTV interview, as reported by Digital Spy, Macchio said “It feels pretty good that some people are pretty angry that they’re trying to remake The Karate Kid. It feels good that the public feels you don’t touch certain things. Sometimes you go back to that, and probably shouldn’t.” It’s ironic in the wake of Cobra Kai, but he changed his tune soon after Will Smith called him personally to ask him to advise Jaden. “He called and said, ‘Would you mind getting on the phone with my son?’ I felt like Yoda to young Skywalker.” Macchio confessed that his initial negative reaction was said too “candidly” and endorsed the project.  As the film’s premiere approached, more reporters reached out to Macchio to get his take. The Sun asked him if he might make a cameo to which Macchio replied (again ironically), “I have less of a desire to be in it or do a cameo because no one wants to see Daniel LaRusso in his forties. It would be like robbing the Karate Kid fans of their youth for me to be in it so I think it’s best to keep it separate.” Given the success of Cobra Kai, fans clearly want to see Daniel-san pushing sixty.

Another major issue was that all Asians are not alike. Karate is a Japanese martial art. Jackie Chan is Chinese and propounds Kung Fu. In Hollywood, the whole point of a reboot is to capitalize on the brand name, but naysayers complained that Karate was the wrong title for the reboot. Jackie wouldn’t be a sensei. He’d be a sifu. The title became so contentious that even the Wall Street Journal chimed in. 

Hollywood made a quick save for the title. When Dre’s mother Sherry (Taraji P. Henson) asks Dre about his ‘Karate,’ he replies, “It’s not Karate, mom.” The scene was strategically included in a Cinemark ‘First Look.’ And the title was changed for the Chinese market to Gongfu Meng (Kung Fu Dream). The Karate Kid was never released in theatrically China just like some 80+ Jackie Chan films were never released theatrically in the west so the brand name had no value. The Chinese version also added a finale fight where Han fights Li (Yu Rongguang), this version’s Kreese.

Jaden’s The Karate Kid is a complete reimagining of the story, like the Kelvin timeline in Star Trek or the Flashpoint timeline in DC comics. With a budget of $40 million, it earned $359 million worldwide making it the most financially successful installment yet. Naturally, talk of a sequel has been discussed, however last year, Jackie Chan said that any statements claiming that he would participate The Karate Kid 2 or Rush Hour 4 were “false”.

Beyond the Karate Kid Canon

Over the years, Macchio, Zabka and Kove have appeared in homages and parodies of the franchise. In 2003, Macchio and Zabka played themselves on How I Met Your Mother.  The episode ‘The Bro Mitzvah’ was about Barney’s (Neil Patrick Harris) bachelor party where he wanted to have the hero of The Karate Kid attend, so his friends arrange for Macchio to join the festivities. However, in Barney’s perspective, Johnny is the real hero. This ‘Barney wax on’ viewpoint is held by many fans, akin to the ‘Jar Jar Binks is a Sith Lord’ theory of Star Wars. In the Cobra Kai episode ‘Molting’ Johnny explains his take on the events in The Karate Kid. Technically speaking, Daniel’s winning crane kick should’ve disqualified him because strikes to the face are illegal. Daniel steals Ali and provokes Johnny, drenching him in the bathroom while he’s trying to roll a joint. 

For something completely different, an unauthorized musical spoof of The Karate Kid played at the off-Broadway Teatro la Tea in 2004. It’s Karate, Kid! The Musical featured Daniel-san, Johnny, Mr. Miyagi and Ali but Cobra Kai was replaced with the Bitchkicks. The show featured songs like “Damn You, Daniel-san”, “Wax On! Wax Off!”, and “The Way of Fisting”. 

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In 2007, Macchio and Zabka reprised their iconic roles for the music video ‘Sweep the Leg’ by No More Kings. In the video, Zabka is a has-been living in a trailer watching The Karate Kid every day with his Cobra Kai buddies. Spliced with clips from the film, all the original Cobra Kai squad appears, Kreese, Jimmy (Tony O’Dell), Bobby (Ron Thomas) and Tommy (Rob Garrison). Even the South Seas condos are shown. Zabka wrote and directed the video. 

In another 2010 parody, Macchio plays himself in Funny or Die’s ‘Wax On, F*ck Off with Ralph Macchio’. Haunted by being typecast as squeaky-clean Daniel, Macchio struggles to sully his image to get more work in Hollywood. When Macchio tries to pick up a prostitute, she tells him to come back when he’s 18, to which he retorts ‘I’m 48!’ Molly Ringwald appears claiming that Macchio wanted to change the name of the Brat Pack to the Smile Bunch. There’s a reference to Jaden’s reboot too. 

Kove dove into replaying Kreese in 2011 with Comedy Central’s Tosh.0. In a segment called Web Redemption, host Daniel Tosh mocks a viral video by Josh Plotkin where he tries to break a board over his head. Kove and Ron Thomas appear in Cobra Kai gis in a breaking competition with a scoreboard that echoes the All-Valley Karate Tournament. And just last year, Kove donned Cobra Kai colors again for a QuickBooks ad in which he blames his aggressive teaching style on stress caused by not being able to manage his school’s finances. He drops comments like “Support the leg” and “More mercy” and goes so far to change the name of Cobra Kai to Koala Kai.

Cobra Kai is exactly where it needs to be on Netflix. The series is beautifully written and performed, coupling drama and comedy with bumps of action, all within bite-sized 20+ minute episodes. As its fan base continues to expand, so does anticipation for Season 3. And please, bring back Ali. Can’t Shue can take a break from The Boys? The final scene of Season 2 is such a tease, and after all that Johnny has been through in this series, he deserves a little mercy. 

Season 1 and 2 of Cobra Kai are now available on Netflix. Season 3 premieres on Netflix in 2021.