At its heart, The Karate Kid has always been about standing up to bullies. Actually, when it comes right down to it, almost every high school drama is about standing up to bullies. It’s just that The Karate Kid responds with a crane kick to the face. High school bully versus underdog stories are easy to tell, and they resonate with anyone who survived their teenage years. That first major pubescent dose of testosterone or estrogen makes us all want to assert ourselves, and in that search for identity, many find it in bullying. Whether it was Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), Chozen (Yuji Okumoto), or even Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith), they all bullied poor little Daniel-san (Ralph Macchio).
Or did they?
Cobra Kai has fleshed out Johnny’s character to new depths, redeeming his shallow portrayal in the original movies. Through the Netflix series, Johnny has had the rare opportunity to explain his odious actions. Everyone is the hero in their own story, and Johnny sees Daniel as the bad guy. In the eighth episode of season 1, “Molting,” Johnny tells Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) his side of the events in The Karate Kid. “Out of nowhere he sucker punches me,” whines Johnny about their first fight at the beach.
And it’s true. Johnny pushed Daniel first, but Daniel caught him back with a sucker punch (Daniel relies heavily on sucker punches throughout the films). Daniel stole Johnny’s high school sweetheart Ali (Elisabeth Shue). Daniel drenched Johnny with water in the bathroom at the high school dance (as he was rolling a joint – something he omits from his retelling to Miguel). Daniel won the All-Valley Karate Tournament with an illegal kick to the face. In Johnny’s eyes, he’s the victim of Daniel’s bullying. And this is perpetuated in Cobra Kai. Daniel is now in the position of power, the head of a successful business and living in a mansion with his wife and kids. Johnny is now the underdog and must cope with some of Daniel’s microaggressions.
It may seem far fetched to some, but the notion that Daniel as the bully isn’t new. Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) from How I Met Your Mother thought so too, and that was back in 2003. In the season 8 episode “Bro Mitzvah,” Barney’s dream was to have the hero of The Karate Kid attend his bachelor party. However, when his friends arrange for Ralph Macchio (playing himself in a hysterical cameo) appears, Barney is disappointed because to him, the real hero is Johnny for exactly the reasons that he outlined in “Molting.” It’s a standout episode with Zabka also making a cameo appearance as himself. And while Barney could be accused of being a bully in a manner of fashion too, this notion is upheld within a contingent of the Karate Kid fanbase who now feel validated by Cobra Kai’s take on it.
Johnny’s story arc is one of the most engaging aspects of Cobra Kai. Over the course of the first two seasons, he has transformed from being a stubborn loser to a sympathetic antihero. Even though Johnny was raised as a privileged kid living in an Encino mansion, his stepfather Sid (Ed Asner) is horribly abusive. Johnny’s sins are the perpetuation of Sid’s bullying behavior, exacerbated by Kreese’s (Martin Kove) merciless Karate lessons. While Johnny’s backstory doesn’t redeem all his nefarious actions, it does provide some insight into his motivations. And in his heart of hearts, Johnny still wants to do the right thing.
Cobra Kai has really shined in how it represents bullying. Bullying has become a global crisis, so much so that in 2018, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics released data showing that one third of young teens around the world have experienced bullying. In the United States, bullying is linked to low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression in childhood. And although bullying isn’t typically the sole cause, it can be contributing factor in teen suicide and school shootings. Undoubtedly, bullying has always been a social issue, however nowadays there are new factors to consider. Currently we live in a world of cyberbullying. Racism, exclusion, harassment, are all regular headlines of our daily newsfeeds. The youth of today face a more complex world, especially when it comes to bullying.
Cobra Kai has been engaging the high school bully trope from multiple perspectives well beyond the ongoing 30+ year feud between Johnny and Daniel. Back in the 80s, Johnny, Chozen, and Terry were the bullies. Now with Cobra Kai, it’s become far more complex. The new generation of teenage characters all grapple with their shifting social standings and relationships. Take Eli Moskowitz (Jacob Bertrand). At the beginning of the series, he’s a victim of bullying, picked on for his cleft lip scar. But as he becomes empowered through his Karate training, he heeds Johnny’s advice to ‘flip the script’ transforming into Hawk, a mohawked tattooed bully. But after seeing his character’s trials, is he really a bully at heart?
“It’s kind of a loaded question,” says Bertrand of his character. “Honestly, I would say he’s more of a bully. I think everyone has the opportunity to make choices. And I think, yes, he definitely has been a victim in the past, but that doesn’t really excuse his actions for what’s transpired. Especially for Season 3 being under Kreese’s wing and having him leading Cobra Kai, I think that furthers some of his bad guy tendencies.”
Another leading villainess from season 2 is Tory Nichols (Peyton List). Tory is a troubled teen who comes from a poor family. According to Tory, her mom worked as a waitress but was fired for taking some discarded food to feed her family. Always looking out for number one, Tory’s background is a little mysterious because she has had some previous martial arts training, leading many fans to wonder if her previous sensei was a character from the original series, perhaps even Terry Silver. But is she a bully or a victim of circumstance?
“I think a victim,” says List hesitantly. “I mean… Yes. Both. 50/50. I have to admit, I justify everything she does. I don’t really like the victim mentality though, and I don’t think Tory would either. So I don’t think she would think of herself as a victim, but I do think after a certain amount of abuse and tearing down from the world, that it just gets wearing, and it’s easy to act out, but that is the easy route.
“So it’s both. You see how conflicted I am?”
No matter how you slice it, the lineage of bullies traces back to one man – the founder of Cobra Kai, Sensei John Kreese. Kreese has always been a sociopath. He was a Green Beret during the Vietnam War who earned the rank of Captain, as well as a U.S. Army Karate championship title. In Ssason 2, Kreese tells some stories about serving in Operation: Desert Storm and other U.S. military actions, however Johnny’s top student Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) confidentially points out the errors in his tales to Johnny. It motivates Johnny to follow Kreese, only to discover that he’s been living in homeless shelters for the past decade or so. Kreese admits that he tried to re-enlist but was rejected, alluding that it might have been because of failing the psychiatric evaluation. The implication is that Kreese suffers from PTSD.
Does this redeem Kreese’s heinous behavior? Not really. Kreese has been poisoning the minds of teenagers for three decades and that’s utterly unforgivable. As Daniel’s mom Lucille LaRusso (Randee Heller) once said about the Cobra Kai Dojo, “They’re nothing but a bunch of bullies,” and there’s no one to blame more for that than Kreese. But at least Cobra Kai gives it some reason for his mercilessness. Rumors have been circulating that there will be some sort of redemptive arc for Kreese in Season 3. But honestly, that’s going to take a lot of redeeming before Kreese gets any sort of pardon.
What’s more, the season 3 trailer revealed that Chozen will be appearing in Cobra Kai. In The Karate Kid Part II, Chozen was a special kind of over-the-top psycho bully who went so far as to push Daniel-san into a death match over ‘honor.’ Might there be some redemption coming for Chozen too? No spoilers here. Wax on, wax off and tune in.
Cobra Kai season 3 premieres Jan. 1 on Netflix.