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The rise of Cobra Kai: How the spinoff TV series has outgrown the original films

An analysis on the critically acclaimed TV series and its popularity as its lead William Zabka turns 56

  • Ryan Gomez

Last Updated: 06.05 PM, Oct 20, 2021

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The rise of Cobra Kai: How the spinoff TV series has outgrown the original films

If a decade ago someone said that the original Karate Kid franchise would get a spin-off TV show with William Zabka’s villainous Johnny Lawrence as the lead, they would be dismissed as absurd theories by curious Reddit users. Simply because the franchise was rebooted at the time with Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith. Despite the film opting for something radically different, such as focusing on Chinese Kung-Fu and not Japanese Karate, it was a commercial hit. Of course, fans of the original trilogy were far from pleased with the direction the franchise was headed. Their resentment could be sympathised with because a film with the name Karate in it didn’t even feature Karate, but Kung-fu instead. This could have been a marketing ploy to piggyback on the success of the original films.

However, the writers of hit sitcom How I Met Your Mother took matters into their own hands and inadvertently helped create Cobra Kai in 2017. Neil Patrick Harris’ ‘legendary’ character Barney Stinson was written as someone who believed that William Zabka’s Johnny Lawrence was the true karate kid and hero of the story and not Ralph Macchio’s Daniel LaRusso. Although it was initially intended to be nothing more than a brief anecdote about Barney having an inclination towards villainous characters, it was later fully realised as part of the storyline when both Zabka and Macchio made appearances as fictionalised versions of themselves in the finale of the eighth season titled, ‘Bro Mitzvah’. Zabka would make further appearances in the following season as part of ongoing storylines.

Barney’s theory is that Johnny Lawrence was a misunderstood Karate enthusiast whose girlfriend was ‘stolen’ by the new kid from New Jersey, Daniel LaRusso, and was eventually beaten in the final of the All Valley Karate Championship with a technically illegal kick by LaRusso. He also reasons that Lawrence sportingly congratulates LaRusso while handing him the trophy. The theory gained more traction on social media and the rest is history.

Unlike most spin-offs, Cobra Kai offered a fresh take on these characters whilst paying homage to the original films with well-timed references spread across the series. The series has most certainly updated its themes for contemporary viewing, while not pandering too much to social media hypotheses dominating public opinion these days. In other words, it has the right balance of the old and the new. This in fact is represented through Zabka’s character who is leading a life warped in the 80s while his protégée Miguel Diaz, played by Xolo Maridueña, represents the new society. Diaz is the bridge between the old world and the new world for Johnny Lawrence.

Their lives are juxtaposed by Daniel LaRusso and his daughter Samantha LaRusso (Mary Mouser), who are affluent and have very different ideas on how to perform Karate, passed down by the late Mr Miyagi (Pat Morita). The contrast in their lifestyles and their approach to Karate is the central theme of the series. The theme is aimed at highlighting the wealth disparity in the US. All the characters both new and old have been given excellent arcs and development that immerse the audience into the world of Cobra Kai and Miyagi-Do.

These finer nuances make Cobra Kai a superior production to the original, even though the first film The Karate Kid was a genre-defining classic that ticked all the boxes in terms of a commercial blockbuster. The series has given a new lease of life to the original films on streaming platforms, with a whole new generation of viewers getting to know about the lives of Daniel LaRusso, Johnny Lawrence, Mr Miyagi, and the notorious John Kreese.

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