JUNE 8, 2021
The premise of Cobra Kai is brilliantly simple. It’s 2018; what happened to the characters from The Karate Kid? The original movie, which came out in 1984 and was followed by three sequels between 1986 and 1994, marries a classic coming-of-age plot to an underdog story. Its hero, Daniel LaRusso, has recently moved from New Jersey to California with his single mom. Bullied by a gang of rich high schoolers who train in an aggressive form of karate, Danny comes under the tutelage of his building’s handyman, Mr. Miyagi, who practices an Okinawan karate that preaches pacifism: its moves are to be used only in self-defense.
On the ensuing path of discipline and self-discovery, the hotheaded but sympathetic Daniel-san, as Miyagi calls him, learns to do chores — the famous “wax on, wax off” scene — prune bonsai trees, and meditate. All the while, he’s subconsciously learning the gestural repertoire of karate. At the end of the movie, Danny makes it to the finals of the All-Valley Karate Tournament, where he defeats Johnny Lawrence, the leader of the bullies and the best fighter at the Cobra Kai dojo. The arc of the movie pictures Danny as deserving and triumphant.
Cobra Kai flips the script by revisiting the story from Johnny’s point of view. Thirty years later, Johnny is unemployed, depressed, and frequently inebriated. He’s haunted by his loss, of which he is reminded every time he sees billboards advertising Danny’s successful car dealership. From Johnny’s perspective, Daniel-san was an uppity newcomer who stole Johnny’s girlfriend, and Mr. Miyagi was a skilled karate master who beat up high school kids. And the final, infamous, “crane kick” that sealed the upset at the tournament was an illegal move: Danny won by cheating.
Ostensibly a “reboot,” the show preserves the light touch of the original series and indulges in nostalgia by splicing in old scenes. But it is also interested in the psychic landscape that the Karate Kid papered over. Here, the gentle post-Vietnam pacifism espoused by the original films has transformed into something starker, more ominous. The show tackles the legacy of American empire, wealth disparity, and cultural shifts in how victimhood consolidates identity. It suggests that humiliation is a key psychological origin of paramilitary fascism. The show’s greatest feat is that it engages such serious and timely phenomena in a tone that is joyfully cheeky, big-hearted, and irreverent without being cynical.
No longer a teenage underdog, Danny now lives in a mansion in the suburbs and lunches at the country club he once had to sneak into; he capitalizes on Miyagi’s teachings by giving out a bonsai tree with each purchase on his car lot. The liberating philosophy we saw him embrace in The Karat e Kid has settled into liberal condescension: he rolls his eyes when Johnny mispronounces a word in Spanish, snorts when he orders a Coors, looks disgusted when he bites into a snack from a gas station. (“What,” Johnny retorts, “you’re too good for gas station food?”) Daniel bears traces of his teenage character while meditating or tending to his bonsai garden or lecturing Johnny about not charging his students at the dojo, but he’s also still hotheaded, and can sometimes be a real asshole.
Revenge-of-the-nerds plots usually end in victory for the victimized, but Cobra Kai asks us what happens when they grow up and evolve from adorable wimps into the predatory, business-owning, vindictive upper class. Defying its formulaic trappings, the series cannily understands how trauma can distort a victim’s capacity to see himself clearly and embrace change. Despite his victory in The Karate Kid, Danny still views himself as a righteous underdog thirty years later, even when he’s bullying someone else. When he learns that Johnny has revived Cobra Kai by opening his own dojo at a strip mall, he convinces the landlord to double all the tenants’ rent, then opens a bottle of fine wine to celebrate his coup. His wife is appalled. “Those guys will never change,” he tells her. She says she doesn’t recognize him; neither do we.
While prompting us to reconsider the original story, Cobra Kai remains true to the original films’ fathers-and-sons DNA by introducing some new young protégés to its universe. Its surprising parallel to Mr. Miyagi’s mentorship of Daniel-san is Johnny’s relationship with Miguel Diaz, a working-class teenager who lives in his apartment complex. Like Danny thirty years ago, Miguel is being raised by a single mom and bullied at school, and he learns to fight back through Johnny’s tutelage. This relationship is arguably more nuanced than its counterpart in The Karate Kid, in which Miyagi appeared as an all-knowing, all-seeing guru with vanishingly few visible flaws. (Critics might call this an Orientalizing vision of ancient Eastern wisdom, but we wouldn’t go that far — it is Mr. Miyagi, after all.)
True to the original, Cobra Kai’s beating heart is the student-teacher dynamic. But here again it flips the script, framing the students as often much more attuned to reality than their teachers and calling into question just who rescues and builds up whom. When we meet Johnny, he’s a middle-aged drunk who doesn’t know how to use a computer; Miguel shows him what Facebook is and creates a recruitment website and social media presence for Cobra Kai. These intergenerational moments are some of the show’s most pleasurable: when Miguel explains to Johnny that he can’t “like” every photo of his former high school sweetheart, Johnny is confused. “Why not? There’s a button for it,” he says. “It’s desperate and creepy,” Miguel explains.
Indeed, Johnny’s limited resources are not just material but philosophical, linguistic. He tries to understand the world through sayings and slogans: his go-to phrase is Don’t be a pussy! He refers to Miguel as an illegal, calls Chinese people Chinamen, lectures on the importance of aggressiveness and balls. Miguel, a progressive but not self-righteous Gen Z-er, patiently corrects him. (“Don’t you think you’re doing a lot of genderizing?” he asks, to which Johnny looks back, uncomprehending.) If he isn’t so successful in changing Johnny’s insensitive language, he manages to slowly chip away at his Manichean worldview: losers and winners, pussies and non-pussies. When Johnny belittles some dojo students as losers, Miguel says, “Those losers are my friends.”
One of the great accomplishments of the show is that the crude, politically incorrect Johnny emerges as its most lovable character and undisputable hero. He is committed to a code of honor. When Aisha, a teenager who is abused mercilessly due to her weight, tells Johnny that her bullies are anonymous and online, he says, “What a bunch of pussies!” If he seems out of touch about what language to use, he is deeply in touch with the cruelty of teenagers. (In contrast, a guidance counselor responds to school violence by unveiling a program called “Hugs, Not Hits.”) And perhaps most movingly, Johnny is self-critical and open to the possibility that he is wrong. When Miguel actually begins to buy into Johnny’s slogans — chief among them Strike first, strike hard, no mercy — Johnny worries that he is imparting the wrong message. As Miguel becomes more aggressive and ruthless, Johnny comes to doubt himself. A major hinge in Cobra Kai is this shifting of beliefs around the question of when to show mercy, and to whom.
Part of Cobra Kai’s genius is that the bond between Johnny and Miguel seems effortless and natural, never a moralizing prescription about cross-racial harmony. Who would be enticed by this treacly premise—that a hard-drinking, reflexively racist and sexist white dude and the woke son of a single Ecuadorean immigrant could come to understand and learn from each other? And yet, in spite of the show’s absurdities, their intimacy doesn’t seem so improbable. Miguel is forgiving of Johnny’s offensive edges because he’s young and alone and bullied, because he wants someone to teach him to fight back. Johnny needs Miguel because he needs to feel he has something worthwhile to pass on, not to mention someone to translate for him a world that has technologically and culturally left him behind. Miguel’s father is absent; so is Johnny’s son. They fill the gaps in their lives with each other.
At its best, Cobra Kai is a beautiful demonstration of how fragile a teacher’s identity is. You aren’t a teacher, it says, unless your student claims you. Only when Miguel claims him does Johnny begin to trust himself enough to open up about his tumultuous relationship with his teenage son, Robby, his shame at having been an absentee father since he was born. “I failed him on the first day of his life and I failed him every day since. It’s one of the most painful things in my life,” he tells Miguel. “But one of the best things has been teaching you.”
Cobra Kai’s counterpoint to Johnny and Miguel’s relationship is that of Danny and Robby, Johnny’s son, who initially seeks out Danny in order to get back at his dad. They train together on the beach, in the forest, in Danny’s Japanese-style garden; a school dropout, Robby embraces the opportunity to learn and begins to find meaning in Danny’s teachings on pacifism and self-defense. But this relationship is less rewarding an exchange — and, perhaps not coincidentally, less compelling television — because Danny never tries to learn from Robby. He is self-satisfied, convinced that the lessons of his own journey are sufficient. He is sure that his philosophy is superior to Johnny’s, which is partly his reason for starting his own dojo, Miyagi-Do — to prove, against Cobra Kai, that his way is best.
While this paternal push and pull characterizes the show’s dramatic appeal, Cobra Kai also happens to be television’s most trenchant explanation of the allure of paramilitary violence. Its chief proselytizer is John Kreese, founder of the Cobra Kai dojo and Johnny’s mentor, who appears in Season 2 as the show’s third and final would-be father figure. In the original films and in the TV show, he is the archbully: then as now, he exhorts his teenage students to fight dirty, to intimidate, to never let their guard down. We see him punch a scrawny kid and encourage his students to vandalize Danny’s dojo, which he later usurps. He teaches and embodies Strike first, strike hard, no mercy to the letter.
The show’s second and third seasons mine Kreese’s backstory. It’s a bit hokey and caricatural, but its takeaway — that of a sweet working-class kid radicalized by the war in Vietnam — is essential, all the more in that it could be mapped directly onto the entire history of paramilitary fascism. In the wake of World War I, Germany and Italy were overrun with soldiers who had fought in and been traumatized by the war, and who now sought out militant groups to revive the camaraderie and purpose they had experienced in the trenches. Others, too young to have fought, joined on the promise of strength and vengeance in a stark economic landscape dominated by hunger and joblessness.
In the United States as well, paramilitary groups arose out of wartime humiliation. Kathleen Belew’s Bring the War Home examines how returning Vietnam veterans felt betrayed by the government and a broader culture that spat on their sacrifice. In the words of Louis Beam, a Vietnam vet who went onto create a paramilitary arm of the KKK:
America’s political leaders, bankers, church ministers, newsmen, sports stars and hippies called us “baby killers,” and threw chicken blood on some of us when we returned home. You’re damn right I’m mad! I’ve had enough! I want these same traitors to face their enemy now, the American fighting man they betrayed, all three million of us.
“Although the battlefield had changed and rules were different,” Beam said in 1989, “THE WAR CONTINUES.” As Belew observes, Vietnam was a central reference point and rallying cry for white power militias that plotted violent overthrows and bombings. “Even after all this time,” Beam wrote,
there seems to be no way we can forget or let Vietnam descend into the past… There is no relief, and can be none. We are forever trapped in the rice paddies and skies of Vietnam. We can neither go back or go forward, suspended for eternity in the place that they put us… Forget? Not even if I could.
Like Beam, Kreese has been forged in the crucible of his Vietnam experience. He learns karate — and the Strike first, strike hard, no mercy mantra — from his military commander, who we meet while he’s plotting a secret raid on a North Vietnamese site. As they train, Kreese’s sensei tells him to be merciless. “But what if they surrender?” asks a younger, kinder Kreese. “Never trust your enemy!” his teacher responds. “You can leave all that peace and love deal for the college sissies back home!”
In America, those who believe in forever wars tend to have fought in one. Belew argues that the rise of the paramilitary white power movement culminated in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing: portrayals of Timothy McVeigh as a lone killer who orchestrated it alone are wrong, she writes. McVeigh fought in the Gulf War — “I got medals for killing people,” he said to his cellmates — and was eager to continue the combat at home. He was susceptible to white power propaganda that valorized military service, offered a way to continue operations, and perhaps most importantly came from the mouths of vets like Beam. “This is an easily controlled and manipulated personality,” an FBI agent told the New York Times.
In this way, Kreese’s Vietnam backstory is not a backstory at all: it’s the present and the future. Showing up at Danny’s dojo unannounced, Kreese makes violent threats and refers to the students as soldiers. Incredulous, Danny replies, “Soldiers? They’re just kids.” Echoing Beam, Kreese responds, “War never ends. Peace is just the lull between wars.” And in his own way, he succeeds in bringing the war home: tensions between Miyagi-Do and Cobra Kai intensify throughout the show, spilling into brawls at the local mall and in school hallways. By the third season, everybody is reeling and suffering from the consequences.
Cobra Kai shows the attraction of paramilitary violence. Nobody is immune to power’s seduction; everybody carries a source of humiliation. For Tory, a poor Cobra Kai student who develops a rivalry with Danny’s daughter, Samantha, the no mercy philosophy makes perfect sense: her mother wasn’t shown any mercy when she was fired from a restaurant for sharing leftovers with her children, so why should she treat anyone any differently? (Though Tory’s backstory is thin and unsatisfying, her character succeeds in being utterly terrifying.) For the high school’s most bullied student, who has a cleft lip, the memory of humiliation is too potent to come to grips with. When you find your tribe, when you learn how to fight, when you have access to weapons, what prevents you from becoming a victimizer, even if you still identify as a victim?
A classic parable of good and evil, The Karate Kid functioned as a post-Vietnam critique of American empire, staking its position explicitly: pacifism over violence, peace over war, an admittedly romanticized version of Eastern wisdom over the macho bravado of jock culture. Per the teachings of Mr. Miyagi, a war hero whose family was imprisoned in the Japanese internment, you fight only in self-defense. Kreese would have loved and hated The Karate Kid, so convincingly did it prove that pop culture itself had turned against the Vietnam War.
Cobra Kai too shows us the pernicious shadow of American empire, a miasma that won’t let anybody become free without a cost — but also models its unending appeal. “Cobra Kai never dies,” Kreese tells his students, and they chant it back to him. The show’s brilliance is that it dares to display what Susan Sontag called fascism’s “solemn eroticism.” In the place of the SS uniform, we have the karate gi, ravishing and light, cut from cotton canvas and stitched to allow for maximal movement. The flowing sleeves, the colorful belts, the dramatic headband — all of it wordlessly tells a story of discipline and tradition and belonging. Who wouldn’t feel powerful putting it on?
That the show is more fable than history is its strength. Had it mapped more piously to historical reality, we might have seen Kreese openly espousing white supremacy, deploying religious rhetoric, fomenting anti-communist or anti-Semitic views. But Cobra Kai also captures the complexity of racial divides, declining to portray the white students as bullies and the kids of color the victim-heroes. In this universe, the fascist-led paramilitary group is just as multiracial as Miyagi-Do. Everyone can be humiliated, Cobra Kai tells us, and so everyone can be manipulated. We are all susceptible. We speak positively of empowerment, but as Nietzsche knew, every tree has a twisted root. That so many of the show’s combatants are kids allows us to set aside our politics and focus on their vulnerability: when you’ve been tormented by a bully for years, the first time you fight back and win must be a triumph. But what if you then instigate the second fight, and the third? At what point have you become the villain?