Cobra Kai — The Sequel 2020 Needed
I was nine years old when I first discovered that one could master karate by waxing a car, painting a fence, and cultivating a passion for bonsai gardening. I was roughly 47 minutes older than that when I watched, wide-eyed, as Danny LaRusso executed a flawless crane kick to take out his Cobra Kai arch-nemesis and claim the All Valley Karate Tournament.
Ah, the feels.
Karate Kid was my first real taste of the scrappy underdog story. For the remainder of my awkward formative years, nothing else — not Skywalker blowing up the Death Star; not even E.T. finally figuring out his alien finger juju and going home — would touch the crisp cinematic completion of one perfect, morally justified kick to the face.
I have questions
Then I got older and fatter. The Internet happened. Then 2020 exploded in our face (zombie plagues, murder hornets, massive wildfires, etc.)
But then something really important went down. Netflix announced the release of Cobra Kai, the Karate Kid sequel I’d always been waiting for on some level – even if I didn’t know it. I somehow missed the release of this show on YouTube, but when it showed up on my Netflix recommended list, I knew that a mammoth televisual binge loomed large in my near future.
I was 45 years old (don’t) when I finally learned what happened to Danny and his disgusting bro-nemesis, Johnny Lawrence.
I watched time transform my hero from an underdog into a … whatever the opposite of an underdog is … an overwolf? This new and suspiciously middle-aged Danny wasn’t evil per se, but he was a winner — which is almost worse from my inner nine-year-old’s perspective. More horrifying, I watched Jonny transform into someone I couldn’t not like, even though he perfectly resembles a middle-aged version of every bully I despised through my high school years.
And I’m just going to come out and admit it.
The story I get. It’s big, bold and obvious as any good punch-baddy-in-the-face story should be.
I’m confused by my reaction.
Cobra Kai is a slice-by-slice vivisection of a story I love, and a fairy tale which shone like a beacon of hope through the long years of being a “nerd” in a “jock’s” world. And I’m sitting on my couch like a putz, chain-popping caramel M&Ms and loving every minute of this abomination.
What the hell is wrong with me? Why is this fun? What would Mr. Miyagi think?
The Cinderella Redux Hypothesis
I’m still not sure I have the perfect answer, but I’m wondering if maybe that’s just how good folklore works. It shifts and shimmies with the times.
Case in point: Consider Cinderella, an age-old story about another underdog kicking ass and taking names, albeit with more pumpkins.
The 15th Century French version of the tale hones in on how magical intervention elevated Cinderella’s condition and casts her ultimate crane kick crescendo as the moment she forgives her evil sisters and marries them off to suitably boring suitors. The brutal 19th Century German Grimm Fairy Tales version has Cinderella blinding her (Cobra Kai-esque) stepsisters, so they can never harm her again. The early 20th Century English version, Tattercoats, focuses on how the virtuous prince was willing to ignore Cinderella’s crappy dress sense and redeem her by putting a ring on it.
Scholars think there may be over 3000 different versions of the Cinderella story floating around out there.
Same variables. Different outcomes. That’s how fairy tales stay fresh while remaining comfortably familiar. Each telling gets a fresh spin based on time and cultural perspective.
Wax On, Wax Off
I feel as though Cobra Kai is the fairy tale reboot that came at the perfect time.
I know I’m not the only one who’s had more than a healthy amount of time for introspection these past few months. As a prisoner in my own living room, Cobra Kai has been a fun and safe way to tackle the notion that sometimes the best thing you can say of a situation is “meh, it is what it is.”
It actually doesn’t matter that Cobra Kai rips the Karate Kid narrative a new one. Who cares if one simple hero is torn down and another more complicated and flawed one is pulled up out of the muck in their place?
It’s still the same comfortable set of variables. It’s still that cozy fairy tale world of wax on, wax off.
And the narrative upheaval feels so perfectly apt for 2020 somehow.
It feels right that heroes can be villains; that underdogs can become top dogs; that sometimes important life chapters don’t culminate with a perfectly executed crane kick, cheering crowds, and a giant plastic trophy.
Sometimes life can be tricky, unfair, and a little bit scary. Seeing those truths play out harmlessly is … oddly … comforting? Like harmless console battles or pitched battles between warring dojos, it’s easier to watch a war when everyone goes home at the end of the day.
So thank you so much, YouTube and Netflix, for this hefty sucker punch to my memory gizzards.
It’s been a good pain.