Netflix has kicked off 2021 with some over-the-top 80s-inspired karate action, releasing the third season of Cobra Kai on New Year’s Day.
Set near the present day, 35 years after the events of the original Karate Kid movie, Cobra Kai continues the original Karate Kid story rather than rebooting or reimagining it.
Without giving too much away for those who haven’t watched any of the show, the series features several of the actors from the original Karate Kid films.
William Zabka reprises his role as a washed-up Johnny Lawrence, and Ralph Macchio returns as Daniel LaRusso, who has become a successful car salesman.
While the show started off with a fair amount of campy pandering to ’80s nostalgia, it quickly evolved to tell a beautifully nuanced story.
Rather than simply cast Lawrence and LaRusso as villain and hero, or even anti-hero and anti-villain, the show remains faithful to its two central characters while introducing several new players to fall in love with (or to love to hate).
Johnny Lawrence is a rough-around-the-edges scrapper with a heart of gold who is stuck in the past, and Zabka pulls off the role brilliantly.
Macchio is equally good at portraying a Daniel LaRusso who still has a chip on his shoulder and never quite got over Lawrence’s bullying in The Karate Kid, or Sensei John Kreese’s revenge in The Karate Kid Part III.
Like any good Karate Kid, the story of Cobra Kai begins with an underdog being bullied.
To make the story interesting, the writers reverse the social standings of Lawrence and LaRusso, turning Johnny into the poor underdog while Daniel has joined the wealthy upper crust of the San Fernando Valley.
The show uses the longer format of a TV series to develop its characters and ask some deeper questions of the subject matter it tackles.
In Cobra Kai, bullies aren’t portrayed as thugs who are just smart enough to avoid getting caught when they skirt or break the rules. They play the system, pitting the very authorities who are meant to protect the vulnerable against their targets.
Cobra Kai isn’t heavy-handed with the morality lessons, though. It also injects a good dose of comedy to offset the drama and action.
(Mild spoiler warning for the first episode of season 1.) For example, in one of Cobra Kai’s early scenes, Johnny comes to the defence of one of the bullied teenagers, Miguel Diaz, and lays a beat-down on a group of high schoolers, similar to what Mr Miyagi did for Daniel LaRusso in The Karate Kid.
However, Cobra Kai uses the heroic moment to remind us that this isn’t 1984 anymore. The police arrive on the scene, blast pepper spray in Johnny’s eyes, and arrest him for assaulting a group of minors.
Cobra Kai tackles serious themes while remaining light-hearted. It pulls off being tongue-in-cheek without veering into slapstick.
Considering the sober note the second season ended on, it wasn’t clear whether Cobra Kai would be able to keep up its rakish approach to the serious subject matter.
As if taking its own advice to teenagers, Cobra Kai Season 3 faces the challenges of the cliffhangers from its second season head-on.
It develops and concludes the open story arcs in a satisfying way, without losing the roguish tone that made the first two seasons so fun to watch.
The showrunners also create an opportunity to lean into Karate Kid nostalgia, pulling heavily from the old films and delivering some gratifying fan service.
It does this without becoming a ten-episode long “How it started / How it’s going” meme, or one of those “You won’t believe what THIS childhood actor looks like today” articles.
Yes, Cobra Kai is over-the-top and it leans heavily into the nostalgia of the Miyagiverse Karate Kid films. It doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Yet it is also a refreshing take on the typical coming-of-age drama. Yes, it tackles important issues like bullying, taking responsibility for unintended consequences, forgiveness, redemption, and empathy. But it does this by remembering that it is entertainment first.