Back in 1984, a movie about a teenager learning how to kick other teens in the face transformed the American suburbs, making Asian martial arts—a set of disciplines that were at the time as exotic to Americans as sushi—safe and aspirational for the youth of Outer Caucasia.
But The Karate Kid was more than just the inspiration for a generation of white middle-class adolescents to march into strip-mall dojos across the nation, ready to smack the heck out of pine boards and cinder blocks. Coming as it did at the peak of Reaganite triumphalism, it served as a kind of metaphoric exploration of the struggle for the soul of white America, in a decade defined by the rise of Asia and the emergence of multiculturalism.
The film’s hero, Daniel LaRusso (a baby-faced Ralph Macchio) is the dark-haired, olive-skinned child of a working-class single mom, whose unlikely father figure, an Asian-American war hero (Pat Morita, in an Oscar-nominated turn), teaches him self-defense and self-confidence, while imbuing him with a fascinated appreciation for the exotic ideas and aesthetics of Japanese culture. His blond nemesis, Johnny Lawrence, is an arrogant child of privilege who’s been drilled in Cobra Kai, a version of karate that’s been stripped of its Asian identity and weaponized with a shock-and-awe style philosophy: Strike first, strike hard, no mercy.
For those of us who came of age in the shadow of Reagan’s muscular conservatism, Daniel’s victory at the climax of Karate Kid felt like a proxy win for a diverse and global vision of America’s future. Of course, three and a half decades later that vision is still under assault, and the guy who’s bent on smashing it is a blond, arrogant foul-mouthed child of privilege who tweets things like “When someone attacks me, I always attack back…except 100x more!”
Strike first, strike hard, no mercy; Donald J. Trump is the Cobra Kai president.
Which means that Cobra Kai (video), YouTube’s brand-new and tremendously enjoyable continuation of the Karate Kid saga, is arriving at a shockingly appropriate cultural moment, for the kids who grew up watching the original, as well as new audiences.
The series, created by Harold and Kumar’s Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg and their friend John Heald (Hot Tub Time Machine), brings Macchio and Billy Zabka back as Daniel and Johnny. (Sadly absent is the late Pat Morita, who passed away in 2005.) It also brings back all the tropes that made the original film so beloved: The David versus Goliath message of empowerment; the heartwarming depiction of a father-son bond between outsiders; and of course, sequences in which the fundamentals of karate are taught to a disgruntled youth through repetition of everyday chores.
But as its title telegraphs, there’s one critical difference in this continuation. In Cobra Kai, the focus has shifted from Daniel to the guy he beat. Thirty-odd years after his crushing loss at the feet of Daniel-san, Johnny is an angry, unemployed white man who can’t quite comprehend the ways that his world has changed. He clings to his vintage Pontiac Firebird and his out-of-date playbook for picking up young girls (they pointedly ignore him), and seethes at how his neighborhood has become progressively browner over time.
If Johnny’s blond thatch, hard-set jaw, racist barking, and casual misogyny are reminiscent of a certain commander-in-chief, that’s not entirely an accident. Cobra Kai’s creators were developing the show as Trump was waging his 2016 campaign, and even before he was elected in November, they were certainly conscious of his resurgent cultural influence.
“He was a huge celebrity in eighties, and I think a large number of people in this country who voted for Trump in 2016 connected to that side of him,” says Hurwitz. “But what they got along with that was the other side of him—the Cobra Kai side.”
They’re quick to assert that Johnny isn’t meant to be a direct commentary on the Donald, however.
“We just wanted to make a show that spoke to today, that didn’t just take advantage of nostalgia,” says Schlossberg. “I’ve always liked the idea of Johnny being this guy we can all relate to, the one who peaked in high school and was happiest back in the 1980s—when America was still great for him.”
That 1980s greatness may have gone stale for Johnny, but Daniel’s star has only risen. In one of Cobra Kai’s deftest twists, Daniel has leveraged his All-Valley Championship win into a successful career as the owner of one of San Fernando’s biggest auto dealerships (video), selling Japanese cars with karate-themed commercials that show him “kicking the competition” and handing out bonsai trees as premiums to each of his satisfied customers.
So at the outset of the show, multiculturalism and globalism have been very good to Daniel LaRusso, while they’ve turned Johnny Lawrence into a lost and forgotten man, setting the stage for the duo to renew their rivalry through a new generation of karate kids.
Johnny’s protégé in the revived Cobra Kai, Miguel Diaz (played by Parenthood’s Xolo Maridueña), is Hispanic, and a skinny doppelganger of a young Macchio. Daniel, meanwhile, becomes the father figure and sensei for Robby Keene (Designated Survivor’s Tanner Buchanan), whose origins fuel a cleverly absurd plot twist. And when Daniel’s daughter Sam (Mary Mouser) breaks up with her boyfriend, only to emerge as the third leg in a triangle between them, it’s downright Shakespearean.
That said, it’s a little awkward that like the original film, Cobra Kai has just one notable Asian character — at least so far. But that character, Sam’s bro-ish boyfriend Kyler (Spa Night’s Joe Seo), is responsible for one hilariously uncomfortable scene, in which he comes to dinner at the LaRussos’ home and Daniel attempts to score Asian points with him by serving him sushi, which it turns out he doesn’t like. Daniel asks the dreaded question, of where his family is from, “originally.” Kyler’s response: “Irvine…I think?”
Those looking for more Asian characters to pop up may find satisfaction in future seasons. “This show was always intended to run longer than 10 episodes, and remember, all four of the original movies are canon for our universe; let’s just say that anyone that’s either from that world, or fits into it via family tree, is fair game,” says Heald. “And we’ve already had conversations about bringing in some of those other characters.” Could Karate Kid II’s Kumiko (memorably played by Tamlyn Tomita) or her offspring find their way back to the San Fernando Valley? Let’s hope so.
The early indications are good for Cobra Kai: The series is currently 100% Fresh on the reviews site Rotten Tomatoes, and its first episode, available for free as a teaser on YouTube, generated 5.4 million views within its first 24 hours on the platform. After three sequels, a Jackie Chan/Jaden Smith remake, and over $600 million in global box office, the Karate Kid franchise is still very much alive and, well, kicking.