(The first season of Cobra Kai is free until September 11)
The Karate Kid, one of the iconic movies of the 1980s, is about two things, the missing father and the missing son. Daniel LaRusso, played by My Cousin Vinny’s Ralph Macchio, is a working-class Italian American from Newark, New Jersey. The son of a single mother who moves him, against his will, to Los Angeles so she can look for work in the computer industry, he meets the upper-class WASP girl of his dreams at his new high-school. Ali, played by Harvard student Elizabeth Shue, against all expectations, returns his affections, but Daniel has bigger problems than unrequited love. Johnny Lawrence, Ali’s ex-boyfriend, a hulking towheaded blond who’s the star of the local karate dojo, isn’t ready to give her up. Daniel is no coward. He bravely stands up to Johnny and his bullying, but he’s over matched, outnumbered, and, most importantly of all, has no father, either to protect him, or teach him how an Italian American Montague should deal with a gang of WASP Capulets who beat him to a pulp every chance they get.
How camest thou hither, tell me, and wherefore?
The orchard walls are high and hard to climb,
And the place death, considering who thou art,
If any of my kinsmen find thee here.
Enter Mr. Miyagi, played by Pat Morita, the Japanese American superintendent at the rundown apartment building where Daniel and his mother live. Morita, a former standup comedian who until the Karate Kid had been best known as “Arnold,” a minor character on the TV show Happy Days, quickly reveals himself to be, not only the best thing about the movie, but the best thing that could have happened to Daniel. Released in 1984 — a year that with the Soviet free LA Olympics was probably the most fascist year I remember until 2001 and George W. Bush — the Karate Kid is a surprisingly left-wing film, a Bernie Sanders movie in the age of Ronald Reagan.
Cobra Kai, Johnny Lawrence’s dojo, owned by the ex-green-beret John Creese, is basically a Hitler youth camp, a pack of little Aryan superman who snap to attention and yell “Yes Sensei” while Creese screams out “no mercy” and teaches them to fight dirty and “destroy the enemy.” Seriously, compared to John Creese, Gordon Geko was a liberal. Getting his ass kicked in Vietnam by the communists must have hit Creese hard. Miyagi, on the other hand, a karate master who easily beats up Johnny’s gang of tormentors all by himself, has much less to prove. During the Second World War, Mr. Miyagi served with the all Japanese 442nd Infantry Regiment in Europe, and earned the Congressional Medal of Honor. He also realizes that he can’t simply protect Daniel from Johnny and his gang, that he has to teach the boy to be a man and stand up for himself. So he arranges a truce between Johnny’s gang and Daniel. Daniel will fight Johnny in the local karate tournament, but until that time he’ll call off the attacks.
We all know how the Karate Kid ends. Daniel beats Johnny in the karate tournament, and he and Ali go off to live happily ever after (or so we think) but that’s not really the point of the Karate Kid. While Mr. Miyagi is acting as Daniel’s ersatz father, and teaching him karate, we learn that while he was serving in Italy his wife had died in childbirth at the Manzanar Detention Center, a concentration camp in California set up in 1942, not only for Japanese nationals, but for Japanese Americans. Mr. Miyagi, who the movie subtly implies had lost his will to live — He did a terrible job at the building where he worked. He had long given up maintaining his collection of vintage cars. — needs Daniel as much as Daniel needs him. We thought we were watching a movie about the missing father, but we were really watching a movie about the missing son.
If there was anything I didn’t like about the Karate Kid it’s how it didn’t follow up on its own leftist impulses. Screenwriter Michael Kamen and director John Avildsen, who also directed the first two Rocky movies, tease us with the wonderful premise of a Japanese American war hero and concentration camp survivor teaching a working class ethnic white from New Jersey to defend himself against a vicious gang of WASP bullies led by a Nazi ex-green-beret but the film seems to end on an aspirational note of personal achievement and upward mobility. Daniel realizes that his resentful accusations against his upper-class blond girlfriend that all she cared about were money and fancy cars were out of line and even cruel, but in the end they drive off together in a cool car anyway, a 1948 Ford Super DeLuxe Club convertible given to him by Mr. Miyagi as a reward for all the chores he had done around the apartment building. An Italian American from New Jersey “winning” the beautiful blond princess from her Southern California Prince Not so Charming? How ridiculously 1980s, if not downright sexist.
If Ryan Coogler’s 2015 film Creed, another film about the missing father and the missing son, had one flaw, it was how Rocky and Apollo Creed had already resolved their differences. Creed, who played Johnny Lawrence to Rocky’s Daniel LaRusso, had already completed his own redemption arc in Rocky III when he put aside his overweening pride in order to train his former antagonist in his own fighting style in order to beat Mr. T’s Mike Tyson-like villain Clubber Lang. So when Creed’s illegitimate son Adonis seeks Rocky out in Philadelphia to be his trainer, Rocky is more sad than angry. He’s a tired old man at peace with himself. He doesn’t need a son anymore than Adonis, a grown man in his mid-20s not a teenager, really needs a father. Coogler had a great idea, and Sylvester Stallone graciously agreed to star in his film, but Rocky comes off a little too much like a tired old man who had completely his journey than a man who needed redemption in the form of the illegitimate son of his long dead rival. Cobra Kai, the fourth sequel to the Karate Kid, succeeds where Creed fails.
We all know how Johnny Lawrence, and pretty much any White Anglo Saxon Protestant bully who grew up in Southern California in the 1980s and learned karate at a Nazi dojo owned by an ex-green-beret, would have ended up in real life. He would have become a cop. There’s plenty of high-paying work in Donald Trump’s America for fascist bullies. But Johnny Lawrence turns out to have had more character than anybody would have imagined. We know this because instead of joining ICE or the LAPD and spending the rest of his life happily beating up on “illegals” or gunning down black people, he becomes a down and out loser, a marginally employed handy man financially dependent on his emotionally abusive step father played by the 90-year-old Ed Asner. A couple of years ago when my parents were still alive and someone would accuse me of being a 20 year old incel living in my parents’ basement, I always had the perfect answer. “Nope,” I would say. “I’m a 40 year old incel living in his parents basement. So there.” Except for the incel part — he has an estranged ex-wife and son — that’s Johnny, a middle-aged man whose emotional development stopped in 1984 when he lost the karate tournament, and Ali, to Daniel LaRusso, now the millionaire owner of a chain of auto dealerships.
Can it be? Do I actually like a reboot of an iconic cultural property? Creed was OK. The Star Wars reboots are God awful, but astonishingly, the reboot of The Karate Kid, of all films, while it suffers from all the flaws of a low-budget TV series, is a complex, nuanced, self-aware, and deeply affecting masterpiece. I kid you not. I enjoyed the first season of Cobra Kai more than I’ve enjoyed anything in quite some time. If the end of the Karate Kid resolved itself just a bit too neatly, the beginning of Cobra Kai addresses all of the questions the original movie left hanging. Daniel, in spite of all of his worldly success, remains unfulfilled. There’s a deep hole in his life where Mr. Miyagi — who died on November 15, 2011, Occupy Wall Street eviction day of all days — used to be. Johnny has a wife and two kids. He’s a good father, a good employer, and generally a kindhearted man, but something’s missing, and not only Ali, who was written out of the plot when Elizabeth Shue declined to participate in the sequels. Ralph Macchio is now in his mid-50s. Quite honestly he could pass for 30, and even more interestingly, his youthful appearance isn’t necessarily a good thing. He comes off as a boy who never had the ability to grow into mature man, to take on the gravitas that comes with age.
William Zabka, in turn, who plays Johnny, looks closer to 40 than he does to his real age of 54, an unfulfilled man too angry to give up the physical vigor of his youth, slowly but surely being dragged down into the misery of old age, but kicking and screaming every step of the way, desperate to hold onto that moment when he lost his girlfriend and his karate title all those decades ago. His redemption arc begins when he meets Miguel, a working class 17-year-old Hispanic kid who seems an awful lot like a young Daniel LaRusso. When Zabka, eating a miserable slice of pizza in the parking-lot of the local mini-mart sees Miguel being tormented by a gang of rich kids who, except for being multi-racial and multicultural, resemble the old gang back at Cobra Kai in the 1980s, he does exactly what Mr. Miyagi did back in 1984, he beats the ever loving shit out of the little cunts, and gets pepper sprayed by the police for his troubles. Miguel, whose mother, like Daniel’s mother, struck out on her own — she describes her husband as having been a very bad, abusive man — has found the father he needs in the form of the emotionally stunted Johnny Lawrence. Suddenly we see that Generation Z has the same relationship to Generation X as the Millennials have to the Boomers. If the Millennials have translated the uneasy compromise the Boomers made with capitalism into cultural radicalism and political correctness, then it turns out that what the “Zoomers” really need is a dose of Generation X’s politically incorrect cynicism.
It’s Johnny’s bad qualities, his bigotry, his macho, immature attitude, his lack of sensitivity that appeals to Miguel in the first place. Miguel, it turns out, is a good boy raised by women without any masculine energy in his life. He’s a nice kid who halfheartedly goes along with the ethos of the Millennial Social Justice Warrior but deep down inside he knows that somethings missing. Miguel’s high school is multicultural, multiracial, and politically correct, but it’s immediately recognizable as the same old high school we all knew in the 1980s, a prison house with a rigid social hierarchy of mean girls and bullies lording it over nerds and losers. In one of the show’s best, and most misunderstood, moments, Kyler, a rich Asian kid who’s dating Samantha, Daniel LaRusso’s daughter, has little patience for his girlfriend’s dad trying to get him to eat sushi. Daniel is being naively “orientalist.” When he asks Kyler where he’s from and Kyler responds with “Irvine” it’s a social justice “mike drop” moment. Kyler checked Daniel’s “white privilege” for him. “BOOM. THIS,” as they would say on Twitter. The scene has been widely praised by people who miss one very important fact. Kyler is one of the least sympathetic characters in Cobra Kai. His parents have achieved the “American Dream” but Kyler is basically a Brett Kavanaugh in the making. He is absolutely from Irvine and not from somewhere in Asia, but this is not a good thing. He embodies all of the worst qualities of any white preppy kid. Upwardly mobility, the writers seem to be saying, isn’t enough.
Yet it is very possible that in a future episode Kyler could become a sympathetic character after all. Kyler may be a little asshole, a bully, and a sexual harasser, but, like Johnny Lawrence, we have no idea what demons he may be struggling with, what kind of back story he has, or what future influences he may run into. Kyler in the end, might become the hero, and indeed that’s the best thing about Cobra Kai. Nothing is set in stone. Nobody is essentially good or evil. They’ve just had bad influences, good parents and inadequate parents. No social hierarchy is permanent. Cobra Kai, which in the 1980s, was an instrument of fascist repression, is now a disruptive, almost revolutionary influence. Bullied losers learn karate and become cool. Mean girls and popular kids get what they deserve. Some of them turn out to be not so mean after all. You can be redeemed by failure and condemned to hell by success. In the end we remember what the late Mr. Miyagi said all those years ago to Daniel LaRusso.
“There are no bad students. only bad teachers.”