Cobra Kai & Our Narratives

Cobra Kai - Johnny Lawrence

I have a thing I tell my kids especially as it relates to movies:

If it’s from the 80s, it is objectively good.

Of course, I’m not really serious, because there were a ton of bad movies from the 80s.

And yet, I am serious.

In recent weeks, my family and I have been enjoying Cobra Kai, the throwback Netflix series (originally on Youtube) that imagines life for the characters 30 years after the events of the original Karate Kid movie.

Karate Kid was a beloved childhood movie of mine and many. I remember at least one or two Halloweens dressed up as the Karate Kid, complete with white pajamas and black belt. The movie ages as well as most 80s movies do, even though it sticks deeply to sports movie-isms and reinforces racial stereotypes about Asian Americans. How could Mr. Miyagi, a World War II veteran, still speak with broken English? Do a lot of Asian people secretly know martial arts?

But it also has heart and depth, fleshing out Mr. Miyagi, played by Pat Morita who got an Academy Award nomination for the role, as more than a magical and mysterious Japanese American who can catch flies with his chopsticks and rub his hands together for some kind of healing effect but as a man, like so many people “othered” in this country, who carries a complex story of survival, loss, and wisdom, an embodiment of a nation that could send young men to fight in war while family members died in an internment camp.

During a recent rewatch with my son, Karate Kid resonated with other themes, like class and untreated PTSD.

Behind Mr. Miyagi’s wise old man shtick is one who is grieving the things he has lost, his family a casualty of America’s long obsession with fear of foreigners. He is a man who is capable of defending himself and others, including his country, but refuses to parade his medals around, suggesting he might have mixed feelings about his service or experienced a side of war that left him scarred in deep ways. On a lighter note, maybe there is even some subtle flipping of tables in the way he trades his karate lessons to the young white kid from Jersey in exchange for free labor, remembering all of the odd jobs he did for ungrateful white families over the years who never bothered to pronounce his name right. How many times were his incredible gifts overlooked? How many times was he just seen as the apartment handyman?

Daniel is a poor white kid in a single parent family moving into a new city and coming face to face with wealthy elites who bully him for stepping out of his place. While the movie doesn’t dive into it, there is grief in Daniel’s life, more than moving to a different part of the country but needing someone else to notice the pressures and troubles he is having and offer him some way to navigate it. He needs to be seen and affirmed, not just by the pretty cheerleader, but adults who value him for who he is.

Cobra Kai is run by a white veteran named John Kreese whose tattoos and proudly framed photo wielding an assault rifle reinforce that he is a badass who has tasted war, but as you watch his character unfold and command his students to do anything to win, suggests he has never stopped fighting in the first place. He wants to bring order to the world, and the only way to do that is to strike first and strike hard. Weakness has no place in Kreese’s dojo or way of life.

And then there is Johnny Lawrence, depicted in the movie as nothing more than a pompous white bully. He is aggressive. He strikes first to get what he wants. He found something in Cobra Kai that gives him purpose and identity. He wants to compete. He has discovered something he is good at, and it defines him.

In Cobra Kai, the same stories of grief and broken narratives define the characters. Daniel LaRusso is successful now, but his success seems comical. He’s a car dealer who promises to “chop” the prices and still lives off the legacy of a single famous kick to win the All Valley championship. I mean, seriously dude, move on. He gives out bonsai trees to customers. It’s like he’s still living in the Karate Kid narrative, even talking about the high school crush who didn’t work out.

Johnny Lawrence, the wealthy bully, has his story flipped. Now he’s the handyman who ends up befriending a kid looking for a father figure and needs help defending himself against rich bullies. Johnny is a mess, divorced with a child that he is too ashamed to know. Johnny relaunches Cobra Kai to give purpose to his life but begins to find out times have changed. The message of “no mercy” takes extra resonance in a world of cyber bullying and strict boundaries between the wealthy and the poor, where there often is little mercy for the kids on the bottom of this mess. His All Valley loss back in the day still haunts him but so does a wealthy stepdad who was cruel, a family life lacking in love and support.

In one incredible scene, Johnny recasts the original Karate Kid film with Daniel as the villain of the story, the new kid who butted into his relationships, picked on him, and ultimately ruined his life. Johnny is haunted by his mistakes and his failures throughout the movie, including his long neglected relationship with his son. It’s only by restarting the one thing that gave him purpose that he begins to confront those narratives and figure out who he can be from that point moving forward, even if his trajectory of personal growth is incredibly slow.

Ultimately, Cobra Kai is fun, clever, and silly, like a good 80s movie, but it reinforces the reality that many of us are still living out of the narratives that shaped us when we were young – the narratives of our parents, our grandparents, and our ancestors. Sometimes, those narratives are good – they are ones of survival and resistance and wholeness. Other times, they are not – they are narratives of dominance and comfort and lies. We have seen these narratives on display in recent weeks as white supremacists violently stormed the Capitol in Washington DC, claiming that they want their country back. We have witnessed narcissism on display when leaders who claim that they can’t lose…. lose anyway.

Somehow, each of us must come to grips with the narratives that shaped us, whether they were good or bad or somewhere in between.

And we must have the courage to claim the stuff that is good and write new narratives, or we’ll find ourselves fighting the same battles, like a sequel to an 80s movie, in 30 years time.