In the final round of the All-Valley Karate Tournament, the climax of the seminal classic The Karate Kid, Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence’s violent rivalry is all but settled. Daniel is injured, with an illegal hit having left his leg sprained. He hobbles to the mat, determined and a little afraid. Johnny, his rival and bully, looms over him like an animal waiting to strike. Daniel stands in an unblemished white gi while Johnny’s is black. A lesser movie would have left it there. But The Karate Kid uses one of its final moments to introduce nuance to an otherwise black-and-white story in just three words: sweep the leg.
Johnny’s sensei, John Kreese, sees Johnny falling behind and commands him to capitalize on Daniel’s injury. William Zabka’s performance is impeccable. His face screams confusion and anger as he sees his teacher’s ruthless philosophy deployed simultaneously against him and through him. When Kreese tells him “No mercy,” unlike at every other point in the movie, he doesn’t answer. He’s heartbroken and enraged as he follows orders. His attacks go from decisive to frenzied. He yells through his strikes, with eyes wild like he’s near tears. As he capitalizes on LaRusso’s injury, the crowd’s boos more with every move. At the outset of the final point he winds up to finish his grim task, but in mere milliseconds, he’s humiliated with a kick to the face and sent cowering to the ground.
Still, this could be an opportunity to show through defeat that Johnny was as evil as the audience has wanted him to be. The Johnny we expect would be far more likely to throw a cheap shot or a slick insult. Instead, he loses with dignity. Suddenly the villain we’ve been made to hate the whole film ever so briefly reveals himself as just an angry kid with pain in his heart. These rivals turn out to be more alike than they think, with the major difference in their life being the direction in which their anger was pointed. Daniel found Mr. Miyagi and his stoic pacifism. Johnny got taken by Kreese, who’d have better served him as a cautionary tale.
The rivalry between LaRusso and Lawrence has lived on alongside the original film but, as it goes with so many stories, nuance has become a casualty of time. Johnny’s characterization becomes focused on his cruelty, and the complex emotional journey depicted in his defeat is forgotten. The heartbreaking delivery of “sweep the leg” is reduced to quote fodder for unlicensed novelty tee shirts. Enter Cobra Kai.
While a multi-season sequel series was surely not part of the plan for The Karate Kid franchise, the surprise quality (and subsequent success) of the show has brought the rivalry of Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence back into the cultural conversation. At the start of the series we see Johnny, now in his early 50s, living in the shadow of his own squandered potential. Meanwhile success abounds for Daniel, who’s become the owner of a high-end car dealership in the Valley. Johnny’s hobbled by his defeat and Daniel’s more than happy to smugly recount that defeat to anyone who will listen. The tables are turned, and Daniel sweeps the leg without thinking twice. From the start, the show makes it clear that this is a story about rivalry.
Johnny ends up reopening the Cobra Kai dojo, this time with the interesting wrinkle of using his merciless philosophy as a way of empowering kids who feel like losers. Daniel, believing the Cobra Kai philosophy to be dangerous, takes on two students of his own. The two butt heads repeatedly as Johnny’s “Strike Hard, Strike First, No Mercy” attitude remains ever at odds with Miyagi-do’s more thoughtful, pacifist approach. The show’s first season culminates in another All-Valley Karate Showdown, this time with audience sympathy built on both sides.
Cobra Kai could’ve stopped its narrative development there and still be an entertaining remix of a story that’s always been satisfying to watch. But at the first season’s end, Johnny’s star student Miguel wins the tournament by taking advantage of his opponent’s injuries. Johnny is left questioning the philosophy that’s turned his star student into the exact type of person he regrets having been in his youth just as the show introduces a new central tension in the form of a familiar villain. Johnny’s former sensei, John Kreese, smokes a cigar in the shadows of the empty Cobra Kai dojo and reveals himself.
From there, the story pours gas on an open flame. Kreese feigns regret and convinces Johnny to let him teach alongside him. Cobra Kai students abandon the dojo for Miyagi-Do. Miyagi-Do students jump ship for Cobra Kai. Friends become rivals, rivals become friends, all as virtually every possible romantic permutation the show could potentially explore is explored. The show becomes less of a nostalgic retread of old ground and more like a shonen anime. The fact that these students are schoolchildren takes a backseat to their love of karate and the all-consuming rivalries it’s created in their lives. The second season ends with an on-campus karate brawl so big that it leaves Miguel in a coma. The third season ends with another taking place inside the LaRusso home (in one of the series’ best line deliveries, Courtney Henggeler gestures to the wreckage of her home with anguish and says “a small boy was thrown through our window!”). Each season takes our characters further and further away from the world they inhabited in the original films and deeper into its logical progression: a town where fighting can solve any problem and daily life is constantly derailed by sudden bouts of juvenile karate. Mr. Miyagi’s pacifism feels quite justified in retrospect.
By the end of season 4, the show itself seems to be an exploration of the inanity of violence and rivalry itself (albeit one that still uses both to great effect). At the center of everything is the “villain” that started it all. Zabka plays Johnny with the same complex mixture of pain, charisma, and rage that was present when The Karate Kid hit theaters, but this time it seems the audience is more prepared to accommodate the nuance. If there is one message that Cobra Kai has for its audience, it’s that rivals are rarely rivals for long. Even Kreese seems destined for a redemption arc as Terry Silver takes the top villain spot.
But even as the story expands to accommodate an ever growing cast of characters, it still makes time for the rivalry that started it all. In season 4, now teaching side by side, Daniel and Johnny stage a long awaited formal rematch of their original bout. Despite the cheers of their students from the sidelines, each of whom is begging for a definitive answer to which side is the better one, the battle ends in a double knock out. With two cartoonish pratfalls, our heroes find themselves on the mat with the answer to the question of “Who would win?” no closer to their grasp. As a viewer, you can’t help but ask: can there ever truly be an answer or is the fight the point? What if the greatest rival we have is the forces that animate us against each other? What if the reward for defeating your rival is just another rival?
By Cobra Kai’s estimation, it’s rivalries all the way down. Each villain turns out to be another angry kid with pain in his heart, simply ruined by whichever villain came before him. Maybe Cobra Kai is trying to find a way to break the cycle. Or maybe it’s just trying to teach us to relax and enjoy the unending, karate-paved, road to hell.