The ‘80s have been back for, arguably, ten years or so, needing little time to marinate in the American subconscious before being looked back on fondly enough by people who were there and those who weren’t. The ‘80s brought the rise of hip-hop as America’s leading music genre, bold styles and the rise of the modern supermodel, and a much-needed revamp of teen cinema. Mostly spearheaded by John Hughes-directed classics such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) and The Breakfast Club (1985), the renaissance of teen cinema in the ‘80s still has American culture in its nostalgic grip, and no one’s more familiar with this than Netflix. Following the incredible success of their now flagship original show, Stranger Things (2016-present), it makes sense that Netflix would continue to dig into the nostalgic ‘80s cash cow by picking up YouTube’s dropped scripted series, Cobra Kai (2018-present), based on the original Karate Kid (1985-1989) trilogy starring Ralph Macchio as Daniel LaRusso and Pat Morita as Mr. Miyagi.
This isn’t the first time the Karate Kid franchise has seen a reboot. 1991’s The Next Karate Kid starred Pat Morita reprising his role as Mr. Miyagi and Hilary Swank as his latest karate student, Julie. Though this is sometimes considered the fourth of the Karate Kid movies, the absence of Macchio in it leaves it up to the viewer to decide its place in the Karate Kid canon. In 2010, a Karate Kid reboot starring Jaden Smith as bullied student turned karate champion Dre Parker and Jackie Chan as his sensei, Mr. Han, was released. On its own, it’s a well-made karate movie, but because of its shared name with the original, to this day it receives a lot of ire from fans of the original who see it as little more than a poor attempt to reboot a beloved film series.
Enter YouTube, which during the mid-2010s was testing out launching a subscription service similar to Netflix and Hulu with scripted shows that would make it a viable competitor to them. While its scripted series fizzled out as YouTube decided to focus on live TV instead, Cobra Kai made its mark with an interesting premise to rebooting the Karate Kid. The original 1983 movie had Daniel as the underdog hero, a working class kid who wants to get the girl and his better-off karate champion bully Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) off his back. He memorably does so with the help of his sensei and father-figure, Mr. Miyagi, a Japanese handyman who trains Daniel through unorthodox but effective methods. Daniel wins the 1983 All Valley Karate Championship despite Cobra Kai’s ruthless attempts to get him out of the championship.
When Cobra Kai dropped on Netflix, it became the ‘80s sleeper hit the streaming service has kind of become known for and was quickly followed by announcements of a season 3 release date and confirmation for season 4. Cobra Kai is interesting, well-made, and pokes fun at the ‘80s nostalgia it’s capitalizing on. This is especially true in Johnny’s case, whose students have to teach him about the internet and smartphones and that asthma is a real medical condition. Still, what was the weakness for the 2010 Karate Kid reboot is Cobra Kai’s strength, that which compelled millions of Netflix users to watch the show, the previously established investment in the characters. A standalone show about rival karate champions and their respective dojos might initially struggle to find an audience, but Cobra Kai has the siren song of nostalgia backing it. Luckily for viewers, the show doesn’t just rely on nostalgia for its appeal. The new sides of Daniel and Johnny’s rivalry are compelling, as are the stories and struggles of the next generation of karate kids of the opposing Miyagi-Do and Cobra Kai dojos.
It’ll be interesting to see how Netflix handles the series from here. The confirmation for season 4 before season 3 has even come out is promising, especially when Netflix is notorious for cancelling its own shows after a season or two while extending the lives of shows from other streaming services or networks. If the reaction to the first two seasons’ appearance on Netflix is anything to go by, the ‘80s nostalgia formula hasn’t failed Netflix yet, and one can only wonder if it ever will.