There is a widespread contrarian theory about “The Karate Kid” that suggests Daniel LaRusso, the boy who befriended an elderly karate master and won a tournament against a group of bullies, was actually the movie’s villain.
If that’s true, the real hero of the 1984 classic was Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), the pretty-boy champion from the Cobra Kai dojo whom Daniel (Ralph Macchio) felled with the famous crane kick.
It’s convincing. Johnny was a gracious loser who had been brainwashed and manipulated by an abusive sensei. Daniel, a hotheaded teenager prone to outbursts of aggression, was the instigator in most of their confrontations. And he did kind of steal Johnny’s girlfriend. In the end, though, Daniel tamed his demons, while Johnny succumbed to them, fought dirty and lost.
But viewers who grew up with “The Karate Kid” and its sequels still argue about this, which at least indicates the film had a more nuanced grasp of human complexity and moral ambiguity than mainstream Hollywood usually delivered at the time.
This idea is also the basis for an unlikely hit revival of the franchise: “Cobra Kai,” whose third season debuted over the weekend on Netflix, is a compulsively entertaining product (“good” would be the wrong word) that expands and deepens the rivalry between LaRusso and Lawrence, which neither of them seems interested in settling. (Both actors reprise their roles.)
Initially created for the short-lived YouTube Red streaming service in 2018, “Cobra Kai’’ focuses on Johnny, who, 30-some years after his peak fighting days, is a deadbeat father and a hopeless drunk, subsisting on a diet of expired lunch meat and Coors Banquet.
A random street fight leads him to train a neighbor kid, Miguel (Xolo Maridueña), who rekindles Johnny’s passion for karate. He reopens an updated version of the Cobra Kai dojo, seeking both redemption and a second chance with his son, Robby (Tanner Buchanan), who, wouldn’t you know, also gets into the sport.
Meanwhile, Daniel has parlayed his fame into a successful career as owner of a car dealership chain, which allows him to taunt Johnny, figuratively, from billboards all over town. In an interesting role reversal, it’s now Daniel who lives in a McMansion and enjoys a lifestyle of country-club privilege. Eventually, he opens a rival dojo and teaches Mr. Miyagi’s version of karate, which favors mindfulness over violence. Yet, somehow, violence ensues.
“Cobra Kai” has been a remarkable success since first migrating to Netflix over the summer. It is the most popular property on the streaming service as of this writing and has been renewed for a fourth season.
It shouldn’t work as well as it does. Nobody was asking for a new version of a franchise that’s already been rebooted to death. “Cobra Kai’s” appeal is undeniable but hard to describe. Earlier I said “good” wasn’t the right way to describe “Cobra Kai.” Neither is “bad,” and neither is “so bad it’s good.” It’s something different altogether: a euphoric cheese-watch that transcends ordinary boundaries of taste.
On one hand, “Cobra Kai” has surprising emotional intelligence for a show about middle-aged men and melodramatic teenagers karate-ing each other. By the end of season one, Miguel is positioned as a villain, but since there is interior logic to all of his decisions, he’s hard to root against, just like Johnny in the original.
And yet, the series leans so heavily into 1980s movie cliches that it nearly tips over. It’s unclear whether “Cobra Kai” is celebrating the silliness it so eagerly deploys, or if it’s mocking or somehow commenting on it. The presentation feels sincere and tongue-in-cheek at the same time.
There are superfluous montages of characters training, dating, driving and performing chores. Montages, soundtracked by second-tier hair-band rock, occupy so much of each supremely bingeable half-hour episode that they sometimes overlap.
Plus, the romantic contrivances, stiff one-liners and plot developments are so obvious you’ll yell them out in advance, then howl with glee at guessing right, perhaps during a “Cobra Kai”-inspired Coors Banquet drinking game, for which there is ample material. The pure, dumb joy of it arrives like a kick to the head.