While “Cobra Kai” is best appreciated by fans of “The Karate Kid” for nostalgic investment in familiar characters and abundant references to past events from both the lesser known sequels and the original story, it can also exist as a similar but independent, mostly pleasant story to tell.
It introduces and focuses on a mostly new crew of Californian teens to keep it fresh, even if the overall premise of rival dojos in high school remains the same. The antihero approach following the memorably defeated bully Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), washed up 34 years after the first film took place.
Following the legendary crane kick and two sequels, Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) became the auto king of the Valley and had a family variably interested in karate. He has succeeded on all accounts in life while Johnny drinks himself into oblivion, a juxtaposition frequently made.
These are not so much attempts at villainizing good old Daniel-san as much as stripping the underdog role from a classic underdog character and giving it to his main foe. It certainly flipped the script on what audiences expected a “Karate Kid” franchise rebirth might look like to its benefit and generally has upward trajectory as a series.
At times there is a lighthearted, childish tone to “Cobra Kai” established mostly by cheeseball dialogue and Disney channel drama style acting, though it frequently shatters with sucker punches (sometimes literal) of real, dark actions made by complicated characters.
Despite its mature language, alcoholic main character, and offhanded reference to other nefarious activities, the acting is still that of a high school drama. It can be hard to get past sometimes, but it is ultimately worth the cringe to see a great variety of character development in the heat of some admittedly heated situations.
“Cobra Kai” effectively makes every critical miscommunication and violent confrontation — of which there are many — bring appropriate consequences to the perpetrators and victims alike.
On the flip side, Daniel LaRusso fully has a thriving business to run and is instead battling the rivalry of his high school years and meddling with the intense karate culture of “The Valley,” often to the detriment of his dealership.
The stakes and motivation to learn karate for Miguel Diaz (Xolo Maridueña), seemingly the new karate protagonist, directly parallel Daniel LaRusso’s now bygone struggles in the original film, facing physical and social bullying. Sensei Lawrence reopens Cobra Kai both for Miguel’s training and for financial stability; his motivations are initially irrelevant to his rivalry with LaRusso, whereas Daniel reopens Miyagi-Do to directly combat Cobra Kai’s dogmatic and competitive rise to prevalence at West Valley High.
However, Miguel’s overlap with both Johnny and Daniel’s high school selves muddles the idea of the hero among the main group of protagonists that share the screen.
The last few episodes cultivate into an epic series of showdowns that hit huge strides in several character arcs between students of Miyagi-Do and Cobra Kai. It overall seems to be moving in the right direction as the finale brings with it a tone change for season three that fans of the first two can happily anticipate.