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Why 'Cobra Kai' Is a Comeback Story More Shocking Than 'The Karate Kid'

'Cobra Kai' is more critically acclaimed after five seasons (and two streamers) than any 'Karate Kid' film in the franchise.

Peter A. Berry
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William Zabka (left) with Ralph Macchio in 'Cobra Kai'

Netflix

Thirty-eight years ago, Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) won a fight he wasn't supposed to. Raising his injured left knee as he stood near the center of a blood-red octagon, the beleaguered teen leapt into the air before unleashing a pulverizing kick to defeat his arch-nemesis Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka). The pivotal scene from The Karate Kid has been etched into the annals of '80s ephemera as a Rocky-esque David versus Goliath story that's formulaic enough to be cliché, but charming, nonetheless. Over the last few years, The Karate Kid franchise has been involved in a comeback story that was far less predictable. 

In 2018, YouTube Red debuted Cobra Kai, a Karate Kid spin-off that examines the intertwined destinies of rivals LaRusso and Lawrence 34 years after their tournament bout. From the outside looking in, the show could have seemed like a cynical play on nostalgia, and considering it debuted on an unproven scripted TV provider, it was hard to predict it could ever be a true success. And yet, through dynamic storytelling and knowing camp, the series, which was picked up by Netflix in 2020 after YouTube Red abandoned scripted content, has been more critically acclaimed than any Karate Kid film.  

The original and best-received Karate Kid holds a rating of 60 based on nine reviews in Metacritic's database. The first season of Cobra Kai holds a Metascore of 72, based on 11 reviews, while ahead of Season 5, the series received the highest Metascore of its lifetime with an 80. While reviewers appreciated the warmth of the 1984 flick, they noted an excess of histrionics and hackneyed sports movie tropes.  

"The derivative and defective aspects of the material stick out like sore thumbs," wrote The Washington Post's Gary Arnold. "The filmmakers can't help overbalancing on melodramatic excess from time to time, but their mistakes never obliterate the civilized wisdom of [Mr.] Miyagi's outlook: 'Have balance, everything be better.'" 

Conversely, such journalists as CNN's Brian Lowry praised Cobra Kai Season 1 for its combination of character development and self-awareness, even if it occasionally waded into by-the-numbers underdog story analogues. In his 2018 review, he opined that Season 1 was, "an extremely clever revival, an overachiever that knowingly plays off the title's kitsch factor while evolving the characters and augmenting the cast in savvy ways." 

Cobra Kai's ability to reimagine The Karate Kid's mythos is best embodied by the evolution of classical bad guy, Johnny Lawrence. Rather than rendering him as the one-dimensional jock he was in the original film series, Cobra Kai presents him as a troubled man on an arduous quest for redemption — and his own space in a world that's more complicated than the high school domain he once ruled. 

"Adult Johnny is no longer a 2-D '80s movie villain, he's a guy whose shoulders slump with a lifetime of disappointment," wrote Entertainment Weekly's Kristen Baldwin. "Though he's capable of Learning Lessons — including the limited value of aggression — Cobra Kai never tries to rehabilitate Johnny into a nice guy." 

Subsequent seasons of Cobra Kai have earned similarly positive critical attention, though critical reception for Season 2 was decidedly more mixed, earning a Metascore of 66 overall. On the film side, though, the subsequent sequels each saw a decline in critical acclaim. The Karate Kid Part II earned a Metascore of 55, but both The Karate Kid Part III and The Next Karate Kid fell in the red, with Metascores of 36 each. (2010's The Karate Kid is a remake of the original film in this series and exists in a different universe, so it is not being included in this discussion. But for the record, it has a Metascore of 61.)

Lowry called the sophomore season of Cobra Kai "better than the first," pointing to its combination of wry nostalgia and teen soap as notable strengths. Rolling Stone's Alan Sepinwall wasn't so charmed by the throwback storytelling flare, criticizing the show for its perceived reliance on "nostalgia and a soapy teen love triangle. Meanwhile, Salon's Melanie McFarland said Season 2 "telegraphs" some of the same elements that made Season 1 successful, but gave credit to writers, Zabka, and Macchio for adding further depth to the story of Lawrence and LaRusso.   

Seasons 3 put Cobra Kai back on the proverbial upswing, though, with such critics as Consequence's Michael Roffman spotlighted Season 3's increasingly absurd fight scenes and overall unpredictability as a unique positive, while Paste's Amy Amatangelo (who also writes for Metacritic) called Season 4 "a pure, escapist delight." 

Season 3 earned a Metascore of 72 and then Season 4 earned a 70 and Season 5, an 80. That shows consistency (the same wasn't the case for the original Karate Kid films), and as a bonus, the show has also managed to avoid being canceled by Netflix after one of its originals with Season 3, a fate that many of the platform's shows haven't been able to escape. 

Most of the criticism for the flicks revolves on the idea of stagnation in plot and character development. For example, The Washington Post's Paul Attanasio wrote that The Karate Kid, Part II "doesn't give us any emotional movement in Daniel's character, or Miyagi's, or their relationship, either — it just recapitulates them." The Chicago Tribune's Dave Kehr was equally unimpressed with Part III, speculating that the franchise had gotten "cynical and tired." (Interestingly, at the top of that review, Kehr jokes that The Karate Kid series would probably end with an elder LaRusos fighting against Cobra Kai members while hooked up on life support. Cobra Kai isn't exactly that, but it is nearly 40 years later, so kudos for his prescience.) 

The minds behind The Karate Kid tried switching things up when they cast a young Hilary Swank as Mr. Miyagi's (Pat Morita) new pupil in 1994's The Next Karate Kid, but the film was still critically panned. As The Baltimore Sun's Stephen Hunter put it, the film "feels like a desperate attempt to squeeze a few last bucks out of what was once a very obliging cash cow" — and his review was one of the more neutral ones, with a Metascore of 50.

By nature, films and TV shows are subjective, but the critical reception of them shouldn't be. With its typecasting and proximity to other underdog stories of its era, The Karate Kid didn't really surprise people with its storybook ending. But the numbers prove that Cobra Kai has cemented itself as the rare spin-off that earns more praise and respect than the story it was extracted from. That wasn't easy to see coming.