What happens when the Karate Kid becomes the Karate Kar Salesman? Does the high school bully ever grow up? Cobra Kai, the You Tube-produced TV sequel to the original The Karate Kid, wants to answer these questions while it explores the meaning of manhood in this (post-) modern age.
The Karate Kid is a product of the 80s, but the conversation around manhood has changed in the last 30+ years. That change is what Cobra Kai is all about―specifically, interrogating whether the toxic masculinity that taught Johnny Lawrence to sweep the leg all those years ago is redeemable. Is there a way to be a man that balances strength and vulnerability? The Church has some good news to offer Johnny, news grounded in our confession of God as Father.
Fatherhood looms large in Cobra Kai, a notable change from The Karate Kid. That movie’s hero, Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), and its main antagonist, Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), looked to their sensei for guidance in the absence of their fathers. Thirty years after he lost the All Valley Championship to Daniel, Johnny is a washed-up loser, estranged from his family. Daniel, on the other hand, runs a chain of successful car dealerships. He’s married with a teenage daughter and preteen son. He struggles to connect with both.
When Scripture confesses God to be "Father," we hear a statement about God's role in our creation. But our ears, formed by the image of the late-modern nuclear family, miss the depth and breadth of the biblical nuance. The Bible was written in a world shaped by patriarchy, in the sense that, according to Old Testament professor Sandra L Richter, in her book The Epic of Eden, in Israeli society, the basic unit of culture was the “house of the father,” or the bet 'ab. The bet 'ab included "the patriarch, his wife(s), his unwed children and his married sons with their wives and children" (Richter, p. 26). It was the patriarch's responsibility to ensure everyone was cared for and had enough resources to flourish (Ibid, p 27). Fatherhood in Scripture is connected to human flourishing.
In Cobra Kai, Johnny is not flourishing, as a father or a human being. He can't keep a job thanks to his temper and he hasn’t seen his son (who is himself dangerously close to flunking out of high school) in years. Johnny is casually racist, and almost certainly an alcoholic.
Relationship proves to be the catalyst for Johnny’s change. He uses karate to rescue his teen neighbor Miguel Diaz from some school bullies. Miguel begs Johnny to teach him karate, and Johnny finally agrees, reopening the Cobra Kai dojo. His first order of business is to repaint the Way of the Cobra Kai on the wall:
Daniel sees the re-opened dojo and overreacts, confronting and threatening Johnny. But their drama is overshadowed by Miguel's story. After he successfully uses karate to fight off those same bullies, Cobra Kai enrollment is bursting at the seams. Johnny decides to enter the dojo in the All Valley Tournament again.
Scripture affirms the centrality of mercy to fatherhood.
Johnny's no-mercy leadership alienates more and more students. The toxicity of the Cobra Kai philosophy becomes more apparent when Miguel accidentally hits his girlfriend Samantha (who also happens to be Daniel's daughter) while picking a fight with Johnny’s estranged son Robby Keene (who's also learning karate from Daniel).
Throughout the season, both Daniel and Johnny struggle with trying to be good men, and good fathers. Their reheated rivalry highlights their immaturity. Significantly, they both begin to realize that mercy is an essential component of fatherhood.
Scripture affirms the centrality of mercy to fatherhood. To people who saw the world through the lens of patriarchy, God was revealed as a father. This father, like all ancient fathers, had a house. Israel confessed the Temple in Jerusalem to be God's house (see David's desire to build God a house in 2 Samuel 7 and Solomon's accomplishment of this in 1 Kings 6). But the Temple was also a symbol of the whole of creation (see John Walton's excellent work in The Lost World of Genesis One). Every person is part of God's House, the cosmic bet 'ab, and God the Father is responsible to see no one is left out.
However, those who had no patriarch to claim them—orphans, widows, and foreigners—were culturally left out of a patriarchal society. So the prophet Zechariah commands Israel: "Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor” (7:10). God pays special attention to these groups because they signal whether Israel is a rightly-ordered household. Mercy, particularly to the outsider, is a manifestation of biblical fatherhood.
This is the image of Fatherhood Danny and Johnny fumble toward throughout the first season of Cobra Kai. Johnny, in particular, learns to love the fatherless Miguel, and his single mother, and immigrant grandmother. He learns to care for the students of his dojo, believing the way of Cobra Kai can lead them to flourish, as it did for him (we learn Johnny, too, was bullied). Daniel takes in Robby, finding enough compassion for the son of his sworn enemy to stand in as his sensei and father figure.
The culmination is the All Valley Karate Championship, where Miguel faces an injured Robby in the finals. It's a mirror of the fateful tournament from 30 years ago. This time, however, Miguel, who shows no mercy to Johnny's injured son, brings home the trophy for Cobra Kai.
Season one ends with a thematic cliffhanger: Johnny has everything he's ever wanted and realizes it's an empty victory. Most of the show’s central relationships are strained or broken. Can Johnny change? Has he learned that being a father, being a man, being a human, is about more than strength? Can this Cobra Kai learn to show mercy? Will those lessons lead to true redemption? We’ll have to wait for season 2 to find out.