'The Karate Kid' stars explain why fans just can't get enough of 'Cobra Kai'

A mix of old and new, "Cobra Kai" is winning cheers from a wide range of fans.
Johnny and Daniel reignite their rivalry in "Cobra Kai."
Johnny and Daniel reignite their rivalry in "Cobra Kai."Guy D'Alema / Netflix
/ Source: TODAY

It’s another huge win for “The Karate Kid.”

The first two seasons of “Cobra Kai,” the TV series based on the classic 1984 movie, recently landed on Netflix, where it has become the streaming service’s top trending show quicker than the time it takes to say “No mercy.”

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“Cobra Kai” is one of the more unusual reboots (or is it a sequel?), in that it has no business being as good as it is, deftly avoiding the cliché traps of a franchise coming back so many years later. It straddles the line between nostalgic and fresh, amusing and bittersweet, while simultaneously pulling off the challenging task of appealing to fans of the original “Karate Kid,” as well as younger viewers who didn’t grow up with the movie.

“It connects because it tells relative stories for today’s generation, but yet has that nostalgic embrace of the original and never loses sight of its source material so it’s just fantastic to continue this story,” star Ralph Macchio, who also serves as executive producer of the show, said on TODAY last month.

Macchio returns as Daniel, as does William Zabka (also an executive producer), who reprises his role as his nemesis, Johnny. Compelling new characters have also been created, enabling “Cobra Kai” to stay true to the original film, while also allowing the series to take the “Karate Kid” universe in a new direction with a younger generation of actors.

Martin Kove, who returns to his role as the merciless Sensei John Kreese, credits series creators and writers Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg for doing a masterful job putting it together.

“They knew so much about the characters. They knew so much about the movies. They were truly fans. And this was their ‘Star Wars.’ This was what they wanted to do,” he told TODAY.

Kove, who said “there was no way to foretell” how enduring “The Karate Kid” would become, points out that other projects based on the film had been presented before, but “Cobra Kai” stood out.

“This felt different. They had a hook into what was going to work and I was eager to play. I was eager to sign up,” he said.

In a twist, Daniel mentors Johnny's son in "Cobra Kai."Jace Downs / Netflix

He had good reason to. “Cobra Kai” picks up more than three decades after Daniel’s stunning upset of Johnny in the Under-18 All-Valley Karate Championships. Daniel is happily married with two kids, the successful owner of a fleet of car dealerships, while Johnny is a down-on-his-luck divorced father estranged from his son whose life hit the skids after that loss to Daniel.

The show gives Johnny a vivid backstory that results in viewers feeling sympathetic while also laughing at his ineptitude and lack of social grace. The late Pat Morita, who earned an Oscar nomination for his work in the movie, is not forgotten.

Martin Kove, second from left, with William Zabka, Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita, helped make "The Karate Kid" one of the more iconic movies of the 1980s.Alamy

There is plenty of action, a healthy dose of romance involving Daniel’s daughter, Johnny’s son and Johnny’s gung-ho star pupil, Miguel. All three are integral additions to the "Karate Kid” family. Bullying is once again a central theme and there’s also drama: The season two episode featuring Johnny and his old Cobra Kai buddies on a road trip is particularly moving and sure to resonate with fans of the original movie.

“Cobra Kai,” which had lived on YouTube since its 2018 premiere, arrived at Netflix at an odd, yet ideal, moment. America is still in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, staying home and watching comfort TV. Drive-in movie theaters have popped up to give families a socially distanced night out while catching some old favorites — “The Karate Kid” included.

Nostalgia has emerged as a coping mechanism in this strange time. Cast reunions have been applauded, while people have been quick to tune into classic shows and movies that speak to them. Kove says nostalgia is an essential way to keep things in perspective, likening how we need to somehow shift our collective mood to the happiness kids exude when let out of school on Fridays.

“That feeling has got to come back and it’s introduced when you watch ‘The Karate Kid,’ when you watch ‘Cobra Kai.’ We seek out nostalgia and feel-good films,” he said. “It is because it makes you feel good and everybody’s looking for a way to feel good right now.”

Kove says “Cobra Kai” has taken the mantle from the original movie and run with it.

The image of Ralph Macchio's Daniel practicing the crane has remained etched in the minds of all "Karate Kid" fans.Alamy

“You watch that show, the adults think back (to) what they were doing in ’84. They forget about 2020. They forget about the aggravation and all the problems of today,” he said.

It’s hard to find a property that remains as beloved and relevant more than three decades after its release, but “The Karate Kid” is one. The movie spawned two sequels, another film with Hilary Swank and a 2010 remake with Jaden Smith. In 2007, several stars of the original “Karate Kid” turned up in a music video for a song by the band No More Kings called, appropriately enough, “Sweep the Leg.”

Are you rooting for Daniel or Johnny? The answer may not be as simple as you think.Steve Dietl / Netflix

Kove himself has lampooned his role as Kreese in a funny commercial for QuickBooks, while Zabka and Macchio appeared together in a 2013 episode of “How I Met Your Mother.” Yes, “The Karate Kid” endures.

And while nostalgia is the engine that powers “Cobra Kai,” it has outrun the shadow cast by “The Karate Kid” and blazed its own path.

“It’s very hard, I find, to create anything as good as the original,” said Kove. “Everybody gets something from these movies. It’s not just escapism.”

Stars like Jacob Bertrand and Tanner Buchanan have helped make "Cobra Kai" a hit.Jace Downs / Netflix

The nostalgia factor may be in the wheelhouse for older viewers, but Kove, like Macchio, also believes “Cobra Kai” has excelled at winning over the younger generation.

“It’s written very great deliberately to stimulate audiences’ imagination because kids today and audiences today, I think are far more sophisticated than they were in 1984,” he said.

No release date for the third season of “Cobra Kai” has been announced yet, but that’s OK. It gives viewers something to look forward to, even while so many fondly look back.