Cobra Kai's success as a Karate Kid sequel is based on its adherence to Aristotle's advice to be 'consistently inconsistent' – Alastair Stewart
The Netflix series follows the watch-and-forget 'bad guy' Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) from the first Karate Kid movie. Johnny is now an alcoholic loser, convinced his life went downhill after his humiliating loss to the titular Karate Kid.
Cue his chance to resurrect the vintage 80s moustache-twirling dojo, Cobra Kai. After dismissing the premise outright as another desperate cash grab, I was blown away.
Maybe it's a slightly meta execution. Cobra Kai centres on the characters' battles to stay faithful to authentic teachings, revive past glory, and synthesise something new from the struggle.
The show brings back nearly every original main and supporting actor – homages to Mr Myagi, played by Pat Morita, who died in 2005, are ubiquitous and touching. The players are the same, but the viewpoint is different, and the character depth and evolution are incredible.
It might well be a low-stakes escape from pandemic life, but it does something right where so many have fallen short. Critically and commercially, it has thrived, but it has also bucked a trend.
Hollywood and streaming services spend millions refreshing, resurrecting or remaking beloved films, and most of them have failed.
What makes modern remakes, revivals and regurgitations awesomely dull is their unflinching obsession with deconstructing heroes, anti-heroes and even villains.
It is fashionable to subvert our expectations. It is not enough to have happy-go-lucky characters of childhood; they need to be broken down by real-world problems. In that crucible, the magic and sparkle are burnt away.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Star Trek: Picard took two great sci-fi icons and ground them down. Jean-Luc Picard is a bitter, compromised sell-out far from the measured future man of integrity. Luke Skywalker is a washed-up has-been too self-righteous to be the kids' hero we need.
There is a sea of rebooted failures on TV in this vein: The Equilizer, Lost in Space, Taken, Lethal Weapon, MacGyver and Star Trek: Discovery. The ratio of losses to successes, like 'reimaginings' Battlestar Galactica and Sherlock, is staggering.
Around the World in 80 Days (with the usually flawless David Tennant) was a joyless exercise in self-indulgent social commentary. It has none of the joie de vivre of Jules Verne's book or the more famous David Niven picture.
The Matrix: Resurrections was a surprising Christmas disappointment. But it was arrogant enough to focus the entire movie plot on the absurdity of making sequels and reviving old stories that the original characters lost all substance.
We are not the first generation to face a deluge of old films made new: Scarface, The Magnificent Seven, Heat, A Fistful Of Dollars, True Grit, and The Thing are remakes. Post-modern is just a matter of perspective.
The difference now seems that movie executives go out of their way to deliberately undermine, rather than honour, the original story and characters. Look no further than Batman and Superman casually killing people in the Zack Snyder movies.
The revivals that buck this trend adhere to what Professor Joseph Campbell called the monomyth. In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell reasoned that archetypal heroes have a journey familiar to movie-goers.
There is the origin, the journey and challenge, death, rebirth, and return. Underdog and incentive-based stories (like the death of a mentor) are a particular nuance. Successes like Batman Begins and A Star Is Born all adhere to this. George Lucas credited Campbell as influencing his original Star Wars trilogy.
The rarer screen depiction is the 'one more fight' film. Rocky Balboa, Mr Holmes, Skyfall, Crazy Heart, The Wrestler, and Logan were well received because they tapped into this pathos. The films focus on the last challenge to complete their journey. The film stories are not rehashes but new, final chapters, and we want to cheer for our champions even as they meet their end.
The Dark Knight Returns is one of the most celebrated stories of the sub-genre. More recently, No Time to Die and Spiderman: No Way Home featured these elements: cameos of heroes past and coming out of retirement to sort out a problem. The primary enemy is time and finding relevancy.
Unforgiven with Clint Eastwood was arguably the first modern exploration of how popular this could be. Eastwood's career-making Man with No Name from the celebrated spaghetti Western series got what was, essentially, a closing sequel (in spirit, if not canon).
The secret, it seems, is what Aristotle described in his book Poetics as consistent inconsistency. A character's actions should be both necessary and probable based on their motivations, flawed or otherwise. Whether something is joyful or dark is neither here nor there: changing lanes from one to the other is bound to disappoint.
Cobra Kai would fail if it did not stay true to its roots with a certain 80s tone and story style, which we would call pastiche if it weren't based on the real thing. It revels in its own irony without debasing its original material. The ability to revive its characters, add new dimensions, and resist the urge to bring them down to real-world misery is impressive.
If Hollywood writers and production companies genuinely want to continue subverting expectations, they could try something radical.
Give audiences something to enjoy beyond excitable trailers. The return of beloved characters should keep the spirit of the original work. This is not to say they should avoid new challenges, but there are better ways to entertain than diluting classics into misery.
If writers need a moment to think about how to do this, they should take a breath and, to quote Karate Kid, say: “Wax on, wax off.”
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