Warning: Spoilers ahead for The Karate Kid (1984), Cobra Kai (2018-) and How I Met Your Mother(2005-14).
“The Karate Kid was an uplifting 80’s classic by the teen played by Ralph Macchio who defeats the local jerk played by William Zabka….at least that’s how most people saw it.”- Ted Mosby (How I Met Your Mother, Season 8)
I had last seen the film The Karate Kid years ago. No, I am not talking about the 2010 remake. I am talking about the original one released in 1984. It became a cult hit, resonating with audiences over the years. It inspired three sequel films, a remake of the original and later on, a web/TV series by the name of Cobra Kai (which I will get to). When I first watched it, it didn’t feel too special to me. It felt like your run of the mill clash between good and evil. You know, with the underdog teen with barely any training in karate beating the overconfident douche trained at an established dojo. It didn’t really strike me as worth rewatching till….
I rewatched one of my favorite childhood TV series, How I Met Your Mother. For those who don’t know, it is a spiritual successor to Seinfeld and F.R.I.E.N.D.S. It is about a group of friends who live together in the city of New York and experience the various aspects of life as a gang. Narrated from the perspective of Ted Mosby who is in his 50’s, he tells his children about everything which led to him meeting the love of his life. Someone who frequently features in Ted’s life is his best friend, Barney Stinson.
Now, Barney Stinson is a difficult character to explain. On one hand, many fans of the show consider him the person who gives life to the show through his antics and over the top dynamic he adds to the group. This is proven by the fact that he is ranked 13th in the most loved TV show characters of all time (far above anyone else in the show). On the other, people cannot look beyond his instances of womanizing and how he is a problematic character.
Some even marvel at how Neil Patrick Harris (a gay person) somehow transformed himself into (arguably) the most straight character on television. Neil does bring in his personality and traits to make Barney a show stopper- including his musical and magic talents.
What many overlook is the fact that, behind the mask of the ‘legendary’ and ‘awesome’ bro that he is (self-proclaimed), is a broken person who tries to ignore his childhood demons (no father figure, sad childhood, heartbreak), by ‘suiting up’ and becoming someone totally different. Some of his childhood experiences even break into his new persona, including how he interprets the classic films of his childhood. And this is where a scene from ‘The Stinsons’ (Season 4) illustrates this perfectly:
Marshall: “Sure there is a huge poster of the Karate Kid above your bed”.
Barney: “Hey, the Karate Kid is a great movie. It’s the story of a hopeful, young karate enthusiast whose dreams and moxie take him all the way to the All Valley Karate Championship. Of course, sadly, he loses in the final round to that nerd kid. But he learns an important lesson about gracefully accepting defeat.”
Lily: Wait…..when you watch the Karate Kid, you actually root for that mean blonde boy?
Barney (sarcastically):“No, I root for the scrawny loser from New Jersey who barely even knows karate. When I watch The Karate Kid, I root for The Karate Kid. Johnny Lawrence from the Cobra Kai Dojo. Get your head out of your a**, Lily”
This scene, when it played out in 2009, was clearly for humorous effect. I mean, how on earth do you root for the senior jerk who was hell-bent on ruining David LaRusso’s life? Shouldn’t Barney be the one who should get his head out of his a**? But it also had doubled us as how his worldview was warped by his different childhood. This was one nice touch to the character arc of Barney Stinson, wearing down his mask of awesomeness and having him face his own truth. This includes an arc where he discovers his father is not Bob Barker, the famous TV show host. And his quest to find his real dad.
But that episode had me thinking- how did Barney even get to the conclusion that Johnny Lawrence was a character worth rooting for? Wasn’t LaRusso shown clearly as the protagonist of the show? So I had to watch The Karate Kid again, but this time to see from a different angle.
Was there a villain in this conflict?
The Karate Kid starts off with David and his mother moving to New Jersey and the struggles of him adapting to his new city and school. A kid who was slightly frustrated at having to uproot himself into new surroundings and a bit naive, he strikes a connection with a girl from his school, Ali. They first bond over football (or soccer, for Americans). But this is where a conflict with Ali’s former boyfriend Johnny forms.
As we see it in the movie, Lawrence appears to aggressively move towards Ali and demand that she talks to her. David feels obliged to get Ali out of the situation and confront Johnny, leading to a fight between them. Despite landing a kick on Lawrence, the experienced one won out.
The original movie, while not having a narrator, makes it clear this movie is from the POV of Daniel. We get to see his issues, and his back-story of how he made it to New Jersey. This luxury is not afforded to Johnny. We only see him arrive at the beach, approaching Ali in a seemingly aggressive manner. This leads us to think that Johnny is someone we should not be rooting for.
But the movie never goes into his backstory. We don’t know how long Ali and Johnny were dating and how it ended. We just infer from what we see that things ended up badly between the two. We are also led to conclude Johnny is a bad person, based on Ali’s non-committal answer to Daniel’s question on their relationship.
We then see the actions of Johnny as horrible, especially when he follows it up with him having Daniel fall off his cycle. While there is no justification for that particular action, even with context, we are not made aware of how much history was there between Ali and Johnny.
Next, we are made to see Daniel’s prank on Johnny in the bathroom, as a justified retaliation as opposed to an escalation of the conflict between the two. The two had not been facing each other in a while, since the football ground incident. While Daniel did his best to avoid the gang of four karate kids, there is no indication that they would have bothered with a junior kid after the incident of him falling off the cycle.
Instead, we witness him running away from the gang, having cars crash into each other in the process, and saved by his neighbour and repair guy, Mr. Miyagi. He gives it back to the gang and has them retreat in the process. Miyagi then decides to give him his form of training in karate, having reached a settlement with the Cobra Kai dojo to stop any more conflict between the kids.
We then see the growth of Daniel as a karate expert and his dynamic with Ali. We see it from the lens of the underdog, rooting for him with Ali as well as against Johnny. We never see it from Johnny’s perspective. Cobra Kai is a demanding dojo and their philosophy is based on that of a war veteran, John Kreese. Someone who saw the horrors of the Vietnam war and never really recovered from it. It is also worth mentioning Miyagi, a fellow US war veteran who also lost his family to American atrocities, handled his internal issues much better. Either way, we never see how Johnny became who he was.
We then get to the tournament in itself. Now as someone who did a bit of Taekwondo, I know for a fact that you just don’t get black belts handed for free. It takes years to actually progress through the ranks and earn it. And you most definitely should not steal them just to take part in a tourney. Even the actual karate is a bit suspect but then again, the beauty of the film is not in the technicalities.
The final twist- Setting up Johnny’s redemption arc
With much of Johnny’s backstory hidden from us, the climax actually gives us some insight into Johnny as a character. With Daniel becoming a threat, the Cobra Kai sensei instructs his student and semifinalist Bobby to illegally maim Daniel. This has consequences for Bobby, with disqualification inevitable. He was shown as someone comparatively more compassionate towards Daniel. Yet he could not go back on his Sensei’s word and perform his instruction accordingly.
Without Miyagi’s miraculous intervention, Daniel would not have made it back to the final. The final is even-edged with both of them trading blows. At this juncture, John instructs him to go after his injured shoulder. Johnny is horrified about the prospect of having to win in a disgraceful manner. Yet he has no choice but to follow his dojo’s no mercy mantra. In the end, Daniel pulls off the crane kick that his sensei showed, and beats Johnny Lawrence. And as Barney eloquently says: But he learns an important lesson about gracefully accepting defeat – by handing the trophy himself to Daniel in a show of respect.
Between the ambiguity of Johnny’s backstory and his final scene, we can conclude the true villain of the movie was John Kreese. His toxic imposition of his war experiences on his wards lead to a point where he breaks his own students.
Strike first. Strike hard. No mercy
While it is important to build toughness, not willing to accept any form of defeat or lacking honor shows Kreese in a terrible light. We realize that sometimes, having no mercy is not really good. In the sequel, we see him strangling Johnny for finishing second and breaking his trophy. Miyagi intervenes and saves Johnny from the mad Kreese.
Inspiring Cobra Kai
Barney’s warped sense of what constitutes a hero and a villain was played off as a gag for years. He also considers Harry Potter as a villain (you could, if you were Draco Malfoy) amongst others. Yet this particular scene paid off years later, with the Karate Kid actors Ralph Macchio and William Zabka guest-starring in an episode of HIMYM.
Robin, his fiancee, gives him a ‘bro-mitzvah’ (bachelor’s party) he would never forget. By fulfilling his wishes in the most twisted way possible. For someone who saw William Zabka as the Karate Kid, he has to endure the presence of Ralph through the episode, along with his ex-fiancee and a clown present at this event. At the end, when Barney is told this was all a joke, he thanks them for the night and also mentions that Ralph is not his Karate Kid. At this point, the clown removes his makeup and costume to reveal himself as William Zabka, in his Johnny Lawrence avatar, much to Barney’s delight.
Zabka continued his presence on the show, as part of the final season. He even becoming Barney’s best man at one point.
It was on the set of this episode that Macchio and Zabka met after years. They talked about continuing the story line from the film. Considering how the film still held resonance with society, even years later, it was definitely something people would be interested in.
Five years later, YouTube released the first season of Cobra Kai, a continuation of the Karate Kid timeline. This time, they made sure to fill in the holes of Johnny Lawrence’s backstory. Johnny and Ali had dated for two years and he was just trying to talk to her after they broke up to resolve any conflict. He did not have a father (like Daniel) but rather an abusive stepfather who had dented his confidence. He was a ‘loser’ who redeemed himself through Cobra Kai. He also suffered from Kreese’s extreme approach to karate.
Cobra Kai is one of the best written series I have seen. You root for both Daniel and Johnny, with Johnny getting the redemption arc he deserved, as well as seeing the characters are not perfect. Yet this would have never got into the limelight, without Barney Stinson bringing this less-discussed interpretation of The Karate Kid into the mainstream. Of Barney’s theories he concots through the show, this particular one led to one of the best shows being available online.
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