As any teacher will know, being a teacher means that you often look at the world through a teacher-lens. You see things and read things from a perspective that often relates to your existence in a classroom and working with students. Whether, observing social behaviour in line when paying for groceries or the dynamics at a family function, as a teacher your social and classroom world can become easily blurred.
As a Communications Technology teacher with a background in film production and theory, this blurring readily occurs when I watch movies. Whether it be streaming or in the theatres, I can’t help but explore a respective film or series through a cinephile and teacher-related lens. Actually, I watch through many lenses, which include: pleasure, academic and professional. Sometimes, this means I have to watch a movie or television series multiple times to satisfy anyone appetite for consumption.
One recent Christmas holiday watch (and re-watch) that has resonated deeply with me is the YouTube Original Series Cobra Kai. A continuation of the classic 80s movie The Karate Kid (1984), I can’t get the series out of my head. Like the original film, the series deeply resonates with me and importantly my own school-aged children.
As a watched the series with my kids, we chatted about the adult and teenage characters. From Cyber-Bullying to complicated friendships and family ties, the series is an incredibly effective continuation of the original Karate Kid with “time” providing so many unique opportunities for meaningful character exploration and the presentation of topical themes that relate to teen youth of today.
In Cobra Kai, Johnny Lawrence (the lead bully in the original Karate Kid) is far past his teenage prime and lives a sadly obscure adult life. Still living in the memory of the 1980s, Johnny has been lost since losing his All Valley Under 18 Karate Championship to Daniel Larusso back in 1984 and being attacked by his martial arts teacher John Kreese for “failing” the Cobra Kai dojo . Whereas Johnny is trapped in obscurity, Daniel has found personal and professional success. A doting husband, loving father and wealthy, Daniel has an envious life and one that it far from his working class roots of the original film.
Although the now adult Johnny and Daniel are living different lives with a still existing feud between them, their central personal narratives insect with their teenage children and are shaped by something similar: teachers and teaching.
As Johnny (original actor William Zabka) opens up his own Cobra Kai dojo in Season 1 and Daniel (Ralph Macchio) counters with Miyagi-do Karate in season 2, the show readily becomes a master class in educational leadership and what it means to be a teacher to young people.
Its within this narrative space of conflicting dojos and teenage drama that we learn about perception and personal narratives as it relates to students and teachers. It’s within this context that Cobra Kai becomes so much more than a continuation of The Karate Kid. It becomes a teachable lesson is cultural responsiveness; who people are and how their personal narratives shape their actions, sense of self and importantly, relationships.
Most interestingly within the series is the character of Johnny Lawrence himself. Whereas, audiences have engaged with Daniel over the course of three films and as much as he still remains critical to the sagas’ story arc, the driving force of the series is Johnny Lawrence. As Johnny works to be a better person and version of his teenage self, the audience engages with one of the most interesting characters (and portrayals) currently on a broadcast or streaming platform. Transforming from a one-dimensional 80s bully in the original film, Johnny of Cobra Kai is deeply multi-dimensional and a teachable affirmation that personal stories matter. Who our students are behind their social identities matter as do the realities of their teachers.
This is all to say that “teaching” and “teachers” are at the core of Cobra Kai. Whereas Daniel has benefited in life greatly from good teachers including his mother and importantly martial arts sensei Mr. Miyagi, Johnny has suffered as a result of an emotionally abusive step-father and aggressive karate in film’s classic villain, Kreese. As such, Johnny is not mere a quintessential 80s movie bully but rather a human being cultivated into hatred by men who hate and could not show love. In Cobra Kai, flashbacks of Johnny as an adolescent searching for love and acceptance provide a window into the adult character’s soul. Like Daniel, he was an outsider. However, unlike Daniel, Johnny wasn’t blessed to have male-figures in his life who showed love and kindness.
As a teenage member of Cobra Kai dojo, Johnny was taught to “Strike First”, “Strike Hard” and show “No Mercy.” Now as Sensei and parent (albeit estranged from his teenage son), he now knows that showing mercy is honourable and that the Cobra Kai of his teenage days did not serve him to be a winner in life. As he tries to change and teach his own students martial arts in the right way he faces many challenges including the return of his old teacher in Season 2. Through Johnny, we’re reminded that being a teacher is about delivering lessons for life and that being good and hopeful is of critical importance.
With all of this, Cobra Kai has recently wrapped production on Season 3 with what should be a Spring time release on Youtube’s premium paid service. Of all the streamers producing entertaining and provocative content, Cobra Kai is simply the best around. It’s so much more than nostalgia.