Cobra Kai, Bill & Ted, Top Gun, and the third-greatest generation’s endlessly expanding universe of nostalgia
Cobra Kai, now airing on Netflix and currently the number-one TV show in the United States, is an extended spinoff of the 5th-most-popular movie of 1984. You’d have to have a heart of rock to not remember The Karate Kid fondly. But I certainly wouldn’t have pegged it as an unstoppable pop-culture phenomenon 36 years down the road.
This isn’t something that should have worked, but Cobra Kai succeeds spectacularly. There are plenty of scenes of Ralph Macchio meditating and bloviating about honor. But Cobra Kai’s best trick is to turn Johnny Lawrence, the smug blond villain of the original movie, into the show’s major character, a beleaguered, strung-out antihero that William Zabka plays with incredible wit and depth. No one had thought about Johnny Lawrence or William Zabka in 30 years, and suddenly he’s Don Draper in a black headband. It’s as though the screenwriters resurrected an obscure Garbage Pail Kid and gave him a compelling backstory.
In Cobra Kai’s worldview, the 1984 All Valley Karate Tournament, in which Macchio’s Daniel LaRusso spectacularly upset Johnny Lawrence, is more significant than the Boston Celtics beating the L.A. Lakers in game seven of that year. No one in Cobra Kai talks about the Lakers, but apparently everyone still remembers an obscure regional amateur karate tournament held in a high-school gym. In the show, Lawrence restarts the evil Cobra Kai dojo, and suddenly karate mania once again consumes the entire San Fernando Valley and beyond. Daniel LaRusso sells a $90,000 Mercedes to some guy who happened to be in that high-school gym in 1984 to see him do his magic kick. And when some of the Cobra Kai kids are playing volleyball at Venice Beach, two random girls come up to them and say, “hey, aren’t you those karate guys?”
There are 12 million people in the greater Los Angeles area. No one at Venice Beach is going to recognize a guy who finished fourth in a teen karate tournament in Reseda. But this is a 1980s cultural product we’re talking about here. Just like Cobra Kai itself, Gen-X culture never dies.
You’re The Best…Around
The Karate Kid was a popular movie that spawned sequels and spinoffs. But no one would put it among the franchise pillars of our popular culture, like Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, or the Marvel and DC Universes. It doesn’t belong among the second-tier franchises, like Narnia, or Twilight, or The Hunger Games. Like a lot of movies from those hazy summers, it just kind of drifts in the 80s teen movie ether. But now, with Cobra Kai, we suddenly have The Karate Kid Expanded Universe, with dozens of new characters, rivalries, and epic mall martial-arts battles. The entire world balances on the fulcrum of the All Valley Karate Championship, an event more significant than the fall of the Berlin Wall or 9-11.
Johnny Lawrence still drives the same car he did in 1984, at least at the beginning of the show. He still listens to REO Speedwagon on cassette. He’s Gen-X’s last stand. While Boomers may have created this fictional reality, it’s a universe whose major characters and driving forces are Gen-X, and its enduring popularity is a testament to Gen-X’s inability to let go of even its most obscure cultural products and ridiculous obsessions.
Gen-X is the second-greatest generation. Or maybe the third-greatest. And its biggest contribution to the universe, other than maybe Tesla Motors, is its inability to let any pop-culture item, no matter how trivial, drop away. Witness the new Bill & Ted movie, blipped away into total obscurity because it didn’t get a fair opening in theaters because of COVID-19. But in the film, it’s 2020. Since the last film, the world has seen the fall of the Soviet Union, 9-11, the Iraq War, the election of Donald Trump, Brexit, the impeachment of two American Presidents, and a terrifying pandemic. Meanwhile, Bill & Ted are still hanging out in a garage in San Dimas, trying to write the song that will unite the world, completely oblivious to observable reality. And it’s all anyone around them cares about either.
This is happening across the pop-culture universe. Apparently, Tom Cruise’s Maverick has been sleeping in a giant vegetable crisper, not really any worse for the wear, waiting for a new generation of shirtless volleyball Navy pilots to come along. In the entertainingly ironic 90210 reboot, Tori Spelling is still in love with Brian Austin Green, and Jennie Garth and Jason Priestley still can’t help but sleep together. Luke Perry dies, but like Cobra Kai, 90210 does not. We have a Saved By The Bell reboot coming very soon, in which Mario Lopez is now a gym teacher at Bayside High, and Mark-Paul Gosselar is the governor of California.
I fully expect a Breakfast Club reunion, where the detention kids are now parents whose own kids have detention. I would totally watch that.
At some point, they will film the Friends reboot. Seinfeld had a fake revival season embedded in Curb Your Enthusiasm. Even late-game Gen-X cultural products like 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation have already made charity Zoom reunion episodes. We will endlessly fill the world’s heads with our mediocre pop-culture products until we vanish into the mists of time, unheralded and unloved, as was always our destiny.
We struck first, struck hard, no mercy. Or whatever.