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Television

Don't Tell Ralph Macchio He Wasn't the Hero of 'Karate Kid'

At the climax of classic 1980s movie The Karate Kid, hero Daniel LaRusso defeats bully Johnny Lawrence with a crane kick to the face. This became one of the most iconic cinematic moments of good beating evil, and if you were a kid in the ‘80s and saw it in the theater, you probably cried.

But was it that black-and-white? In the past decade, the question of who was the good guy and the bad guy in Karate Kid has been dissected at great length in pop culture, most famously in an episode of How I Met Your Mother, in an essay by Patton Oswalt (“The Johnny Lawrence Story”) and a viral YouTube video (8 million-plus views) by J. Matthew Turner in 2015 called, “The Karate Kid: Daniel is the REAL Bully.” The video retells the events of The Karate Kid in five minutes, and posits that LaRusso not only instigated all of the conflict between himself and Lawrence, but that Lawrence was a troubled kid with a bad family life and poor mentor who was trying to get his life on track, until LaRusso came into town, stole his girlfriend, antagonized him and ruined everything.

This is important background information if you plan to watch YouTube Red’s new Karate Kid show Cobra Kai, a 10-episode series that premieres on Wednesday, May 2. It features original film stars William Zabka as Johnny Lawrence and Ralph Macchio as Daniel LaRusso, picking up their stories some 34 years later. Both in their 50s, Lawrence is a failure in every area of his life, and is taunted by the overwhelming success of LaRusso, who is apparently the auto king of the Valley. His face on the billboards is a constant reminder to Lawrence, who eventually reopens Cobra Kai and trains bullied kids, giving them confidence to face their assailants. LaRusso sees Cobra Kai as a force of evil (“No mercy”) and does everything in his power to thwart Lawrence’s dojo.
I don't think the argument [of Johnny as the hero] holds water. They still beat the hell out of this kid every time he showed up, no matter how antagonistic he might have been.
The show doesn’t take the hard stance that Lawrence is the true hero; rather, it approaches the two characters from a more neutral position of them both as flawed heroes, and both representing the villain in each other’s story. In other words, Cobra Kai will make you reevaluate the film, even if you hadn’t already gone down the online Karate Kid rabbit hole.

“The lines are a little blurred,” Ralph Macchio tells Playboy, regarding the tone of Cobra Kai. “It's sort of the dual protagonist and dual antagonist. Both of their sides of the story have merit, even though they go off the rails a little bit. You have sympathy for both at different times, certainly more for Johnny Lawrence at the upfront of the series because you're learning more about his life.”

The creators of the series—Jon Hurwitz, Josh Heald and Hayden Schlossberg, whose combined credits includes the Harold and Kumar franchise and Hot Tub Time Machine films—are all hardcore Karate Kid fanatics, and have discussed making a sequel to the beloved property for the past two decades. The three of them knew each other as teens and would have discussions of this as their pipe-dream project back in their 20s, when they were young screenwriters new to LA. (“This is our Star Wars,” says Heald.)

The pipe-dream project for them was always about telling Lawrence’s story—not necessarily reframing the events with him as the hero, but digging deeper into his conflicted nature, which they noticed after repeat viewings of the original film. “You saw these glimpses [of] a third dimension to him,” Hurwitz explains to Playboy. “When his sensei is telling him to sweep the leg, you can see the vulnerability in Johnny’s eyes, and how he’s torn when he gives the trophy to Daniel at the end. There’s always been something really interesting about this character.”
A key moment for the Cobra Kai creators happened many years ago, when a special-edition DVD of The Karate Kid was released, and Zabka explained his approach to playing Lawrence in the film as the hero of his own movie. “It was hearing that interview that further inspired us to dig deeper into that character because we like knowing that he didn’t just go in there thinking, ‘Oh, I am the bully of the story.’ He went in there thinking, ‘I’m the hero of my own story.’ That was a big portion of the inspiration for us,” Hurwitz says.

Cobra Kai doesn’t excuse Lawrence’s behavior, but it gives it more context. All of those subtle clues of his deeper, conflicted side in the original film are magnified and carefully inspected in this sequel, and much of his backstory is even flushed out. “He never was a bad guy,” says Schlossberg. “It was just a matter of circumstance and perspective. As the series goes on, you’ll see that every bully on the show has a backstory.”

Later in the series, it becomes clear that the creators are examining bullying in a nuanced way. The show discusses why characters bully, how bullying affects kids and how kids who are bullied can become the bullies themselves. And of course, since it’s set in 2018, it discusses the various bullying styles online and in real life, and the impact they have. “We examined where Johnny Lawrence came from. You get to see his home life in a clear way. You can see his motivation and how he found karate—these are all things you never saw before,” says Hurwitz.

Though the creators had wanted to make some version of this sequel for a long time, a few years ago they noticed that old shows like Full House were coming back and doing well, and that streaming sites had opened up doors for telling unique stories. The timing felt right. Plus, it didn’t hurt that the internet had been chattering louder and louder about The Karate Kid in recent years as well. People were hungry for a sequel that didn’t retell the same Karate Kid story (a la the 2010 remake starring Jaden Smith) but that encouraged viewers to rethink the original. These viral videos proclaiming Lawrence as the true hero didn’t influence the series per se, but it certainly reassured its creators. 

“Whenever we would see something like that, it would just support [that] this idea we had isn't crazy, it's not out of left field,” Heald says. “There's a lot of people like us saying, ‘Let's celebrate the story of these characters.’” 
I was the last one to come to the party because I was the one that said no the most over the years. … I always felt going back, it would only taint the legacy.
Just about everyone was on board to do it right away, but Macchio took some convincing. He had several meetings with the creators, who talked with him at great length about the concept for Cobra Kai. “I was the last one to come to the party because I was the one that said no the most over the years,” Macchio says. “I was always very protective. It always felt to me we had such a magical gift of a film. Who knew it was ever going to catch fire like this? I always felt going back, it would only taint the legacy.”

It was precisely the uniqueness of the show's angle that ultimately convinced Macchio to agree to participate. Still, how does Macchio feel about so many people questioning whether his character was actually the good guy? “It’s amazing,” Macchio explains. “It’s 34 years, and people are still having discussions. People are passionate about what the truth is.”

When Macchio and I started our conversation about the characters’ moral ambiguity, he was more than willing to admit that it wasn’t clear-cut, but the more we talked about it, the more he defended LaRusso as the true hero, and sees the theory of him being the villain as totally bogus. He, like many people online, is quite passionate.

“I don't think the argument holds that much water. They still beat the hell out of this kid every time he showed up, no matter how antagonistic he might have been,” Macchio tells me. “He beat the living shit out of this kid five times. And the whole concept of Cobra Kai is a negative thing.”

Over the course of the 10 half-hour episodes, the tone gets mixed, depending on whose point of view it takes. Not only does it focus on Lawrence and LaRusso, but also LaRusso’s 16-year-old daughter; Lawrence’s estranged son; and Miguel, Lawrence’s star pupil. These moments end up feeling a bit like a modern-day teen movie; scenes with Lawrence and LaRusso, though, often take a darker, comedic tone. One scene midway through the show has Lawrence explaining to Miguel who this Daniel LaRusso guy is. He retells the plot of The Karate Kid, casting himself as the victim and LaRusso as the villain. It’s pretty much J. Matthew Turner’s viral video.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter who you think is the good guy. The show is more about examining the characters' motivations and past trauma, and you end up just hoping that everyone can just work out their differences. “We're very intentionally bringing our audience in different sides of the equation in different people's heads, so we can really empathize with everybody,” Heald says. “Once you empathize with everybody, there's this massive conflict of wanting everybody to win. That gives you that little push and that something that kind of drives it along."
Cobra Kai launches Wednesday, May 2, on YouTube Red.

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