$1/month and up: a review of Clueless, Drive Me Crazy, and 10 Things I Hate About You
$2/month and up: 32 cat pictures
$5/month and up: reviews of Animal Kingdom, Sandman, and She-Hulk, Attorney-at-Law
$7/month and up: excerpts from Phoenix Precinct and “This Little Light of Mine.”
$10/month and up: a vignette featuring Bram Gold (with another that will go live on Hallowe’en)
$20/month and up: first looks at the drafts of Phoenix Precinct Chapters 1-23 and “This Little Light of Mine.”
Since that’s almost two months’ worth of stuff, for just $40, you’d have gotten all of that! And there’s more coming, as I’ll have a movie review in the next week (possibly of The Gray Man, possibly of Black Adam, which I’m going to see tonight), there is another vignette coming on the 31st, as I said above, and there’s a new excerpt from a work in progress every single week (usually on Wednesdays). Plus, of course, ever more cat pictures…….
When I first started seriously getting into superhero comics in the early-to-mid-1980s, I read almost entirely Marvel Comics stuff. It was a great time to get into Marvel, as some of the greatest runs on their heroes were at this time: Chris Claremont’s X-Men and New Mutants, Roger Stern’s Amazing Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, and Avengers, John Byrne’s Fantastic Four and Alpha Flight, Bill Mantlo’s Incredible Hulk, Micronauts, and Spectacular Spider-Man, Walt Simonson’s Thor, Denny O’Neil’s Iron Man, Jo Duffy’s Power Man & Iron Fist, Frank Miller’s Daredevil, and J.M. DeMatteis’s Captain America, Defenders, and Marvel Team-Up, among others…
DeMatteis was a writer I quickly took to. Several elements of his authorial voice appealed to me, from his naturalistic dialogue to his strong use of humor, from his fantastic ability to get at the human motivations behind both his heroes and his villains to his general belief in the goodness of human beings. (A lot of the work he did on Captain America proved to be the lasting basis of how the character was written both in comics and especially in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the lack of any kind of thank-you to him in any of the MCU films is a travesty.) There was also always a sense of hippie mysticism about his work that continues to appeal to this child of hippies.
From 1985 to 1987, DeMatteis wrote a miniseries for Epic Comics, Marvel’s line of creator-owned titles, called Moonshadow. The artwork was fully painted, mostly by Jon J Muth, with help from George Pratt and Kent Williams when Muth fell behind on his deadlines. It was one of the first fully-painted comics, and Muth et al’s washed-out watercolors gave the book a very distinctive, ethereal look that stood out in a medium that favored bright primary colors.
Moonshadow was reprinted by Vertigo in the mid-1990s, and then they published a coda one-shot called Farewell, Moonshadow, all of which was collected into The Compleat Moonshadow—which was recently reprinted, along with a ton of behind-the-scenes material, by Dark Horse as Moonshadow: The Definitive Edition.
Anybody who’s read DeMatteis’s work over the years will recognize many of the tropes in Moonshadow, from the general search for enlightenment that is the theme of the story to the romanticizing of mid-to-late-20th-century Brooklyn (where DeMatteis himself was born and raised) to the multiple literary references (including at least one reference to Fyodor Dostoyevski, a DeMatteis staple) to the charmingly goofy use of humor, including quite a number of Yiddishisms.
DeMatteis is Jewish, and Judaism plays a much bigger role in his work than it does in most mainstream comics work. (One of his other 1980s creator-owned Marvel projects was a graphic novel called Greenberg the Vampire.) Reading The Definitive Edition now, there are several Yiddishisms that my teenage self totally missed the first time ’round (as an example, two planets are named Goyim and Shpilkuss).
I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It’s a true delight, one part coming-of-age story, one part satire, one part fairy tale, and one part science fiction allegory. An older Moonshadow tells the story in flashback, with the main action taking place during Moonshadow’s teenage years. The title character is half human—his mother is a hippie burnout named Sheila Fay Birnbaum, who goes by the name Sunflower after she tuned in, turned on, and dropped out—and he has many adventures throughout the cosmos. The satire and social commentary is fast and furious in Moonshadow, with critiques of capitalism, war, organized religion, and more.
The most fascinating aspect of Moonshadow to me is the G’l Doses. They’re basically giant glowing smiley faces, created decades before emojis became a thing. They flit about the galaxy pinging, popping, and poofing their way through space, occasionally kidnapping people and putting them in their zoo for reasons that are never made clear. The G’l Doses appear to operate completely on whim, and all attempts to understand them are doomed to failure. (DeMatteis presents two philosophical texts that take opposite viewpoints on the G’l Doses: We’re All Ants in a Meaningless Cosmos by Ragstone Phillit, which obviously takes an existentialist, nihilistic view, and The Gospel of Shree Quack Quack H’onnka, which takes a much more optimistic one.) Sunflower is one of the people they kidnap, and — for reasons that are never elaborated upon, just like every other G’l Doses action — one chooses to marry Sunflower and impregnate her. Moonshadow is the result of that bizarre union.
One of the things I love about DeMatteis’s work in general and Moonshadow in particular is that he understands the importance and value of storytelling, and how the creation of art in general and of literature in particular is of such critical import to what makes life worth living. Each chapter of the story starts with a literary quote, and while they’re all excellent and apt quotes, by some of the greats, reading it in 2020, I have to wince at the fact that it’s made up entirely of white dudes from the late 18th to the early 20th century, and all but one from the U.S. or the UK (the exception being the aforementioned Dostoyevsky): William Blake, L. Frank Baum, William Butler Yeats, J.R.R. Tolkien, Percy Bysshe Shelley, J.M. Barrie, Robert Louis Stevenson, Dostoyevsky, John Keats, Henry Miller, and Samuel Beckett. While growing up in the G’l Doses zoo, Moonshadow had access to a huge library that supposedly had the entirety of human literature in it—but, again, all white dudes from a single hundred-and-fifty-year timeframe.
Still, the story is superlative. DeMatteis effortlessly slides across set pieces and genres, from the horrors of war to the hilarity of worlds like Gimmegimme and Pillbox to the delightful flashbacks to Sunflower’s childhood and young adulthood during the oppressive 1950s and the turbulent 1960s. Throughout it all, Moonshadow is a delightfully romantic, naïve, competent, pathetic, brilliant, idiotic, complex hero whose journey to enlightenment is well worth the journey.
The art is beauteous, the perfect accompaniment to DeMatteis’s tale, ranging from Seussian absurdity to ethereal beauty worthy of William Blake (whose introduction to the Songs of Innocence provide the de facto epigraph and theme). Kevin Nowlan’s handwriting-style lettering is also perfect for the feel, though occasionally it is difficult to read the thin-lined lettering over the colorful art, at least for your humble reviewer’s aging eyes…
I’m of two minds about the Farewell, Moonshadow epilogue, which also slides from genre to genre but it’s not as effortless as it is in the main story, feeling a bit more disjointed in tone and feel. The initial bits with Moonshadow as a tinkerer works well, but the middle part with him basically becoming Job, with everything going wrong with his life, feels like it wandered in from a different story. Sometimes it’s best to leave parts of the story untold, and I’m not sure the epilogue works as well as hoped.
Still, this is one of the greatest comics stories ever produced, flaws and all. It’s tremendous fun, full of happy chear, and will make you feel good when you read it. It’s a great story, and that’s what makes life worth living.
Here’s what’s been on my Patreon from the 1st to the 31st of August:
$1/month and up: a review of Onward.
$2/month and up: 17 cat (and dog) pictures.
$5/month and up: a round-up review of Our Flag Means Death, Ms. Marvel, and Ted Lasso.
$7/month and up: excerpts from “Ticonderoga Beck and the Stalwart Squad,” “Another Dead Body on the Corner,” and Phoenix Precinct.
$10/month and up: vignettes in the worlds of Bram Gold and Dragon Precinct.
$20/month and up: first look at the first drafts of “Ticonderoga Beck and the Stalwart Squad,” Star Hoppers Book 6 Chapters 7-17, “Another Dead Body on the Corner,” and Phoenix Precinct‘s Prologue.
For September, there’s going to be a lot of Phoenix Precinct at the $7 and $20 tiers, as that’s my main focus for the month. Several TV shows are vying for my reviewing attention, including The Sandman, Animal Kingdom‘s final season, the new seasons of What We Do in the Shadows and The Brokenwood Mysteries, and more. Ditto for movies, though I’m leaning toward The Gray Man.
So what are you waiting for? THERE’S ALL THIS COOL STUFF! You should totally support me! I mean, for a mere twenty bucks, you can get at least two reviews a month, one vignette a month, a weekly excerpt from a work in progress, first looks at my first drafts, and a ton of pictures of adorable furballs! Such a deal!
If you don’t support my Patreon (and why don’t you?????), here’s what you’ve missed over the last five weeks…..
$1/month and up: a review of Thor: Love and Thunder
$2/month and up: 31 cat (and dog!) pictures
$5/month and up: a review of Obi-Wan Kenobi
$7/month and up: excerpts from Star Hoppers Book 6 and “Ticonderoga Beck and the Stalwart Squad”
$10/month and up: a vignette featuring Bram Gold
$20/month and up: first looks at Star Hoppers Book 6, Chapters 1-10 and “Ticonderoga Beck and the Stalwart Squad”
This is a really good deal. For twenty bucks a month, you get weekly excerpts from my works in progress, a monthly movie review, a monthly TV review, tons of pictures of cute fuzzy things, a monthly vignette featuring one of my original milieus, and every time I finish a chapter or a short story, you get to see the first draft.
Here’s what’s gone up on my Patreon since the 20th of May:
$1/month and up: reviews of 9 to 5 and Presumed Innocent
$2/month and up: 37 cat (and dog) pictures
$5/month and up: a review of Signora Volpe
$7/month and up: excerpts from Pigman and Star Hoppers Book 5
$10/month and up: a Super City Cops vignette
$20/month and up: first looks at every chapter of Star Hoppers Book 5
Coming in July will be a movie review, TV reviews of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Ms. Marvel, tons more cat and dog pics (I visited ToniAnn and Kyle in Raleigh last week and took a lot of pics of their zoo), the usual work-in-progress Wednesdays, July’s vignette, and first looks at Star Hoppers Book 6 and the short story “Ticonderoga Beck and the Stalwart Squad,” which is due on 30 July.
There’s a new Batman movie in theatres, and in honor of that, here’s my review of the DC animated movie that was released in January 2021, and which I simply adored. It’s a total 70s movie, and I’m here for it. This review appeared on my Patreon in January 2021, and for just $1/month, you can get monthly movie reviews — for the last few months, I’ve reviewed Moonstruck, In the Heights, Black Widow, The Suicide Squad, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Luca, Eternals, Venom: Let There Be Carnage, Encanto, Ferry, Turning Red, Free Guy, A Goofy Movie, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And for more, you also get cat pictures, TV reviews, excerpts from my works in progress, vignettes featuring my original characters, and first looks at my first drafts!Check it out and please consider being my patron!
Denny O’Neil died last year. One of the best comics writers and one of the best comics editors in the business, one of Denny’s favorite tropes to play with as a writer was characters who trained in the martial arts. He created the character of Richard Dragon, first in the 1974 novel Dragon’s Fists, then adapted him to comics for DC. In the pages of Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Fighter—published starting in 1975, which was the height of the kung fu craze following the rise of Bruce Lee’s popularity—O’Neil also created the characters of O-Sensei (the title character’s mentor), Lady Shiva, and Ben Turner (a.k.a. the Bronze Tiger).
O’Neil would later use both Dragon and Shiva extensively in his brilliant run on The Question. Shiva became a major player in the Batman titles after that, and the Bronze Tiger was a founding member of the modern incarnation of the Suicide Squad.
As a tribute to O’Neil, Warner Bros. Animation has done a Batman animated movie that explicitly takes place at the same time that Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Fighter was published, and which features Batman teaming up with Dragon, Turner, Shiva, and O-Sensei. Jeremy Adams’s script shows an impressive facility for the time period, nailing the plot, the script, and the slang with impressive verve.
The movie is a pastiche of 70s horror comics, 70s kung fu movies, and 70s spy thrillers. The opening is straight-up James Bond, with Dragon on a covert mission to get some files from the safe of a mansion in the middle of a big party. It comes complete with spy tricks (getting someone’s fingerprints for a print-scanning lock), disguises, gambling, hand-to-hand combat, and a big explosion at the end.
The plot is pretty much an excuse to go from fight scene to fight scene, but there’s some characterization. In this tale, Batman is still a relatively new hero, with Bruce Wayne having trained under O-Sensei in Nanda Parbat. (That locale has been a remote site that has been a place to find enlightenment, gain badass martial arts skills, or both in various DC comics, TV shows, and movies over the decades.) Wayne trained alongside Dragon, Turner, Shiva, and two others, Jade Nguyen and Rip Jagger, who are versions of Cheshire and Judomaster from the comics. O-Sensei is training them to protect the Earth from Naga, a demon kept in check by a mystic gate that O-Sensei guards. But Jagger is secretly part of a cult that wishes to free Naga, and he kills Nguyen to open the gate, forcing O-Sensei to enter the gate and sacrifice himself to close it again.
Years later, Dragon finds out that the Kobra cult (to which Jagger belonged) has the gate now. He recruits Wayne, discovering that he’s Batman, and they then go to Shiva—now a crime boss, and possessor of the soul sword that is needed to open the gate. The bad guys take it, and then they recruit Turner, who it turns out knows that Kobra has a chosen one who was being raised from childhood to become the one who frees Naga. But Turner couldn’t kill an innocent kid. However, that innocent kid has grown up to be a psychopath (at one point, he kills a hooker with poisonous snakes after he pays her).
I honestly feel like Warner Bros. decided to make this movie with me in mind, because holy crap is this Keith catnip. I grew up in the 1970s, and still have massive amounts of affection for the popular culture of the era. I’m also a martial artist, a third-degree black belt in karate [note in 2022 when reposting: now a fourth-degree black belt….. —KRAD], and have always had an affinity for martial arts stories. And I’m also a massive fan of O’Neil’s work, and Adams channels O’Neil’s voice here beautifully, particularly with the title character.
One of the hallmarks of O’Neil’s writings of Batman over the years has been that he’s always been aware of Batman’s vulnerabilities. Most of the interpretations of Batman have him as a brilliant polymath who is always in control, or at the very least is always one step ahead of everyone, whether it’s to humorous effect (the 1950s comics, the 1960s TV show) or to be more serious (pretty much every iteration of the character after Frank Miller’s Dark Knight and “Year One” stories in the 1980s). But O’Neil always remembered that Batman was created in an alley where a little kid saw his parents gunned down. O’Neil also created Talia al-Ghul, the daughter of Ra’s al-Ghul, whose tragic love for Batman constantly proved a vulnerability to the dark knight detective.
Adams gives us a very young Batman. This isn’t the confident veteran hero that we’ve seen voiced by Kevin Conroy and Jason O’Mara and Jeremy Sisto and the like. David Giuntoli plays him as a younger man who’s still trying to get his anger and obsession under control.
He’s also a supporting player in his own movie, which I’m actually okay with, as Dragon, Shiva, and Turner are all more interesting characters. In fact, all three of them could have used a bit more fleshing out—how did Shiva become a crime boss? why don’t we see more of Turner’s life? why was Dragon in particular with O-Sensei so long? But Mark Dacascos as Dragon, Michael Jai White as Turner (he played the same role in live action on Arrow), and Kelly Hu as Shiva (she previously voiced the character in the Batman: Arkham Origins videogame) all do superb voice work, giving the characters more depth than the script really has time to grant them. O-Sensei, however, is given plenty of depth by the great James Hong, whom Adams writes with a mischievous wit that is a clichéd but still welcome variation on the sub-fortune-cookie nonsense we usually get from such characters (including the comics iteration all too often).
The story doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it doesn’t really need to, and that’s honestly not the problem anyhow. The problem is the ending. The stupid fucking movie ends on a cliffhanger! Our heroes enter the gate, the door closes behind them, and I figure we’re about to get the climactic battle between the four protagonists and Naga. Instead, they pose as if ready to fight, and then the credits roll.
Now maybe they’re setting up for a sequel, but I have the feeling they just wanted to end it all open like that, and feh! I wanted the big-ass fight at the end!
However, up until the ending, this is a great movie. The music, the script, the design, all of it just nails the era being portrayed. If you’re looking for a story with Batman as the main character, you may be disappointed—Batman’s role is supporting, truly; the movie is written as if Dragon is the protagonist. But if you’re looking for a throwback to a time of fight scenes, satanic cults, and espionage, along with fashions that will make you say, “dig them crazy threads, baby,” this is definitely the movie for you.
Batman: Soul of the Dragon is available for sale on Prime and DVD and Blu-Ray. [note in 2022 when reposting: it’s also available for streaming on HBO Max —KRAD]
The fourth season of Cobra Kai has dropped on Netflix, and I do plan to review that fourth season for my Patreon. In the meantime, here are the reviews of the show I wrote in September 2020 (of seasons one and two) and July 2021 (of season three) on my Patreon. If you support me at $5/month, you get anywhere between one and five TV reviews per month, as well as monthly movie reviews, and regular cat pictures. And if you go higher, you get additional stuff like weekly excerpts from my works in progress ($7/month), monthly vignettes featuring my original characters ($10/month), and first looks at my first drafts ($20/ month). Check it out!
I saw The Karate Kid back when it was first released in the 1980s, but it was never a particular favorite—nor was it not a favorite, as it were, it was just a movie I saw. I wasn’t into martial arts at the time, and mostly I wanted to see it for Pat Morita, whom I’d loved on Happy Days.
I’d been afraid to watch the movie again after I started training in karate in 2004, as I worried that the portrayal of karate would be lacking. But recently, I watched the movie again with a dear friend, and I needn’t have worried. The dichotomy between the defense-and-self-improvement-based Okinawan karate taught by Mr. Miyagi and the beat-the-shit-out-of-everyone American karate style taught by Kreese in Cobra Kai is one that exists in the martial arts world still. There are still, sadly, martial arts masters like Kreese who only want to train little warriors to beat up people they don’t like—but, luckily, there are a lot more like Miyagi (including the guy who runs my dojo).
And it’s gotten a lovely update in the Cobra Kai series.
So many factors went into creating this series, which just got picked up by Netflix after being the only real success on YouTube’s attempt to have original programming, and even then it got a tiny audience. Now, though, it’s a bonafide hit, and it’s in part because it takes up some threads that have been the subject of think pieces and internet memes and jokes on TV series for years. One is whether or not Daniel LaRusso’s infamous crane kick in the climax of the first film was actually legal. And the other is best exemplified by the running gag on How I Met Your Mother of Neil Patrick Harris’s Barney Stinson character insisting that Johnny Lawrence was the hero of the movie and LaRusso the villain. William Zabka and Ralph Macchio both appeared as themselves on HIMYM, with Zabka continuing to appear several more times.
The creators of Cobra Kai—Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg—have run with that notion, and given us Johnny and Daniel thirty-five years later as middle-aged men who still hold a grudge with each other. Daniel is living a successful life as the owner of several car dealerships in the Valley, using his fame as the winner of the karate tournament as part of his marketing. (“Chopping” prices and the like, plus he gives every customer a bonsai tree like the ones Miyagi had.) Meanwhile, Johnny is a down-on-his-luck contractor barely eking out a living while living in a shithole in Reseda.
First off, this is a deliberate reversal of their positions in The Karate Kid, where Daniel was the poor kid in Reseda and Johnny was one of the rich kids. We find out over the course of Cobra Kai that Johnny’s wealth came from his stepfather, from whom he’s estranged since his mother died (though the cantankerous old bastard—played beautifully by the great Ed Asner—still helps him financially, guilting him the entire time).
William Zabka does amazing work here, playing a guy who doesn’t have much of anything in life, and who also hasn’t really paid attention to the world since high school. He’s never owned a computer, his cell phone is a cheap flip-phone, and he still has the same car he had in high school. He’s also, it should be pointed out, a flaming asshole, still. Part of that is bitterness, but part of it really is just that he’s an asshole, seen right off when he first encounters Miguel, who lives in the same apartment complex, and Johnny’s first response is, “Great, more immigrants.” Miguel confusedly points out that they moved from Riverside.
Having said that, Johnny also does get better as the series goes on. When Miguel is beaten up by his classmates outside a bodega, Johnny defends him, and Miguel asks Johnny to train him how to fight. This leads to Johnny restarting Cobra Kai.
As the season progresses, we get lots of different threads, all of which emanate outward from two events. One is Johnny’s decision to train Miguel and resurrect Cobra Kai. The other is when teenagers who are too busy gossiping and looking at their phones accidentally hit Johnny’s car. It’s towed to one of Daniel’s dealerships, which is what brings the two together for the first time since The Karate Kid Part 2.
For all that the spine of this series is the rivalry between Daniel and Johnny that goes all the way back to that fateful All-Valley Karate Championship at the climax of the first movie, this is truly a story about teenagers trying to figure out their place in life. One of the reasons why The Karate Kid was so compelling is that it was about a kid who was an outsider, a lower-middle-class Italian-American kid from New Jersey trying to find his way in a sea of rich blond kids.
Cobra Kai kicks that up a notch. Most of our main characters are outsiders of some sort, starting with Miguel, who is the target of bullies and falls in with a couple of social outcasts: Demetri and Eli. Meanwhile, we have Daniel’s daughter Samantha, who used to be the nerdy smart kid, but who has fallen in with the other traditionally pretty white girls, which has done damage to her friendship with her friend Aisha, who’s overweight and African American. Samantha is also dating Kyler, who is one of the bullies who beat up Miguel (and was then beat up by Johnny).
One of the most important aspects of martial arts is self-improvement. While the original Cobra Kai was all about “no mercy” and all that, and Johnny still expresses that credo, what Asian martial arts truly are meant to be about is improving oneself through discipline and sweat. What’s fun to watch in this series is how many people’s lives are generally improved by studying martial arts, whether it’s Johnny’s revived Cobra Kai or Daniel’s revived Miyagi-Do.
In response to Cobra Kai’s resurgence, and initially with only two students, one of whom is his daughter Sam, Daniel dusts off Miyagi’s house and garden where he trained Daniel back in the day and turns it into a Miyago-Do dojo.
How much self-improvement goes on varies from person to person. Miguel becomes more confident and throws off the shackles of being bullied. But Eli turns into a complete shitheel, becoming the very bully he used to live in fear of. Demetri tries to join Cobra Kai to be with Miguel and Eli, but he can’t handle the brutality of it, and instead joins Miyagi-Do—and even there, he struggles. Aisha, tired of being the butt of jokes by the popular set, joins Cobra Kai, and it does wonders for her.
One of the truisms of martial arts is that the style matters much less than the teacher. If your teacher is good, then the style is less important—and if your teacher sucks, same thing. One of the fascinating things to watch over the two seasons of Cobra Kai is watching Johnny’s journey from being the exact same kind of dick to his students that Kreese was in the movies to becoming something much closer to Miyagi and Daniel.
But then the first season ends with Kreese himself showing up, and everything gets thrown into flux, as Johnny has moved past Kreese’s teachings—but he also feels beholden to Kreese. So he gives him a chance, makes him his equal in the dojo—a move he will regret, as Kreese isn’t just a bastard, he’s also a fraud. (I love that it’s Johnny’s students who realize that his stories of black ops missions in Kosovo are nonsense, as he can’t even get the geography right.)
What’s frustrating—deliberately, mind you, that’s the story choice made for good reason—is that there’s no reason for Cobra Kai and Miyagi-Do to be in such fierce competition with each other. But Daniel and Johnny are so invested in the rivalry that between them that defined that first movie that it warps everything. Daniel is so revolted by the idea of Cobra Kai being revived that he revives Miyagi-Do alongside it as competition. And that three-decade-old rivalry continues to warp and mess with their lives, and infect the students in their care. Several friendships that are shown as being deep-seated at the start of the series wind up being sundered by the rift between Cobra Kai and Miyagi-Do.
Though it’s not the only deep-seated loathing that affects the characters. Johnny’s messed-up life between the movies and the show includes a busted marriage that produced a kid. Said kid, Robby, is a chronic fuckup and talented thief who decides to join Miyagi-Do for the express purpose of pissing off the father who hasn’t been a part of his life in any meaningful way. But he actually finds serenity and happiness (and eventually a girlfriend) at Miyagi-Do and it becomes more important to him than annoying his old man. Especially since his mother isn’t much of a prize, either, and Daniel and his wife Amanda become his surrogate parents, to Johnny chagrin—but, to some extent, to his gratitude as well. He knows he’s been a terrible father, and he’s grateful that Robby is getting some kind of chance. But Robby is still a fuckup at heart, and that has consequences.
The show is filled with tons of callbacks to the movies, both subtle and gross, and my favorite is that Miyagi’s gravestone includes a mention that he served in the 442nd Infantry Regiment. That was the Army regiment created specifically for Japanese-American soldiers, many of whom had been interred in camps. I had honestly completely forgotten about that aspect of Miyagi’s backstory over the years, and I loved that it was on his grave.
There are two particular issues with the two seasons to date that I find maddening, one understandable, the other less so.
The first is that there is simply no way, none, that an under-18 karate championship would do bare-knuckle fighting. In the 1980s, things were looser, but in the 2010s? There is absolutely no way that they would be doing competition fighting without any kind of protective gear. They’d be wearing gloves, foot protection, headgear, and possibly shin and knee guards.
The other is the big-ass school fight that takes up most of the final episode of season two, appropriately titled “No Mercy.” The whole thing starts when one of the Cobra Kai students, Tory, calls out Samantha and challenges her in the middle of announcements. The fight between the two of them starts in the hallway, moves to the staircase, sucks both Miguel and Robby in, and then all the Cobra Kai and Miyagi-Do students.
Let me be blunt: THIS WOULD NEVER EVER HAPPEN. Tory’s interruption of the announcements would start this, but it would also end it, because there would be an adult supervising the announcements who would immediately call school security and hold her. Even if she got away from there, there’s no way that there would be no adult presence near any of the kids after that announcement like there is. The fight goes on for four minutes before we see a single adult, and it would never ever take that long, especially not with Tory’s very public calling out. It’s not even remotely believable or convincing—which is frustrating, because from a story perspective, the fight is brilliant. It’s the catharsis that had been building all season, and nobody gets out of the fight unscathed—some more than others, of course. The planned season three is likely to be all about the consequence of this brutal battle—but, again, the battle should never have happened.
The acting in this series is beyond excellent. Truly, everyone is superb, but I want to single out Xolo Maridueña as Miguel, who brings a heart and soul to the proceedings. He’s the same guy as Daniel was in the movies, truly, but he finds Johnny instead of Miyagi. But he also has a good effect on Johnny, as Miguel’s influence changes Johnny for the better—and changes Cobra Kai as well.
Plus, of course, there’s Ralph Macchio and William Zabka, who do such an amazing job of giving us the middle-aged versions of the two kids we met thirty-five years ago. Zabka in particular does amazing work here, turning Johnny into a most compelling antihero. Points also to the producers for bringing back some folks from the movies, including Randee Heller as Daniel’s mother, and best of all, Ron Thomas, Rob Garrison, and Tony O’Dell all reprising their roles as Johnny’s Cobra Kai buddies from the movies. The episode in which those three appear, “Take a Right,” is one of the series’ best.
The show dives into melodrama a bit much, but it’s still, at heart, a story about high school and coming of age, and about how teenagers deal with all the changes that come with adolescence. Most of all, it shows how toxic those issues can be if you let them fester for three-and-a-half decades.
This is a strong, powerful sequel to a delightful series of movies, and I strongly recommend it.
Cobra Kai is available on Netflix.
Back when I reviewed the first two seasons of Cobra Kai, I figured that the main theme would be the fallout from the school fight in “No Mercy,” the second-season finale. In that, I was right, and indeed the entire season is pretty much the consequences of that fight.
The biggest consequence, of course, is Miguel Diaz, paralyzed after falling over the staircase. His journey back to being able to walk provides a major throughline of the season. But we’ve also got Sam LaRusso suffering PTSD after her fight with Tory and struggling to even get back to training, and also folding any time she’s in any kind of confrontation. We’ve got Danny LaRusso losing a major client due to his association with the fight. We’ve got the elimination of the All-Valley Tournament by the city council (though it is restored by the end of the season, and while pleas by Danny, Johnny Lawrence, and John Kreese fall of deaf ears, it is the heartfelt words of Miguel and Sam that convince them). We’ve got Robby on the run and rejecting both his father figures of Danny and Johnny, eventually finding himself under Kreese’s tutelage. We’ve got Johnny and Danny trying to team up to find Robby, becoming estranged again, but then coming together in the end. And we’ve got Aisha Robinson transferring off to another school (which means that Nichole Brown isn’t in season three).
I want to address that last thing, because it’s a major flaw in the season. Allegedly, it was a producer-based decision to write Aisha out for season three, and it’s a bad look for the show. There are damn few non-traditionally pretty people on television in general, and Aisha is one of the best stories in Cobra Kai‘s first two seasons, and to just dump her off is a disservice to that storyline and to the show.
Still, the season in general works very well, partly because there are several different things happening here that individually wouldn’t make for as strong a series, but they combine nicely.
The relationships among the teenagers shift and change in interesting ways. Robby, after being responsible for Miguel’s injury, goes over to the dark side, going into juvie and winding up in Kreese’s dojo. Sam and Miguel wind up renewing their relationship. Several Cobra Kai students are kicked out by an unforgiving Kreese for not being tough enough.
Most interestingly, Eli/Hawk goes through a much-needed transformation. He finally comes to realize that he’s turned into exactly the type of asshole who used to torment him when he was a full-time nerd. By season’s end, he’s repaired his friendship with Demitri and left Kreese.
Johnny goes through the second-most crap this season (Miguel gets the grand prize, obviously), as he loses Cobra Kai to Kreese, struggles to rebuild his mentor relationship with Miguel, as well as his romantic relationship with Miguel’s mother, struggles (and fails, unlike with the Diazes) to repair his relationship with his son, is reunited with a former love (more on that in a minute), and finally decides to start over as Eagle Fang Karate.
Danny has his own issues to go through, and while we get lots of adolescent angst with the various teenagers, we also get a lot of themes from the Karate Kidmovies brought forward. A big one is Danny going to Japan, mainly to try to recover the contract with the car manufacturer that is his biggest client, but also to revisit Mr. Miyagi’s home village in Okinawa. There he is reunited with three characters from The Karate Kid Part II, has an epiphany, and gets the client back. This is more than a little melodramatic—though Tamlyn Tomita is as radiant as ever as Kumiko—but it mostly works. It’s a little too cheesy that the little kid Danny rescued in the movie has grown up to become a vice president of the very car company whose business he needs, honestly. But the reconciliation between Danny and Yuji Okumoto’s Chozen lands perfectly.
In particular, it reminds Danny that Miyagi-Do is a Japanese martial art style, and the trick in bringing it to America is to find the balance between the Asian and American philosophies. Cobra Kai is completely twisted by Kreese’s Amurrican glory-in-violence mode. Meanwhile, Johnny’s Eagle Fang occupies a weird middle ground, with some of the macho bullshit from Cobra Kai but preaching a more compassionate ethos than Kreese does. The main difference—and it’s a big one—is that Eagle Fang doesn’t start fights. This is a hugely important tenet of Asian martial arts in general and karate in particular, and one that Kreese’s Cobra Kai doesn’t follow even a little bit. Indeed, Cobra Kai is a little too cartoonishly evil this season, with them stealing the money that Miyagi-Do raised for Miguel’s hospital bills and breaking into the LaRusso house and other criminal acts.
Worse, though, is that we get a bunch of flashbacks to Kreese’s youth in the late 1960s, winding up in Vietnam and how it formed the person he became, mostly in the person of his commanding officer, played with mustache-twirling capital-E Evilness by Terry Serpico. It’s an attempt to make us understand Kreese better, and possibly even feel sorry for him, but it doesn’t work.
Speaking of things that don’t work, we have Miguel’s recovery. While Xolo Maridueña remains brilliant in the role, and he sells Miguel’s anguish, his physical recovery is a hundred percent unconvincing. I have no trouble with him re-learning how to walk. I have huge amounts of trouble with the extent of his recovery. Still, this isn’t just a Cobra Kai problem: fiction in general and TV shows and movies in particular tend toward either instant death or 100% recovery with no middle ground, even though middle ground is what most people who are injured occupy.
What does work, however, is another character brought in from the movies: Elisabeth Shue’s Ali. The reunion among Johnny, Danny, and Ali, with Danny’s wife Amanda along for the ride, is an absolute delight. Ali’s presence helps Danny and Johnny to realize that, at least in relation to each other, they haven’t grown up, and they need to. They have more in common than they realize, and Ali—as the ex they both have in common—personifies it. Shue is magnificent, as always, and her presence lights up the entire show.
Not every beat works, and the show still slides into melodrama way too often, but it overall works on most levels. The understanding of martial arts is strong, and the showcasing of the different ways that different styles approach karate helps provide texture for the series. The acting is uniformly excellent, particularly from Ralph Macchio and William Zabka as Danny and Johnny. In particular, the two of them together are comedy gold, as the best scenes in the season are early on when they’re looking for Robby and later in the season when they’re reunited with Ali at the country club.
This gives me hope for season four, as this season ends with Johnny and Danny deciding to ally against Cobra Kai, bringing Miyagi-Do and Eagle Fang together, setting up a big confrontation in season four. This means lots more of Danny-Johnny banter in season four, and I am definitely up for that.
Let’s hope they bring Aisha back for it…
Cobra Kai is available on Netflix.
[Note: As it happens, Aisha does return in season four, but only for one scene. It’s great to see her, but she should fucking well be back permanently. Sigh.]
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