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So you've just paid a few million dollars to acquire the rights to an iconic property, and you're planning to bring it back. And why wouldn't you?! You've just come into possession of one of the most widely consumed legal drugs out there today: nostalgia.
Naturally, you might feel a bit worried, as you've no doubt seen how wrong it can all go. Indeed, while digging up nostalgic properties does seem like a sure-fire success, they do often tend to fall flat even with the best of intentions. So, how does one avoid failure? Simple: by learning from those who have succeeded where so many others have dropped the ball. Here are the four crucial lessons that Cobra Kai can teach us about getting nostalgia right.
Lesson One: Start With the Right Source of Inspiration
Nostalgia is a bit like a fine seasoning: it can be amazing and even end up defining whatever meal you're planning, but you can't really start with it. You need to make the dish itself first. If the creators of Cobra Kai went about revisiting The Karate Kid franchise by only looking for nostalgia, the result would have most likely been a retread of the first film with an older Daniel taking the role of Miyagi in the middle of a story packed with an overabundance of sloppy references and cameos.
Instead, what they did was look at the themes and ideas presented in the original films and expanded. In other words, they weren't so much inspired by the films themselves but, rather, by things that inspired these beloved classics in the first place. That, in turn, helped them create a strong story in its own right, while also offering us a fresh exploration of all the themes presented in the originals like finding balance in life, dealing with bullying, friendship, mentorship, overcoming the odds, etc. Cobra Kai, however, also adds some new themes into the mix as well, which leads us to the next lesson.
Lesson Two: Play With Perspective
A piece of storytelling wisdom is that there aren't actually that many stories out there to tell. There are, however, countless perspectives to tell those stories from. In fact, when it comes reboots, finding a great new point of view is often the key to making it all work. For Cobra Kai, that key is Johnny. Where many simply saw a generic sports movie antagonist, the creators of Cobra Kai saw a lost teenager. A teenager who clearly showed signs of an inner conflict, struggled to come to terms with a breakup, and had a rather venomous father figure to boot.
Crucially, these sentiments were also shared by Johnny himself—William Zabka —who had always maintained that he didn't play the character as a villain but, rather, as a flawed guy who had gotten a bit of a raw deal. Now, just ask where would a guy like that be 30 years later and you already have an intriguing premise and a sincere central performance to build the show upon.
In fact, the same approach is also applied to the entire Cobra Kai dojo's "strike first, strike hard, no mercy" philosophy that was so heavily demonized in the first film. By watching Johnny teach kids in the show, we see that while this mantra does sound a bit too destructive, it can be applied in a manner that could actually help a bunch of bullied and struggling teens gain some vital self-esteem and confidence.
However, the show is also smart enough to not start by demonizing the character of Daniel or by trying to explain why Cobra Kai was right all along. Granted, the series certainly portrays the older version of Daniel in a more complex light, he's still that guy who we loved from the original films. He's simply been given more layers.
As for that problematic Cobra Kai philosophy, it's really just a case of Johnny teaching these kids with the best intentions in the only way he knows how. And despite the aforementioned surprisingly positive outcome of this process, Johnny also has to face the seriously negative effects the Cobra Kai mindset can have on a young person.
That kind of a clever usage of perspective can be found everywhere in the show. We can see it in the way its varied cast of younger characters deal with many of the same struggles presented in the originals. Although, those new characters often deal with the same struggles in completely different ways. Perspective is also observed in how much Johnny, Daniel, and society, in general, has changed
Lesson Three: Love the Source Material but Don't Let That Love Blind You
It goes without saying that a nostalgic reboot can only ever work if the creators truly know and love the source material. However, that same love also hides a potentially disastrous pitfall—losing the bravery to challenge that source material. You see, while love for the originals is apparent in pretty much every single frame of Cobra Kai, the show understands that in order to maintain the integrity of the originals, one also needs to call them out on some of their sillier elements.
A simple example? Towards the end of the first season, there's a scene where Daniel and Johnny are finally about to throw down and have their long-awaited rematch 30 years later. Now, from a fan service point of view, this does seem like a no-brainer to include. However, before either of them manages to throw a punch, they are thwarted by Daniel's wife Amanda, who points out the inherent silliness of seeing two 50-somethings about to solve their teen rivalry with Karate, and asks Johnny to stay for breakfast instead. That, in turn, leads us to a great scene of Johnny and Daniel trying to reluctantly solve their differences behind a breakfast table.
In other words, by taking this loving shot at the franchise, the creators not only manage to offer us a great piece of levity, but also something that actually drives the plot forward. Now, what's important here is that while the show is full of similar little potshots at the source material, they never come across like the creators are ashamed of their source material but, rather, that they simply want to explore the beloved franchise to the fullest.
Lesson Four: Make Sure It Stands on It's Own, Then Apply Nostalgia
This is a no-brainer but it has to be said: just write an all-around great script regardless of nostalgia. As mentioned above, Cobra Kai is above all else a well told and engaging story with a great bunch of characters in the middle of it. And that doesn't just mean the original characters of Johnny and Daniel; it includes the new ones introduced in the show.
Once you've got a great script, then you can start to seamlessly add stuff like training montages, flashback clips, and music cues from the original films–like Daniel visiting Miyagi's grave or Johnny and Daniel reminiscing about the past (including a certain "Ali with an I").
That's how you get a perfect win-win situation. Viewers who came for nostalgia but stayed for the story will get that extra bit of nostalgic joy to make an already great viewing experience perfect; and viewers who simply came for the story will get an incentive to check out these brilliant original films. All in all, you know when you've gotten it right when anyone watching it for nostalgia forgets the nostalgia and anyone without nostalgia becomes nostalgic about something they were never nostalgic about in the first place.
To Sum Up
So, all set. You should now have the tools necessary for creating a truly awesome revisitation of a nostalgic property. Well, assuming, of course, that you have a few million bucks laying around to buy the rights for it in the first place.