Cobra Kai – An Exercise in Writing Villains

“The Karate Kid” franchise is perfect example of writing villains. I recently got the opportunity to watch, NETFLIX’s “Cobra Kai”, the sequel series to the 1984 hit movie, “The Karate Kid.” It was a fun trip down memory lane. The characters again enter into each other’s gravitational field and circle each other in combat.

When I watched the movie, “The Karate Kid”, it was clear that Johnny was the bad guy and Daniel was the hero. After watching Cobra Kai Season 1 and 2, I got an entirely different perspective. Johnny perceives Daniel as the villain.

Recap from Johnny’s Perspective

1. Daniel makes a move on his girlfriend, Ali. Johnny steps in and attempts to get Daniel to back off with a little shoving. Daniel punches Johnny in the face. Game on, and Johnny smacks Daniel down. Johnny loses Ali.

2. Later at the Halloween Dance, Daniel feels compelled to turn on a hose, dowsing Johnny in a bathroom stall. Johnny and his friends chase Daniel down a hill and trap him in a fenced area near his apartment complex. While Johnny administers the beating Johnny believes Daniel deserves, Daniel’s neighbor, Mr. Miyagi, steps in and thwarts Johnny and his underage friends.

3. Johnny respectfully leaves Daniel alone while he trains for the All Valley Karate Tournament. Johnny gets lucky and Daniel faces him in the finals. Finally, he gets his revenge. Johnny regrets sweeping Daniel’s hurt leg, but Johnny’s only obeying his sensei. Daniel then does an illegal Crane kick to Johnny’s head and wins the match, making Daniel the champion. Regardless, Johnny remains the good guy and congratulates Daniel on the win.

Johnny’s POV in his own words.

Flash Forward to Cobra Kai

The “Cobra Kai” series begins thirty four years later with Johnny as a beer guzzling, newly unemployed handyman. The loss to Daniel all those years ago sent Johnny on a downward spiral. He is at rock bottom. In a reversal of roles, he becomes a Miyagi-like character and saves his nerdy apartment neighbor from school bullies. The experience makes Johnny realize that he misses the discipline and confidence his training gave him. He decides to resurrect the Cobra Kai school.

Daniel believes he cannot allow Cobra Kai to infest the minds of new students and does some villain-type moves to destroy it. I won’t spoil the series, but this is essentially the set up.

Application to Writing Villains

Why is this interesting? Writers are told that to write a believable villain, you must make them three dimensional. They can’t be just crazy. Crazy has only two dimensions. Crazy is flat and boring. The villain must believe their actions are justified. They are only doing what is required for their character to survive. The best villains must view themselves as the hero of their story.

“Cobra Kai” allows this duality to come into the forefront. Both Johnny and Daniel are heroes. Both of them are also human, so they have parts of themselves that are less than heroic. If they could visualize themselves through each other’s eyes, then they might become friends. This makes the NETFLIX series work. The viewer wants them to become allies, but fate and thirty-four years of bad history makes this a difficult proposition. Besides, conflict drives the story, and without it, there is no need for Season 3.

Both of these characters reside in grey areas, neither exists completely in darkness nor light. The series is fun and entertaining. I believe the key to its success is the writing team, who have created a complicated and multi-layered world. If you enjoy writing, and want an example about writing villains, then check out “Cobra Kai”.

Looking forward to Season 3.

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