The Karate Kid, released in 1984, was a coming-of-age film with a pretty straight forward plot that gained a cult following because of its heart-warming story and sincere performances. To put it simply, the focus of the film is a teenager Daniel LaRusso and his teacher, Mr Miyagi who teaches him martial arts so he can defend himself and stand up to his bullies. But this simple story triggered one massive debate that still has fans of the film divided even years after the film’s release and now the recently released Season 3 of Netflix’s Cobra Kai has officially rekindled the argument.
[The following article contains major spoiler from Cobra Kai Season 3. Please proceed only if you’ve watched it or are already thinking “Ah! I know what this article is about.”]
Cobra Kai Season 3 premiere episode, “Aftermath,” picks up where Season 2 concluded- with everyone still feeling the after effects of the brutal “karate riot” at the West Valley High that left Miguel comatose and on life support. The consequences are to be faced by Miyagi-Do and Cobra Kai’s whose rivalry caused the mayhem. While Johnny gets drunk, beaten up, and arrested, Daniel and Amanda go to attend an urgent PTA meeting after Sam is suspended for two weeks.
In order to pacify the growing uproar, the school decides to completely ban the practice of martial arts. Daniel stands up to call out the “karate Footloose,” narrating his time at the school when he “was bullied” and how “karate saved me,” only for someone in the crowd to scream something The Karate Kid fans have been debating (read: fighting over) for decades.
“Bulls***! I heard you were the real bully!”
For those who have began their journey of getting acquainted with Daniel and Johnny with Cobra Kai may think of it as just a throwaway line but it is in fact a callback to the widespread debate that it wasn’t Johnny who was the bad guy- the real bully was, in fact, Daniel. In 2015 the debate gathered fresh traction when a Youtuber, J. Matthew Turner, posted a viral video postulating how Johnny was the hapless victim targeted by the film’s true villain i.e., Daniel.
For the uninitiated, The Karate Kid begins with Ralph Macchio’s Daniel shifting to Los Angeles with his mother. Soon he meets high school cheerleader Ally Mills (Elizabeth Shue) and falls for her, attracting the ire of her arrogant and jealous ex-boyfriend, Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and his loyal gang of bullies. After getting a severe beating by the group, Daniel starts learning karate from local handyman Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) and enters the All-Valley Karate Championship on the condition that Johnny and his friends will stop harassing him if he wins. Despite Sensei Kreese’s repeated dishonest attempts to defeat him, Daniel reaches the final round where he defeats Johnny with the famous Crane technique.
While the film simply paints its characters in shades of grey, with some more inclined towards their aptitude for villainy, it is clear that the protagonist of the story is Daniel and Johnny serves the part of the antagonist. But the above-mentioned video, like many other die-hard The Karate Kid fans, points out that ‘Daniel is the real bully’ who was “a violent sociopath who picks every fight” and “moves to a California town and begins tormenting a local boy and his friends.” The theory further claims that the tragic figure of the story is actually Johnny who was a “reluctant” and “flawed” hero.
The theory further claims that getting the severe beating was all Daniel’s fault as he butted his head where he shouldn’t have and by thrashing him, Johnny was simply trying to “contain Daniel’s fury”. So, Mr. Miyagi was “demon sorcerer” and “child batterer” who helped Daniel win the “tainted blood trophy” at the tournament.
For years, many have put forward points both in favor and against the theory, debating how Johnny was a bully who kept targeting Daniel even as the latter tried to avoid the fights or how Daniel deliberately created chaos for his nemesis. Even though both the warring factions of the fans are yet to reach a stalemate, one side can now find solace in the fact that the “Daniel was the real bully” theory is now officially canon in The Karate Kid universe. You can check out the full YouTube video detailing the theory here.