Hello everyone, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. This has been a revival-filled week for me, as not only did I complete my Bill and Ted journey with Face the Music, but I also checked out the first season of the new Karate Kid show, Cobra Kai. It would have been easy for either of these properties to turn out as joyless cash grabs, but for once, the opposite proved true: Face the Music serves as a worthy conclusion to the Bill and Ted saga, while Cobra Kai not only embraces the absurdity of its premise, but also discovers a remarkable degree of human truth within the Karate Kid’s shadow. Without further ado, let’s break down these excellent revivals!
This week my house watched through the whole first season of Cobra Kai, an absurdly improbable continuation of the original Karate Kid franchise, which takes up the story thirty years later, with both the original Karate Kid and his hated Cobra Kai rival now middle-aged men. While the karate kid’s success at karate eventually blossomed into a line of successful car dealerships, his rival’s defeat has led him into a multi-decade tail spin, involving alcohol abuse, a failed relationship with his son, and a life where all he can rely on is his bitter, confrontational “Cobra Kai Mindset.”
At a glance, Cobra Kai seemed like everything I dislike about modern media: stories built on an artistry-deadening reverence for past hits, a slavish appreciation for “franchise lore” as your guiding narrative light, and all of it drenched in a self-serious tone intended to convince both the creators and the audience that they’re not actually watching simplistic children’s media. In fact, I didn’t even start the show myself – it was my housemate who watched the first episode, and who sneakily turned on the second while I was busy on our other living room screen, playing The Witcher or something. Through this carefully designed inculcation process, I ended up paying attention to the show’s second episode in spite of myself, and discovering that Cobra Kai is actually really, really good.
The most important thing about Cobra Kai is that it is perfectly aware how ridiculous it is. Every time the show leans on the “fabled lore” of its original franchise, it is to make winking, campy dunks about the absurdity of franchise lore as a guiding principle, or emphasize how weird the relationships of the original film actually were. Turning a goofy teen movie like Karate Kid into a melancholy meditation on aging and masculinity is an absurd idea, and the show accepts that in the most charming and ego-free way possible: by hamming up the absurdity of the concept itself, and embracing touches of farce and melodrama throughout.
Of course, even a show that was just about acknowledging the silliness of our backwards-looking media landscape probably wouldn’t appeal to me alone; that’s merely the way the show maintains a light tone, and one of the ways it humanizes its characters. More fundamentally, Cobra Kai is about exploring precisely what would drive two men to maintain an infantile macho man rivalry well into their forties: and the answer is, as usual, toxic masculinity. Cobra Kai’s leader in particular is an absolute wreck of a man, driven into an emotional corner by the confrontational, violent ethos that was once his only source of comfort.
The show doesn’t hammer you on the head with the moral implications of its protagonists’ actions; instead, it just keeps following their lives, as we see how Cobra Kai’s philosophy actually can help some kids arrive at greater self-confidence, but only via the narrow path of forcefully exerting their power on others. The Sensei-Student relationship actually provides a perfect canvas for exploring how violence is passed through generations, and through following his life beyond the dojo, we see again and again how the circumstances of this man’s life led him to fiercely embrace the one place that ever accepted him, in spite of how it’s damaged the rest of his relationships.
In total, the show blends thoughtful reflections on identity and masculinity with a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of the ridiculousness of its premise, grounded in a sympathetic, multi-generational cast whose tangled relationships offer a soap opera’s worth of twists and betrayals. Genre-savvy, thematically rich, and just plain endearing – it’s actually one of the best live-action shows I’ve seen.
And my journey through the Bill and Ted franchise finally ended, as my house screened the triumphant Bill and Ted Face the Music. The universally glowing praise for the film had set my expectations high, but I think the film still exceeded them; by basically any metric you can think of, Face the Music was not only a worthy and natural followup to its predecessors, but even made a case for being the best film of the three of them.
First off, Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter sink effortlessly back into their old roles, while still evoking the natural sense of fatigue inherent in failing to live up to your destiny for twenty-five straight years. Their chemistry is as endearing as ever, and the script is brimming with the little dashes of absurdism and camaraderie that made the first two movies both charming and unexpectedly witty. Their journey in this film sends them into the further and further future of their own lives, hoping to steal the song that unites reality from themselves, which in practice feels like the “Bill and Ted visit alternate realities” compliment to the first film’s “visiting the past” and second film’s “visiting the afterlife.” This choice not only keeps the narrative fresh, it also allows Reeves and Winter to ham it up as a variety of dubious alternative selves, and offers a natural canvas for the film’s reflections on aging and legacy.
Meanwhile, Bill and Ted’s perfectly cast and dad-worshipping daughters go on their own adventure, touring through music history to assemble the band for their dads’ perfect performance. Not only does this help keep the film centered within its franchise’s wheelhouse, it also offers the most sustained and convincing articulation of the power of music in the entire series. While “Bill and Ted must save the world through the uniting power of song” has always been this series’ conceit, they’ve up until now rarely spent much time actually playing music, much less illustrating its uniting emotional power.
This film corrects that oversight in force, as characters connect and communicate through the lines of their musical inspiration, and Billie and Theodora (yes, those are their names) end up triumphing precisely because they have such love for music, and such a thorough knowledge of its history and power. I very rarely see films celebrate the magic of artistic expertise in this particular way; there is a unique joy in seeing the lines of connection between major works of art, and Face the Music expresses that joy with relish.
All in all, Face the Music stands as a totally excellent conclusion of the Bill and Ted saga, feeling retroactively essential in the way many of the best sequels do. We could all use more joyful, art-celebrating stories like this.