Who is the Real Villain of ‘The Karate Kid’? Fans Weigh In

William Zabka and Ralph Macchio on "The Karate Kid"

YouTube William Zabka, left, and Ralph Macchio as Johnny Lawrence and Daniel LaRusso in "The Karate Kid" (1984).

Whoever is the “true bully” of original “The Karate Kid” film is a question which has had fans divided for decades. Despite the film portraying Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) as a young and inexperienced Los Angeles newcomer who must learn to defend himself from the bullies and tyrants of his local public high school, many fans don’t agree that Daniel was really the true hero after all, especially in light of the ongoing Netflix spin-off series “Cobra Kai.”

Here’s everything you need to know about the popular fan theory.

Some See Daniel as a “Violent Sociopath,” Johnny a “Tragic Hero”

The Karate Kid: Daniel is the REAL Bully [J. Matthew Movies, Ep 3]Daniel LaRusso is a violent sociopath who picks every fight in The Karate Kid. Check out my comment response video: youtu.be/cd82fxIbqUE , and please subscribe for more videos like this! patreon.com/jmatthewturner instagram.com/jmatthewturner twitter.com/jmatthewturner2015-08-23T13:35:37Z

Although the theory was acknowledged in two separate “How I Met Your Mother” episodes by character Barney Stinson, it was arguably most recently popularized by a fan-made YouTube video in 2015 (shown above) which breaks the film down almost scene-by-scene, arguing how Johnny was really a “flawed hero,” and Daniel his unruly antagonist. The video reframes the famous fight at the beach scene, for instance, in which Daniel and Johnny get physical for the first time, as Daniel “attacking” a non-violent Johnny, who merely “steps aside, allowing Daniel to knock himself to the ground.” Johnny only uses force as a last resort option, “for the safety of everyone present.”

Although the maker behind the video made it fairly clear in a follow-up video that the original was made in jest, it has nonetheless amassed over 14 million views in the years since. It was also spotlighted by EW shortly after its release, and referenced by ScreenRant in a 2020 article they had about the popular fan theory.

Fans seem to be divided. Although a re-posting of the video (as well as the video itself), blew up in a film-themed Reddit thread, many disagreed with the premise.

“This was some great analysis, but I’m not sure I buy it,” read one popular comment. “The creator totally glazes over all of Johnny’s threatening dialogue towards Daniel throughout the film, which would easily debunk the “non-aggressor” argument he tries to make.”

Another commenter echoed that sentiment by saying, “Obviously satire but this is how I imagine sociopaths view their actions as being the victim.” This aligns with a top-rated comment on the YouTube video which reads, “This is literally how Johnny remembers the events of the film.”

Fans are not the only ones to comment on the theory. “Cobra Kai” co-creator Jon Hurwitz, as well as William Zabka, who portrays Johnny, have weighed in themselves, with Zabka in particular having sympathy for his character. In a 2020 podcast interview, he stated that he thought Cobra Kai sensei John Kreese was “more of a pure villain” than Johnny.

Cobra Kai May Clear Things Up

William Zabka and Xolo Maridueña in Cobra Kai

YouTubeWilliam Zabka and Xolo Maridueña as Johnny Lawrence and Miguel Diaz in season 1 of “Cobra Kai.”

Regardless of fans’ views on the theory in the years before “Cobra Kai,” the new television show has presented a whole new perspective on the character of Johnny Lawrence, which has been warmly embraced by fans.

Though the show has casually referenced the theory during its course, whether through a background character yelling at Daniel, “I heard you were the real bully!” or Johnny’s heartfelt re-telling of the events of 1984 to Miguel, most fans agree that part of the magic of “Cobra Kai” is its ability to continue the story of Johnny and Daniel from a more personal and realisitc perspective.

On a 2019 Reddit post criticizing the “Daniel is the real bully” sentiment, one commenter said of “Cobra Kai:”

I imagine part of the reason the actors agreed to reprise their roles (other than the paychecks) was because they were doing something new: spinning the fight movie genre on its head by making the villain the protagonist.

Another mentioned that, with “Cobra Kai,” “the meme evolved to something serious because… it requires to change lens in order to see the events depending on the character, and the final product still remains largely the same.”

One user on the YouTube video echoed this statement, saying that “The Cobra Kai series def. drew inspiration from this.” They are not the first to say such a thing, jokingly or not, with some fans also saying that “Cobra Kai” must have drawn inspiration from the “How I Met Your Mother” references.

In the end, it was arguably both who were the true heroes of “The Karate Kid” story in their own way. And now, with the advent of “Cobra Kai,” fans are able to get a better sense of both, and may not even feel the need to make a decision one way or the other. Perhaps it was fitting that season 3 saw Daniel and Johnny join forces in the end, given how they might have more in common than either previously realized.

Be sure to catch season 4 of “Cobra Kai” on Netflix, set to be released Dec. 31.

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