The Redemption of Johnny Lawrence (LSP #161)

The Redemption of Johnny Lawrence (LSP #161) October 12, 2020

Hi and welcome back! Last week, we had a really good time mocking evangelist Greg Stier for idolizing Johnny Lawrence as the villain of the new show Cobra Kai. But the comparison has stuck with me ever since I heard it a while ago. There’s something fundamentally broken in evangelical leaders if they don’t understand the biggest message of that show — and the greatest lesson that character can possibly teach audiences. Today, Lord Snow Presides over the redemption of Johnny Lawrence, and the lessons he could teach evangelicals if they could only let down their antiprocess shields long enough to listen.

not johnny lawrence but a nice shot anyway
(Jason Briscoe.)

An 80s Legacy: The Karate Kid.

The Karate Kid is a movie that eventually became a multi-part franchise. That first movie came out in 1984, becoming one of the biggest feel-good blockbuster movies of the year at the time. Critics have tended to like it for its nuance, heart, and heroic characterizations. (This review is a good start on that score. This one too.)

The movie’s story is very simple: a teen boy, Daniel Larusso (Ralph Macchio), moves to a new town. He’s bullied almost from the start by mean kids at school. A handyman of his acquaintance, Miyagi (Pat Morita), turns out to be a ultra-awesome karate practitioner! He agrees to teach Daniel karate.

Miyagi’s teaching style is, to say the least, idiosyncratic (and yes, authoritarian):


Karate Kid (1984), “Wax On, Wax Off.” The scene that launched a thousand memes. Now, Miyagi COULD have told Daniel that he was trying to embed muscle memory. But where’s the fun in that?

Daniel’s bullies turn out to be students at a martial arts studio (dojo) called Cobra Kai. Their leader, Kreese, is a brutal mofo who teaches his students to be bullies. In fact, Kreese’s star pupil (and Daniel’s chief tormentor), Johnny Lawrence, is the worst of the bunch.

Eventually, the two rivals find themselves at a karate tournament. There, Daniel progresses through the rounds to the final match — where he comes face-to-face with his enemy Johnny Lawrence! ZOMGWTFBBQ!

At first, Daniel’s doing great — but Kreese tries to even the match by literally handicapping Daniel:

Even Johnny’s shocked at the order to “sweep the leg.” However, he complies.

Though greatly injured, Daniel wins the tournament anyway through an unlikely move called “the crane kick.”

Really, Miyagi’s gentle lessons pay off in many ways. By the end, Daniel has won at life itself. He gets Johnny’s girl, wins Johnny’s title as toughest kid ever, takes the trophy at the tourney, and seems poised to enter an adulthood that brims with promise and love, if also a bum knee.

Criticisms of Karate Kid.

First and foremost, this movie may have been instrumental in creating the “montage scene” in 80s movies and beyond. South Park did a great job lampooning the trope in their episode “Asspen” which itself was a big send-up of 80s teen movies like The Karate Kid.

Montages provide audiences a false illusion about how long it takes to master a complex skill. Skiing is already a terrible choice for a montage, but martial arts would only have been worse.

Second, martial arts don’t really work that way. At all. That “crane kick” move Daniel uses to knock Johnny out is just the beginning of this movie’s inaccuracies.


The Karate Kid, finale with crane kick move. (CN: Karate violence.)

I asked Mr. Captain what he’d do if someone had ever pulled this posture during an actual fight in his tumultuous youth, and he just laughed and launched into an entertaining tirade full of what sounded like cartoon violence.

But Johnny’s behavior irked him way, way more than that silly crane thing did.

Mr. C wants me to tell all of you that real martial arts tournaments are actually about landing the most hits for points. Real ones involve very little force:


karate highlights” from the world karate federation, uploaded June 2017.

Even in MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) tournaments, which Mr. Captain participated in long ago, participants might utilize several disciplines that do, indeed, harm opponents in real-life use — but they don’t pull those moves in their tournaments. In real tournaments, referees monitor the participants for injuries, not just rule violations.

I could write a lot more here. Oh yes, Mr. Captain (a near-lifelong practitioner of various martial arts) has some very strong feelings about The Karate Kid‘s handling of his beloved discipline. He felt the karate presented was both absurd and insulting, and he doesn’t even practice that one. I’m still laughing at his comparison of that movie’s last fight to a knitter pulling a shank on someone at a knitting tournament.

“It’s beyond f***ing absurd,” he’s ranting as I do my last edits on this post.

In short, he thinks Johnny should have been disqualified for that earlier downward-elbow-strike alone, and after the subsequent mandatory inquiry to follow, Kreese and Cobra Kai should have been barred from all that group’s tournaments for the foreseeable future. 

NO MERCY.

One of the movie’s foremost strengths, however, shines through despite those flaws. Its heroes reject toxic masculinity, while its villains embrace it. Most of the movie’s triumphs and losses occur around that tug-of-war within all of its male characters.

Indeed, Kreese presents us with the picture of a brutal, ruthless authoritarian exerting absolute power over his students. He crowns Johnny Lawrence as his big success story — and pushes him harder and more cruelly than he does the other students.

For his own part, Johnny accepts this abuse as the price of his position. As a budding authoritarian himself, he knows only power — and revels in being the hand-picked scion of the biggest authority figure in his life. He’d do anything for Kreese, and Kreese knows it.

When Kreese demands that Johnny attack Daniel in the tournament, it might shock Johnny, but Kreese pushes the demand home by reciting their school’s mantra:

Strike First
Strike Hard
No Mercy

In fact, in the movie’s buildup to its climax, the recitation of “no mercy” breaks Johnny’s potential resistance to Kreese’s demand that he intentionally hurt Daniel.

Hurting People Hurt People.

Looking back, I remember that nobody even wondered how in the world Kreese had turned so many boys into bullies like himself.

We really should have wondered that. I mean, movies like The Karate Kid came out right as my midpoint-Gen-X peers and I were hitting adolescence. We were beginning to notice the role of family dynamics in shaping children. The very next year, The Breakfast Club came out, and offered us an intimate look at the character of John Bender (Judd Nelson). His family life was horrifying — and made his character much more understandable and sympathetic.

One scene in particular, the infamous “No, Dad, What About You?” bit, hit me right in the feels when I saw it. That scene still gets to me now (CN: swearing, abusive family, etc):

It’s an amazing example of characterization. Bender gets furious when his story of familial abuse garners skepticism in response from his supremely uncomfortable audience. In answer, Bender reveals his abuse scars to his companions, insults them in the vilest terms, then leaves their company — while destroying school property along the way.

But then we realize: he’s obviously hurting hard over his home life.

Sure, Bender puts up an offensive front about all of it. Deep down and safely protected from the outside world, though, he’s really in agony. He has no idea how to safely express his pain, how to ask for help, or how to begin his recovery from that nightmarish upbringing.

And he’s got very little time left to do any of that essential work before his outbursts start earning him very real and life-altering consequences. The stakes could not be higher for him than they are in this movie.

His Side of the Story.

All of us knew a Bender, just like we knew every one of the other Breakfast Club members.

We all knew a Johnny Lawrence too. And he was probably a very popular kid.

But Johnny’s much more conformist than Bender, as well as more popular. His dramatic flaws are, therefore, harder to spot — especially for those also locked into authoritarian boxes since childhood.

Had we spent a few moments wondering about evenings at the Lawrence household, chances are really good they’d have looked a lot like Bender’s.

A couple of years ago, the Karate Kid franchise launched a Netflix series focusing on the villain of the franchise: the leaders of Cobra Kai. And we saw. Yes, indeed, that’s how it’d been for Johnny Lawrence. And the after-effects of that upbringing led him exactly where one might expect.

Even as an adult, he blames a teenage boy for everything that’s ever gone wrong with his life. And he still can’t accept any responsibility for the events of Karate Kid.


“His Side of the Story,” from Cobra Kai.

Villains are often the heroes of their own story — and the story’s actual heroes are, in turn, their villains.

More than that, though: Hurting people hurt people. That’s how it’s always been. Authoritarian kids learn some truly horrifying lessons to stay safe, and they don’t tend to understand the harm those lessons cause for a long time — if ever.

So Imagine My Reaction Here.

Stop for a moment and just imagine my reaction when our pal Greg Stier popped out this ridiculous tweet:

greg stier as cobra kai
(Source.)

He included a gif of an aging Johnny Lawrence in the Cobra Kai series. Johnny grimly ties on a black headband that I’m pretty sure his ex-girlfriend Ally gave him decades ago (before ditching him for Daniel). Johnny stands in front of the motto of the Cobra Kai dojo:

Strike First
Strike Hard
No Mercy

And Greg Stier doesn’t even understand that this is the motto of authoritarian bullies. It’s the call-to-arms of those who seek to hurt others to proactively protect themselves.

He hashtags it “#BeStrongInTheLord,” but this is actually only an ideal for those who want to hide how very, very weak they truly are…

… Even from themselves.

SPEERCHUL WARFARE.

Nor is it all that surprising that Greg Stier thinks Cobra Kai’s motto is an ideal one for the practitioners of spiritual warfare. It’s a fictional motto for a purely imaginary martial art, and one loved by self-important bullies at that.

Something about that entire notion just tickles me pink, y’all, from start to finish.

I mean, it’s not like Stier can offer even the most cursory concrete explanation of what he’s talking about. Who’s waging this war? Against what enemies? For what prizes? How are his battles fought, exactly?

More importantly:

Where is the meekness and passivity of Jesus in this picture, anyway?

Where are the cheeks turned, the blessings heaped upon those who’d spitefully use Christians, the seventy-times-seven forgiveness of all transgressions?

The Mess Itself.

The New Testament is a hopeless mess just like the rest of the Bible, yes. Given and read. Signed, sealed, and delivered. Asked and answered.

Very obviously, several vastly-different groups of early Christians wrangled and squabbled over exactly how to present Jesus, because he comes off as emotionally-disturbed in how he flip-flops between contradictory ideas.

That said, this ghost-written Jesus stressed many times the importance of his followers accepting their lot as the sacrificial lambs of all the world, never fighting back, loving even their enemies, and always giving till it hurts.

It is hard to imagine those ghost-writers advocating the idea of a Jesus exhorting his followers to imagine themselves as knights clad in imaginary shining armor, rushing out on horseback onto imaginary battlegrounds with their swords brandished and shields set firmly.

And they do all this nonsense to fight boogeymen existing only in their minds from the safety of their social clubs and living rooms.

There’s a Possible Redemption for Everyone.

Maybe the most touching part of the new Cobra Kai series — and what’s landed it on my watch list — is its central message:

People can change. They can find redemption, and they can change for the better. Our pasts do not set our futures in stone. Love really can turn us around.

Indeed, in this series it looks like Johnny Lawrence is on the road to that redemption. Meanwhile, Kreese, his old instructor, returns as well — and it looks like he is very much still stuck in that authoritarian mindset. He’s still the vicious authoritarian leader who commanded a teenage boy, decades ago, to inflict intentional harm on another human being just to win a tournament.

But this time, his student has grown up — and he has taken those first necessary steps in identifying the maladaptive teachings that have turned his adult life into such a mess.

Who knows? Maybe, Greg Stier will also find redemption. He thinks he’s gotten it already from his imaginary friend. But imaginary friends can’t give anyone real redemption. Real redemption is a lot more difficult to reach than the quick-and-easy instant forgiveness Christian authoritarians treasure. It requires emotional work that doesn’t come easily to them at all.

Maybe Greg Stier will get there one day.

But that day is not today.

Today, Lord Snow Presides over an 80s teen movie that’s returned with a message for the modern day — and over the aspiring Christian leader who has completely and catastrophically misunderstood it.

NEXT UP: There’s Greg Stier, manipulating the flocks for fun and profit.

See you tomorrow! <3


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About Lord Snow Presides (LSP)

Lord Snow Presides is our off-topic weekly chat series. Lord Snow presides over a suggested topic for the day, but feel free to chime in with anything on your mind. We especially welcome pet pictures! Lord Snow was a very sweet white cat. He actually knew quite a bit.

A truly beautiful boy.
About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.
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