Movies & TV / Columns

The Mandalorian vs. Cobra Kai: Who Did Nostalgia Better? 

December 28, 2020 | Posted by Steve Gustafson
The Mandalorian Cobra Kai

Everything old is new again. Over and over we see across every media platform nostalgia used to sell tickets and market the next money making franchise. Many times it fails but on that rare occasion we get a success story. 

Even rarer is when we get two huge success stories that managed to balance nostalgia while introducing new elements to create a new chapter.That’s exactly what we have when we discuss The Mandalorian and Cobra Kai series on Disney+ and Netflix, respectively. 

I’ll warn you know, we’ll be covering some information that is SPOILER worthy so steer away if you haven’t caught up on these series yet. 

The Mandalorian came at a time when Star Wars fandom couldn’t have been more at a splintered stage. Arguments raged over the sequels, the prequels, and everything else connected with the franchise. Disney was on the receiving end of a sizable backlash and while they seemed intent on filling their calendar with project after project, nothing seemed to appease the great divide. 

Then The Mandalorian premiered on Disney+ and it was as if a great calm spread throughout the land. Sure, you had its detractors but the consensus was “THIS IS STAR WARS!”

The story of Mando, played by Pedro Pascal, and Baby Yoda was an obvious play on Lonewolf and Cub mixed with a Western vibe with plenty of fan service thrown in. 

It worked. Both old and new fans flocked to the show and it seemed to make the Star Wars universe feel…familiar yet fresh. The second season was more of the same, with the nostalgia turned up a little higher but done in a way that wasn’t completely over-the-top. It weaved in characters from The Clone Wars like Bo-Katan and Ahsoka Tano along with the return of Boba Fett, who finally got the treatment he deserved. It finished off the season with Luke Skywalker himself coming to fetch the child to continue his Jedi training. 
While the show isn’t perfect, and nothing is, it brought together fans in a way that hasn’t been felt in a long, long time. 

Did it rely too heavily on nostalgia? Bryce Dallas Howard, who directed the episodes “The Heiress” and “Sanctuary”, spoke about it to Digital Spy. “I think it’s a really fine balance, of course,” she said. “As an actor, I’m familiar with those kind of questions, because, for example, with working in the Jurassic franchise, it’s like, ‘OK, we can have fun with some deep cuts for the fans, but, at the end of the day, it’s about a good story, well told.’”

And that’s what it came down to with The Mandalorian. Good, fun stories that took us back to the feelings we had when we first fell in love with Star Wars

When I first heard about Cobra Kai on YouTube, I rolled my eyes. It had been too long and I couldn’t imagine what kind of story they wanted to tell that would be worth my time to watch. Then they released the first three episodes for free so I gave them a watch.

Halfway into the first episode I started texting my friends that this show had no business being as good as it was. The writers got it. They understood what made The Karate Kid so memorable, along with some aspects of it that looked cheesy on reflection, leaned into it, while adding a younger cast to add to the fun and we got a show that really shouldn’t have been a big deal.

Seriously, this show uses its history in such a way that I find myself clapping at times. Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) are forever destined to be opponents, in some form or another. What makes it work is Macchio and Zabka balance their performances to fit the story, coming close to the edge of nostalgia overload but pulling back at the right moment. 

I might lose some of you here but the inclusion of new students makes Cobra Kai feel like a comic book at times. In a good way. A great way really. Martin Kove returning as John Kreese is icing on the cake and looking ahead to Season 3 looks to be even heavier on the nostalgia but I have no doubt they’ll continue the series in just the right manner. 

Two shows. Two very different shows. Both mixing nostalgia with new elements. Both finding audiences that include old and new fans. Maybe this is the new way.