Karate Kid and the Building of a Hero

The moral case for understanding how heroes become what they are and where we came from.

Everybody loves a good hero.

Movies are great at this. Within two hours you can see the entire transformation of an ordinary person into a powerful protector of the people. The kind of person people can cheer for and believe in despite how everyone knows it's not real. This is most obvious in superhero stories today but it began long before that. No one knows exactly when they started, but in recent years it's become cemented in popular culture. This started the late 70s and early 80s then just snowballed from there.

One of the innovations of that time is the shift from the macho, established person to highlighting the smaller, nerdy person who becomes a powerful hero. The 80s were where that entered the public imagination. There are many different iterations of it. Karate Kid is perhaps the most enduring example of this. Daniel LaRusso isn't your typical hero. He was a bullied kid who needed focus and discipline in order to overcome his own circumstances.

And he found that through his mentor and friend, Mr Myagi. More than Daniel himself, Mr Myagi became iconic, his signature “wax on, wax off” technique of teaching karate was an instant pop culture phenomenon, equal parts celebrated and parodied over the years. With three movies featuring Daniel and then a fourth where Myagi trained an all new hero, the movie series is known as the Myagi verse. This story being extended beyond the tragic passing of Pat Morita who played Mr Miyagi through Cobra Kai, which is something that will be covered later on.

All of it started with that one simple story of a boy who needed help. What differentiates the Karate Kid films from other stories is the way in which it constantly built on what came before it. You could even say that this movie series was an early attempt at what the MCU has now become. Daniel wasn't the perfect hero by the end of the first movie, so the sequel built on that. Yet even that didn't complete the process of creating a hero, resulting in the third film which explored a slightly darker side of who Daniel is.

Other film series and stories made the transformation much more simple. The whole thing began and ended with a single film. It was easy to feel a sense of completion and to some extent catharsis when the hero won and made the world a better place. Of course as time went on, we realized that things were much more complicated than that. It's never as simple as it appears. However, there's something powerful about going back and examining where it all began. To understand why those stories had such a powerful impact.

We might even learn something about how to better tell our more complicated stories today. Give it more interesting dimensions and maybe a little less doom and gloom.

Make sure to check out the first in The Karate Kid series on Netflix.

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