Disney’s The Last Jedi was one of the most divisive Star Wars movies to ever be released and sparked intense debate among hardcore fans. Director Rian Johnson went out of his way to subvert audience expectations, and in turn his depiction of galactic hero Luke Skywalker as a disenchanted, bitter, hermit nearly broke the fandom – and the franchise. Johnson’s snarky attempts to appease angry fans by offering detailed reasoning behind every decision that he made did very little to appease Luke Skywalker fans. Even the actors themselves were disappointed.
In its simplest terns, there was no “fan service” in The Last Jedi. The studio didn’t even bother to team up the original trio for a single moment in the sequel trilogy. In fact, the sequels were so tone-deaf, that when the heroes returned to the alliance after Han Solo was killed, Leia gave Chewie the cold shoulder but lovingly embraced Rey, a young girl she had never met. The sequel trilogy also recast the legacy heroes as massive disappointments. Han Solo split up with Leia, became a deadbeat dad, and went back to smuggling. Luke Skywalker devolved into a crotchety old man who abandoned his friends and almost killed his nephew in his sleep. Even Lando and the droids were poorly utilized. All this reinforces the idea that Disney’s sole agenda was to push their new characters at the expense of the legacy characters, and the studio had no plan or strategy to deftly handle those beloved classic heroes, nor did they seem to care.
In stark contrast, Cobra Kai successfully rebooted the Karate Kid franchise, and has been a huge critical success with both old and new fans. The series has remembered and respected the lore as it was outlined in the original films, brought back classic protagonists and characters from the original franchise series, and even took new approaches, such as the role reversal of Johnny Laurence into the protagonist with Daniel LaRusso becoming the antagonist, at least in the early season.
The approach was so successful, the Emmy nominated Cobra Kai became “the most in-demand digital original series in the world” in the last week of April 2019. One of the show’s creators, Hayden Schlossberg, explained to the Hollywood Reporter their rules to reboot the classic IP without only relying on nostalgia or arguing with the fans.
DO treat the original franchise with reverence. Just as you should honor thy father and mother, so should you honor the franchise you are bringing back. Remember — your show would not exist without the original movie. This is not just IP, this is something precious to millions of people. Treat it that way.
DON’T be afraid to make big changes. Respecting the material doesn’t mean you can’t be original. Fans don’t want to see the same thing they’ve seen before. Karate Kid fans love Cobra Kai because we took the bully, Johnny Lawrence, from the original movie and made him the underdog of our story.
DO create new characters to enrich your story and reach younger viewers. It’s true that if you want to attract a younger audience, it helps to have a younger cast. New characters can bring fresh energy and perspective to your franchise. But …
DON’T forget about the original characters or your older audience. Sure, you want to lure younger viewers, but first you must win over the hard-core fans who made your franchise a success.
DO use nostalgia to draw your audience into the story. Classic movies like The Karate Kid have been rewatched on VHS/DVD/cable so many times that people remember certain lines and scenes more vividly than their own childhood memories. Calling back these moments can have a huge emotional impact.
DON’T rely on nostalgia. Callbacks bring back memories, but they don’t tell a story. Even hard-core fans will tune out if they aren’t hooked into a compelling plot with great characters. The key is using nostalgia to create something new and exciting.
DO ask yourself, “Why now?” You will be asked this question many times in the greenlight process, so you might as well have an answer. For Cobra Kai, our answer was that bullying is more relevant today than ever — and we wanted to explore that topic by reexamining Johnny, one of the most iconic bullies in movie history.
DON’T overthink the “Why now?” There’s a reason your franchise is a classic — most likely it taps into something universal and timeless. So while it helps to give your story some social relevance, you also want it to be relevant 20 years from now. Focus on the classic themes that will stand the test of time.
DO have a long-term plan about where you are taking the story. In the event of success, there will be demand for another season or sequel, and you want to be ready. With Cobra Kai, we purposely waited until the very end of the first season to bring back a fan favorite, villainous sensei John Kreese, because we wanted to give fans something to be excited about for season two.
DON’T assume your audience is going to stick around until the end. As important as it is to have a long game, you need to win over the audience very quickly — otherwise they will move on to one of the 70 trillion other options they have.
DO respect, encourage and engage your fandom. The best part about working on a famous franchise is that there is a built-in fan base already. Do what you can to turn that fan base into a community. Get them hyped up, show them you listen and encourage their creativity and passion.
DON’T argue with the fans. There is nothing more futile than trying to convince fans who didn’t like something that they are wrong. If there is division in the fan base, let the fans argue among themselves. That is part of the fun.
I don’t have confirmation yet, but I suspect their approach of turning Johnny Lawrence into the underdog was inspired by J. Matthew Turner’s hilarious commentary which cleverly proposed that Daniel was the real bully in the Karate Kid.
And we’ve seen the formula of respecting what came before work, honoring the old and new characters, most recently for other rebooted IPs such as Ghostbusters: Afterlife and Spider-Man No Way Home, other studios that did not stick to these rules have only received the ire of the fans. Examples of this are plentiful, but And Just Like That and Matrix: Resurrections both immediately come to mind.
Cobra Kai picks up more than three decades after Daniel’s surprise upset of Johnny in the Under-18 All-Valley Karate Championships. In the series, Daniel is now happily married with two kids, the successful owner of a fleet of car dealerships, while Johnny is a down-on-his-luck divorced father estranged from his son whose life hit the skids after that loss to Daniel. The show gave Johnny a vivid backstory that resulted in viewers feeling sympathetic while also laughing at his ineptitude and lack of social grace. The late Pat Morita, who earned an Oscar nomination for his work in the movie, was also not forgotten, nor were many characters from the films.
Geeky Sparkles and Kneon had an interesting discussion about the contrast between Disney’s Star Wars and Cobra Kai recently on their Youtube channel.
Thor Skywalker also discussed this approach on his YouTube channel:
Nostalgia is definitely a double-edged sword, and comes with a lot of baggage, with fans being very attached to their beloved characters. It’s fine for a studio to exploit their properties. It’s business after all, but they risk the project being a colossal failure if the fans aren’t part of the equation. Like the fans, those working on the project must have a passion or fondness for the material, and for the legacy. We’re seeing this failure in the comic book industry because many writers don’t have any attachment to the decades-old heroes they’re playing with, and the industry is crumbling for it.
As Thor points out, Disney’s Sequel Trilogy barely even acknowledged the Prequel Trilogy, dropped the idea that the droids would be telling the story of the saga throughout, and regressed the main characters back to their introductions, with Han a smuggler, Leia again leading a rebellion, and Luke stuck on a remote planet with no idea what the Jedi actually are. In fact, the name ‘Anakin Skywalker’ is never mentioned in the Sequel Trilogy.
On the other hand, Cobra Kai has lovingly acknowledged the poorly received sequels such as The Karate Kid Part II and The Karate Kid Part III. The way Cobra Kai handles its less than beloved sequels elevates those films. For instance, bringing back Terry Silver in season 4 made many fans want to go back and rewatch part III. The Netflix series has done an IP revival so well that it should probably be required viewing for any studio that has the notion to reboot a beloved property. It’s effectively a blueprint on how to make a sequel to a beloved IP with legacy characters.