Online Backlash To ‘The Last Jedi’ And ‘Ghostbusters’ Ruined The Legacy Sequel

Cobra Kai nabbed around 95.55 million hours viewed last week, the first week of the fifth season’s availability on the platform for 202.25 million hours in total. The show has seemingly stretched its conceit, pitting the now-adult stars of The Karate Kid against each other as their midlife crisis rivalry escalates to an entire Southern California community, as far as it can go. No spoilers, but every major conflict is resolved, save for a minor last-minute cliffhanger concerning a mid-level villain. If there is a sixth and final season, I am hopeful it can correct one core issue that has plagued the series since it became a Netflix
property. The show started as a legacy sequel in the vein of Force Awakens, only to potentially morph into something closer to Rise of Skywalker.

Cobra Kai let the adults return to center stage.

The show initially centered on Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and Daniel LaRusso. They found themselves rehashing high school rivalries, with the former child of privilege finding himself on the outs while the working class ‘karate kid’ was a successful car dealership owner. Lawrence decided to reopen the Cobra Kai dojo. This choice eventually entangled their respective children (Mary Mouser as Samantha LaRusso and Tanner Buchanan as Robby Keene) and an outsider (Xolo Maridueña’s Miguel Diaz) who found himself taken under Johnny’s wing. In a skewed inversion, this young man was set up as the ‘new’ Karate Kid, with Johnny finding possible redemption in the kid’s tutelage (and romance with his single mother). Like Creed, Cobra Kai used the legacy sequel format and the franchise vets as bait to spotlight a new hero from an underrepresented demographic.

Partially thanks to the interference of Martin Groove’s John Kreese (introduced in the season one cliffhanger), season two ended with a spectacular and tragic school-wide martial arts brawl. However, the next few seasons emphasized the franchise vets over the kids. Season three saw Daniel heading off to Japan to interact with characters from The Karate Kid part II while Elizabeth Shue (the love interest in the first film) put in an extended cameo. Season four centered on the return of Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffin), the chief baddie from The Karate Kid part III. Season five saw Karate Kid part II’s (now reformed) baddie Yuji Okumoto’s Chozen Toguchi recruited to help the good guys. This further led to the actual young protagonists being pushed out of the spotlight in favor of the grown-ups.

Cobra Kai is still an entertaining and well-constructed dramedy. It remains, in many ways, a platonic ideal of what we’d want from a so-called legacy sequel. It works for fans of the 1980’s coming-of-age trilogy (there have been no hints of Hillary Swank reprising from The Next Karate Kid) and younger audiences who want to indulge in a PG-rated soap opera. However, by coincidence or design, the apparent protagonist of the story, Miguel Diaz, has morphed into (at best) a supporting character. By continuously adding new characters from the old movies and prioritizing the Karate Kid stars over the Cobra Kai protagonists, the show offers an example, in real-time, of how the legacy sequels have evolved over the last several years. They used to be Trojan Horses, but now they are reaffirmations.

What a legacy sequel used to be…

Force Awakens was a sequel to Return of the Jedi, which mimicked A New Hope. However, it was still *about* Daisy Ridley’s Rey, John Boyega’s Finn and Oscar Isaac’s Poe meeting up and taking down the New Order headed up by Adam Driver’s Kylo and Domhnall Gleeson’s Hux. Likewise, Creed was a Rocky sequel that centered and highlighted Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Creed. Audiences young and old showed up to Jurassic World (to the tune of $1.66 billion worldwide) both because they liked Jurassic movies and because they liked Bryce Dallas Howard’s Claire and Chris Pratt’s Owen amid the ‘the park is open and things go to hell’ hook. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle earned a stunning $962 million worldwide by positioning itself as a ‘new’ high-concept comedy starring that happened to be a loose sequel to Jumanji.

Conversely, Independence Day: Resurgence flopped in 2016 ($390 million on a $165 million budget) partially because it undercut the new stars (Maika Monroe, Liam Hemsworth and Jessie T. Usher) in favor of returning vets (Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, but not Will Smith who passed). Terminator: Dark Fate fashioned itself as a Force Awakens-style legacy sequel, just as Terminator: Genisys fashioned itself after the 2009 Star Trek reboot. However, it neglected the new cast members (Natalia Reyes, Mackenzie Davis and Gabriel Luna) in favor of Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Even the Fantastic Beasts prequel franchise eventually crashed (from $814 million to $660 million to $400 million) partially because it failed to solidify its new cast as fan favorites, betting on franchise nostalgia and the abstract appeal of ‘the story before the story you know.’

While ‘out with the old in with the new’ didn’t always work commercially, see also Men in Black: International or Cars 3, two key releases, and their complicated reception caused a change in how so-called legacy sequels were constructed. First, the sexist and racist online backlash to Paul Feig’s gender-swapped Ghostbusters remake created a narrative that the $144 million (!) sci-fi comedy bombed ($126 million domestic but $229 million worldwide) because it ignored the ‘fans’ and wasn’t a true Ghostbusters sequel. Second, The Last Jedi went further into the ‘Star Wars is for today’s kids’ mentality, which made sense after the Force Awakens’ cliffhanger. It was met with an SEO-friendly online backlash, creating the impression that Episode VIII, which received rave reviews, an A from Cinemascore and $1.33 billion worldwide, was despised by fans and general audiences.

What a legacy sequel is now…

We know what happened next. First, obviously, (but not chronologically) Lucasfilm and/or Disney seemingly retooled The Rise of Skywalker into a film that essentially retconned The Last Jedi’s plot twists and prioritized adult Star Wars characters, including emphasizing Rey’s connection to the original trilogy characters (including getting her Jedi powers from an evil old man) at the expense of the present-tense storytelling. It earned lousy reviews, a B+ Cinemascore grade (not great for a Star Wars) and ‘just’ $515 million (less than Rogue One) domestic and $1.073 billion (less than Joker) worldwide. Meanwhile, we saw a normalization of a newfangled legacy sequel, prioritizing the feelings of the oldest franchise fans over younger, newer audiences. We still got some new, more inclusive heroes, but they were secondary and only worthwhile in relation to the original stars.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife’s young Phoebe Spengler (McKenna Grace) was only valuable in relation to her being Egon Spengler’s granddaughter. She only saved the day with the help and approval of the retired (or deceased) original Ghostbusters. Bad Boys For Life was about Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, just as Matrix Resurrections was about Keanu Reeves’ Neo and Carrie Anne-Moss’ Trinity. Ditto the Blumhouse Halloween trilogy which never moved past Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode as the definitive final girl. Even the Jurassic World cast needed help from the Jurassic Park cast in Dominion. Scream, which downplayed Neve Campbell and Courtney Cox and killed off David Arquette, was an exception to the rule. Top Gun: Maverick was all about how only Tom Cruise, with some help from Miles Teller and Glenn Powell, could save the day (and Hollywood).

Top Gun 2 made the subtext of these post-Last Jedi legacy sequels into text. That may have played into its $1.463 billion-plus success. The next wave of legacy sequels mostly declared that franchise vets were the only ones who could save the day. By proxy, the original fans were designated as the most critical fans, even for properties from when they were kids. We have a wave of generational nostalgia pieces like Willow, Beverly Hills Cop: Axel Foley and Picard (whose third season is morphing into essentially an eighth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation). Adult fans demand that Hollywood continue to cater to their kid-era interests, while some concurrently (at least in the online bubble) whine on social media if these old properties dare look more diverse than they did in prior generations.

Pop culture reassures adults that their heroes are still the best.

We’re seeing a deluge of films and shows that primarily exist to remind folks how much they liked Hocus Pocus and The Mighty Ducks while reassuring fans that those properties were good, actually. The majority of new nostalgia-skewing Star Wars shows now take place either between Revenge of the Sith and Star Wars or right after Return of the Jedi. The once-dismissed prequel trilogy has become a prime focal point for Star Wars continuity, thanks to generational nostalgia. The two biggest shows on streaming are prequels to Game of Thrones (The House of the Dragons) and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (The Rings of Power). Thanks to the streaming wars, those platforms are repeating the ‘IP for IP’s sake’ mistakes that allowed theatrical to lose its foothold to streaming in the first place.

Even Avatar: The Way of Water is being sold, at least for now, via nostalgia for Avatar 13 years ago, even if that nostalgia is ‘remember when pop culture nostalgia wasn’t the primary hook for your big-budget franchise tentpoles?’ Spider-Man: No Way Home grossed $1.91 billion worldwide, partially due to generational nostalgia from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy and Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man duo. The latter was such a commercial botch that Sony ended up sharing Peter Parker with Disney. Even DC Films is getting into the act. First, Ezra Miller’s long-gestating The Flash will have, as its crucial hook, the return of Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne/Batman 31 years after Batman Returns. Nostalgia wasn’t enough to save Batgirl, which featured Keaton as Wayne and current generational nostalgia champion Brendan Fraser as Firefly, but I digress.

Cobra Kai is still a good show, and the kids < adults imbalance isn’t a pass/fail scenario. However, its evolution (devolution?) has lined up almost perfectly within the broader pop culture. The Force Awakens at least used the comforting nostalgia and IP-specific security to introduce new protagonists who, being played by ‘not a white guy’ actors, shattered the notions of who could headline a global blockbuster and anchor billion-dollar IP. We may now be doomed to not just regurgitate IP but to explicitely center old franchise vets returning to battle and assuring fans that they are still the most special. We may soon be nostalgic for the Force Awakens-style legacy sequel as Rise of Skywalker clones flood theaters and streaming platforms. In the meantime, let’s hope Cobra Kai season six returns Miguel Diaz to the center stage.

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