Why The Next Karate Kid Deserves A Lot More Love Than It Gets

In 2016, Paul Feig reimagined the beloved "Ghostbusters" franchise for a new generation and made the daring decision to cast Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Melissa McCarthy, and Leslie Jones as our proton-pack-wearing heroes. The response from "fans" was scarier than any ghost worth bustin'. People review bombed the film before it ever debuted and the official "Ghostbusters" Ultimate Gift Set omitted the film from its collection until I complained so loudly about it, Feig noticed and threw in his two cents, and then magically a digital copy was announced to be included.

The unbridled vitriol spewed from toxic fanboys regarding 2016's "Ghostbusters" felt unprecedented, with many viewing it as a look into the future of what happens when "boy franchises" dare to shift focus and let girls take center stage. Except, "Ghostbusters" wasn't the first time this had happened. More than two decades prior, "The Karate Kid" franchise decided to give Mr. Miyagi (Noriyuki "Pat" Morita) a new student, a teenage girl named Julie Pierce (Hilary Swank).

Looking back at old reviews feels like revisiting 2016's "Ghostbusters" discourse all over again. As Ralph Novak of People magazine declared, "This desperate attempt to keep the franchise alive and kicking resorts to a backhanded kind of political correctness." The film is almost universally believed to be the worst film in "The Karate Kid" series, if it's even acknowledged as part of the franchise at all. "The Next Karate Kid" is not the worst film in the series (that title firmly belongs to Part III) and deserves to be seen as so much more than just "the girl one."

Julie Pierce is a fantastic protagonist

One of the biggest complaints lobbied against "The Next Karate Kid" is that Julie Pierce is rude, prickly, and in my least favorite way to hear people describe teen girls, unlikable. Whenever this critique of her character is made, I have to actively fight the urge to rip my head off and throw it like a bowling ball. The very first thing we learn about Julie is that she's got some serious anger issues stemming from her struggles adjusting to living with her grandmother in a new city and attending a new school ... because both of her parents were killed in a car accident.

To make matters worse, the main bully brigade at her school is a terrifying security fraternity controlled by Colonel Paul Dugan (Michael friggin' Ironside) called the Alpha Elite, who physically and sexually harass her at any chance they get because she's the only girl in school who doesn't bend to their whims. Julie is being actively antagonized from all angles, which is why it's so hard for her to connect with Mr. Miyagi, her grandmother, and even Eric (Chris Conrad), the boy at school that likes her. Her one solace in life is taking care of an injured Harris's hawk named Angel that she's trying to nurse back to health, and the Alpha Elite are constantly making threats on the bird's life just to stick it to her.

But sure, let's complain that the teen girl grappling with immeasurable grief and misogynistic violence is being "unlikable."

Julie's training is practical

When Mr. Miyagi began teaching Daniel LaRusso in "The Karate Kid," it was to not only help him learn conflict resolution, but to also defeat Johnny Lawrence and the Cobra Kai in a karate tournament. There are guidelines in the tournament. Even when Johnny is pressured to cheat by John Kreese, there's hesitation knowing that it goes against the rules. Julie's training begins as a means to help her learn to regulate her emotions, and learn self-defense in a world that is constantly hostile toward women.

The golden rule of "The Karate Kid" films has always been that karate is meant to be used as the last line of defense, and that one should only fight when necessary. Julie Pierce doesn't have the privilege that Daniel LaRusso does as a young woman in the world. She's trained to be alert, be on the defense, and keep herself protected ...at all times. Julie isn't training to fight in a tournament, she's training to fight for her life in a misogynistic world.

Given how different Julie is from Daniel, Mr. Miyagi also has to utilize new techniques while training. He tries at first to incorporate "wax on, wax off" styles of repetition but realizes quickly that Julie isn't going to respond in this way. He teaches her patience, troubleshooting, and adaptation, by having her hold her own against rowdy kids as a babysitter. Miyagi consistently meets Julie at her level and modifies his training as needed to help guide her toward success. Not every student should be taught in the exact same way.

We learn more about Mr. Miyagi

Pat Morita was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award in "The Karate Kid," but the character remains a complicated figure in the Hollywood canon of Asian-American representation. As writer Bich Minh Nguyen said, "Mr. Miyagi is the perpetual foreigner who exists to serve the whiteness that surrounds him." Admittedly, "The Next Karate Kid" still falls into some of these stereotypes, with Miyagi's English sounding arguably the "most broken" in the series. However, even with a subplot visit to a monastery, "The Next Karate Kid" allows him to be more than just a "mystical Asian figure."

The film opens with Miyagi being honored for his role in the 442nd Infantry Regiment in World War II, as an esteemed presenter discusses the horrors of the Japanese Internment Camps. "The Next Karate Kid" got frequent airplay on The Disney Channel, which meant this film is definitely responsible for teaching a generation of kids about the camps, as school curriculums often exclude this part of WWII. The reason Miyagi even meets Julie in the first place is that her grandmother is the widow of his former commanding officer.

Miyagi has a history and friendships outside of his karate mentorship. While there's little explanation regarding how his friendship with the monks started, there's an immediate understanding that they've all known each other for a long time. They even give a presentation of an arrow-catching skill to Julie on her birthday, and it's presented as if this is an old party trick they've been doing for years. "The Next Karate Kid" reminds the audience that Miyagi has a life outside of training white kids how to kick butt.

Mr. Miyagi doesn't have to be 'all-knowing'

Given Miyagi's unfamiliarity with training a surly young woman, he's given the space to make mistakes and show that he's not an all-knowing mystical figure — he's just a really cool guy who happens to know some really cool stuff. It's important to keep in mind that "The Next Karate Kid" is not an underdog sports movie — this is a '90s teen girl movie through and through  — which means Miyagi's parental role falls under a new archetypical umbrella.

There's a delightful scene when Miyagi attempts to pick out a prom dress for Julie, only to realize he has no idea what to ask for. This is not about his cultural differences as an immigrant, but instead, an old man admitting he knows nothing about women's fashion. When Julie's date Eric comes to pick her up for the dance, Miyagi aggressively sharpens cutting knives while making dinner. It's a clear play on the ridiculously dated "dad threatens new boyfriend" trope, but Pat Morita looks like he's having so much fun getting to play a different type of father figure.

Of course, it is still a "Karate Kid" movie after all, so Miyagi does have plenty of mystical moments (as do the monks), but they're far outweighed by his moments of being a regular old sweetheart. In a particularly touching moment, he and Julie reminisce about her deceased parents and grandfather, and the two are able to connect over their mutual pain of having lost people they love dearly. He spends just as much time imparting words of wisdom as he does just letting Julie cry, vent, and openly mourn. This is a Miyagi who is just as interested in listening and learning as he is delivering motivational one-liners.

The Alpha Elite are timeless villains

"The Karate Kid" series is known for its cartoonish villains, but the Alpha Elite is more relevant now than ever. Michael Ironside's "security fraternity" might as well be the militaristic branch of Joe Rogan podcast-addicted Proud Boys. It's as if someone distilled toxic masculinity in a lab and gave them all matching black t-shirts. A baby Walton Goggins has a minor cameo as one of the group's most dedicated members, but evil takes its true form in Ned (Michael Cavalieri). Ned lives to make Julie's life hell, and not in a fun bleach-blonde 1980s movie villain kind of way, but in the "someone put this guy on a watchlist because he's definitely got a manifesto under his bed" way.

The group does lose a little bit of legitimacy when they bungee jump into the prom from the ceiling (in what I imagine was a producer request for "more action") but these dudes have no problem challenging Julie and Eric to a street fight on the docks, surrounded by flaming cars (BECAUSE THEY BLEW ONE UP!) and an insinuation that Michael Ironside wants them to literally kill Julie for emasculating them with her karate skills. The big bad conflict in "The Next Karate Kid" is shockingly dark and unfortunately feels well within the realm of possibility. Admittedly, the intensity of their truly messed-up intentions causes the film's biggest tonal imbalance. The sweetness is immediately soured by the stark acceptance that Julie is going to deal with men like this for the rest of her life.

The Next Karate Kid is filled with sentiment

There are three scenes that, to me, encapsulate the heart of "The Next Karate Kid." While Julie is training at the monastery, she practices alone one night while listening to "Dreams" by The Cranberries. She apologizes profusely believing she's offended the monks with her music, but the monks all join her in a dance. "Never trust spiritual leader who cannot dance," Miyagi tells her. It's a beautiful moment that showcases the importance of emotional expression, and the evergreen perfection of including The Cranberries on a soundtrack.

The second scene sees Miyagi teaching Julie how to do the waltz, by convincing her she's learning a new kata combination. Julie is delighted when she realizes she is capable of dancing, only for Miyagi to admit that it was her grandfather who originally taught him. It's a testament to generational and cultural sharing. Grandpa Pierce taught Miyagi how to dance, Miyagi taught him karate, and now Julie is able to carry on the legacies of both of their teaching, even after her grandfather and parents' death.

It's when Miyagi sees Julie all dressed up for the prom, however, that feels like the film's definitive moment. Julie and Miyagi are both extremely emotional, understanding the gravity of what it means that she's allowing herself to actually experience a milestone, and get back to living her life. Hilary Swank would later win two Best Actress Academy Awards and it's this scene that gives the audience a preview of her career to come. The chemistry between Swank and Morita at this moment is immeasurable, and no one would blame you for crying right along with them.

Giving girls something takes nothing away from boys

When thinking about the legacy of "The Next Karate Kid," it's impossible to ignore the sexism that plagues this film's reputation. There's no Daniel LaRusso, no Johnny Lawrence, no John Kreese, and no Terry Silver, but it has Hideo/Nariyoshi/Keisuke (the canon is inconsistent) Miyagi, and most importantly, Julie Pierce. The 1980s were filled with film franchises centering on the heroic journeys of young men, but outside of the final girls in slasher films, young women weren't valued as franchise stars until the turn of the millennium. I watched "The Next Karate Kid" a lot growing up, and it wasn't until I was much older that I learned the general consensus was that this film "killed" the franchise, despite the fact "The Karate Kid III" already existed.

"The Next Karate Kid" came a full decade after the first film, and after the commercial and critical failure of "Part III," took an entirely different turn with new characters and a new style. The third film was an exaggerated rehash of the first film, and it failed, miserably. They needed to do something different, and they did. "The Next Karate Kid" tells us even with the title, that this isn't "The Karate Kid" series that audiences were used to, and it's odd that people judge this movie for what it's not, rather than what it is. This movie was for the next generation of "Karate Kids," which happened to include girls. Even now, decades later, grown men still cry foul about this movie's existence, forever proving that a teenage girl will tick off a man one time and they'll carry that anger with them until the day they die.

Don't forget what Miyagi taught you

One of my favorite quotes from Mr. Miyagi says "never put passion in front of principle, even if you win, you'll lose." It's hard not to view the people who viscerally disparage the value of "The Next Karate Kid" as being those who have forgotten what Mr. Miyagi tried to teach us. If your fandom and passion for a film franchise causes you to act like an entitled jackwagon, you've forgotten the principle, and you've already lost. Look, "The Next Karate Kid” isn't a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination, and some of the tonal elements don't meld well together, but it's nowhere near deserving of the 7% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. This isn't a movie trying to pump you up, it's trying to build you up. The principle of the matter is that a franchise tried to be more inclusive with new characters and an entirely different style of storytelling, and was met with vituperation.

There will be plenty who read this headline and think "It's not that deep, it's just a bad movie," but ignoring the circumstances surrounding the release of "The Next Karate Kid" is ignoring the reality that society still can't handle a perceived "invasion" of women in male-dominated spaces. "Ghostbusters," "Captain Marvel," and the countless other female-led projects in recent memory have all fallen under the same scorn that started with "The Next Karate Kid," and I'll happily be the one to die on the hill that the film deserves just as many "In Defense Of..." articles as "Part III." If Johnny Lawrence is allowed to enjoy a continued redemption arc through "Cobra Kai," the same concession should be offered to Julie Pierce and "The Next Karate Kid."