Ranking Every Karate Kid Movie From Worst To Best

Mild spoilers for "Cobra Kai" season 5 ahead.

The Netflix series "Cobra Kai" is showing no mercy to those of us who love the "Karate Kid" franchise. Not only have we been able to catch up with Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) from 1984's "The Karate Kid," but we've got cameos galore from the subsequent offerings. Cobra Kai sensei Kreese (Martin Kove) is back, along with Chozen (Yuji Okumoto) and Kumiko (Tamlyn Tomita) from the second film, Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith) and Mike Barnes (Sean Kanan) from the third, and a few more we won't spoil here. 

It's a nostalgia bomb in all the best ways, and it's made a lot of us do a film marathon, if only to make sure we recognize all the "Cobra Kai" cameos before they show us flashbacks. 

The films in the series include "The Karate Kid" (1984), "The Karate Kid Part II" (1986), "The Karate Kid Part III" (1989), "The Next Karate Kid" (1994), and the 2010 remake "The Karate Kid." We're not getting any cameos from that one, in case you were wondering. According to a /Film interview from 2021 with creators Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg, and Josh Heald, the way that story exists in the "Cobra Kai" universe is as a film starring Jackie Chan, who was actually mentioned in season 1 as a real person. 

Without any further ado, here is (my) definitive ranking of all the "Karate Kid" films. 

5. The Karate Kid Part III

The only redeeming thing about "The Karate Kid Part III" is its setup for "Cobra Kai." Even Ralph Macchio has expressed his dislike for this chapter of his character's story. For the most part, this was a crappy farewell for Daniel LaRusso. Almost every single thing in this film is unbelievable. For instance, Daniel takes the money he was saving for college and buys Mr. Miyagi a store instead, because the building he worked in was being renovated. No other custodial jobs in the Valley, huh? No one seems to have any issues with it for some reason. What about his mom? Nope. She's off dealing with a sick uncle to keep her out of the way.

The fact that Daniel's mom — someone who might have cared about the college thing — was shoved out of the film is a contrivance that sums up the entire plot. Like someone at the studio just said, "Make it work," without caring how. Then we have Terry Silver, played by Thomas Ian Griffith. He is my absolute favorite character in "Cobra Kai," but the way he's portrayed here is ... silly and mustache twirly. He's a rich guy — who is also a karate master, of course — who is working to figure out the cheapest places to dump toxic waste. Seriously, that's his job. His company is called Dynatox, for goodness' sake

Then some guy named Mike Barnes comes in as a champion fighter, but we don't really know anything about him, other than that he's a jerk. A girl Daniel meets, Jessica, just happens to know how to rappel down a cliff, because that's where a bonsai tree that's important to Mr. Miyagi is ... the whole thing is a mess. 

4. The Karate Kid (2010)

You can understand from a business perspective why they kept the title of the first film for brand recognition, but if you think about it for a second, it's just silly. The 2010 remake of "The Karate Kid" starring Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan is a complete rehash of the original's story beats. That's acceptable if you're doing a straight-up remake, but this one is set in China and they're doing kung fu, not karate.

Though the film is fine on its own, using that title feels like a cash grab that made changes so Jackie Chan would work in the film. You cannot help but think about that as you watch. If you're going to copy everything from the martial arts master's day job, to bad-sensei-versus-good, to the attack on the leg in the tournament, audiences are going to notice. 

You know what's about to happen next because you've seen it, so the suspense is gone. Chan is as charming as always, and Smith was just fine (if too young for the romantic narrative they were selling), but you can't help but compare the whole thing unfavorably to the original. Every similarity stood out, which made the changes jarring.

Again, the remake isn't a bad film on its own. It's perfectly fine. It just doesn't feel like anything other than a studio attempt to use something people loved and dress it up differently. If this was your first "Karate Kid" film, it very well may occupy a different place on the list for you. 

3. The Next Karate Kid

Hilary Swank stars as Julie in this story, the first in the franchise to have Mr. Miyagi as a character, but not Daniel LaRusso. I remember not loving this when it came out for that very reason, but a recent rewatch made it hit differently. Julie is not only harassed by a guy in her school who apparently thinks threats are the way to win someone's heart, but physically attacked. It's absolutely worse than I remembered. The moment when Mr. Miyagi — a man who famously hates fighting — tells Julie that, at this moment, a fight is exactly what's needed, felt like it was 100 percent earned. 

Sure, every scene with teens (who are obviously played by people in their 30s) speaking to each other just screams, "I'm pretty sure this is how the youths talk now." Julie's rebellion and rudeness to Mr. Miyagi at the beginning are really over the top. A lot of it is just goofy. However, the scenes in the monastery where she learns to respect life, and begins to heal her broken heart are really lovely. Add in a bunch of monks dancing to the Cranberries, and you'll find a lot to love here. 

2. The Karate Kid

The film that started it all may not be number one for me, but it's a very, very close second. "The Karate Kid" is a simple story of a bullied kid who learns how to fight back, but more importantly, he learns when to fight back. Even kids who were born a decade or two after this film hit theaters know the lines "wax on, wax off," "paint the fence," and "sweep the leg." 

The story taught us to be careful which mentors we choose to trust, and which ones are steering us the wrong way. It showed us the little guy can win. Even more importantly though, it showed us that when the chips are down, you never give up, even when all the odds are against you, as they were at the end of the tournament. (It also gave us that great crane pose that immediately signals "Karate Kid.") 

This one has a special place in my heart for one particular scene though. Watching Mr. Miyagi get drunk and reveal what happened to his wife and baby son in the Manzanar Japanese internment camp during WWII made me immediately rush to my grandmother and ask her to tell me stories about her life. The moment Daniel started to think of Mr. Miyagi as a real person with a past, and not just a teacher, it made me reevaluate the older people in my own life. 

"The Karate Kid" also spawned a franchise that has given us "Cobra Kai," which pushes it even closer to number one for me. 

1. The Karate Kid Part II

Finally, we have "The Karate Kid Part II." After being charmed by "The Karate Kid," this film gave us more backstory on Mr. Miyagi. It also continued to show us that adults and authority figures can have flaws. Mr. Miyagi's whole philosophy is about not fighting and trying to solve things peacefully is great ... most of the time. The second film expanded that idea to remind us that there are some things worth fighting for, like love. If Mr. Miyagi had fought for Yukie when they were young rather than leaving for America, they could have had a life together. Instead, he avoided the fight and their chance at happiness. Knowing when to back off and when to fight could sum up the entirety of "Cobra Kai," as that seems to be a lesson everyone is still learning, including Daniel and Chozen.

"Part II" also showed us that it's never too late to fix the mistakes of the past. Mr. Miyagi and Yukie get to have their happy ending, his rival Sato apologizes and changes his life, and Chozen gets taken down a peg — something that will spawn comedy gold decades later in "Cobra Kai." Yuji Okumoto is a treasure, and I would 100 percent watch a Chozen spinoff. There is just such a sweetness to this story, and it makes me want to do an immediate rewatch. 

"Cobra Kai" is currently streaming all five seasons on Netflix.