Karate Kid: Daniel Is The REAL Villain Theory Explained

A popular theory regarding The Karate Kid postulates that Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) is the real villain of the film, and that Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) is actually the good guy in the story. In The Karate Kid, Ralph Macchio plays Daniel, a boy who moves to Los Angeles with his mother and enrolls in a school where he makes new friends — and new enemies. He grows infatuated with popular high school student Ally Mills (Elizabeth Shue) and becomes the target of her jealous ex-boyfriend, Johnny, and his gang of bullies. Daniel LaRusso’s father died of a terminal illness when he was just 8 years old, so Daniel had to look elsewhere for help. In order to defend himself, Daniel seeks guidance from local handyman Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita), who teaches him karate so he can fight off Johnny’s gang. Later, Daniel enters a karate tournament on the condition that if he wins, Johnny and the other boys will leave him alone. After several contentious bouts, Daniel advances to the final round and defeats Johnny with the now-iconic Crane technique.

The Karate Kid was reexamined from the other side’s perspective in a now-viral YouTube video, which suggests that Daniel – and not Johnny – was the bully responsible for the events that unfolded in the 1984 classic. Indeed, Daniel’s impact on Johnny in The Karate Kid continued to haunt Johnny decades later in the Cobra Kai series, as he recalled events from the movie with a similar lens. The idea behind the theory is that Daniel instigated the conflict with Johnny, who is described in the YouTube video as a “reluctant” and “flawed” hero who simply made a mistake when he tried too hard to talk to Ali at the beach. It’s said that Daniel made things worse by getting involved, and that Johnny was only defending himself when Daniel attacked him. Notably, while Johnny did start the fight by pushing Daniel, Daniel was the first to actually throw a punch.

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Why Some Believe Danny Was The Bad Guy

The video further explains that Daniel’s prank at the Halloween party was supposedly uncalled-for, as was his attack on Bobby (Ron Thomas) on the soccer field. Even the vicious beating Daniel received at the hands of Johnny’s gang was just Johnny trying to “contain Daniel’s fury.” Yet, as Johnny’s transformation in Cobra Kai reveals, there’s more to this rivalry than meets the eye.

Johnny did go too far when he took away Ali’s radio and broke it just because she wanted nothing to do with him. All Daniel did was try to hand it back to her. Also, Daniel’s retaliation against Johnny’s push hardly justifies the treatment that he receives from Johnny. The video leaves out certain details that are needed to paint an accurate picture of Daniel and Johnny’s story, one of which being the fact that Daniel and Mr. Miyagi had to go to the Cobra Kai dojo just to get Johnny to stop the continuous harassment.

The ending of The Karate Kid and the Cobra Kai series do help make Johnny a sympathetic character — especially as Cobra Kai season 6 could explore whether Johnny can master Miyagi-Do. However, for most of the first movie, Johnny is undeniably an antagonist. If there’s a character in the movie other than Johnny who deserves to be called The Karate Kid’s real villain, it would be none other than Kreese (Martin Kove), Johnny’s teacher and the person who encouraged (and even demanded) violent behavior from his students. In fact, while both Johnny and Daniel have began to overcome their respective villainous tendencies in Cobra Kai, Kreese is being set up as the main antagonist of Cobra Kai season 6.

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How I Met Your Mother Popularized The Theory

Barney looking excited in HIMYM.

The Karate Kid theory about Daniel being the real villain and Johnny being the hero was further popularized by Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) in How I Met Your Mother. Like Barney Stinson’s real job or his sheer vanity, the Karate Kid theory became one of the sitcom’s running jokes, with Barney angrily referencing Daniel’s villainy at every opportunity. Both Ralph Macchio and William Zabka even appeared as themselves in How I Met Your Mother, and Barney lays into Ralph Macchio about Daniel being the bad guy. Later, the theory also made the rounds in New York comedy podcasts by way of Sirius XM’s The Bonfire with Big Jay Oakerson and Dan Soder, in which the two comedians and die-hard ’80s movie fans dug into the infamous YouTube video. What’s interesting is that this all happened long before Cobra Kai. Though the theory is flawed, it does make some good points — and it might have sparked the flame that led to the Cobra Kai series, which is essentially about Johnny Lawrence and Daniel LaRusso’s story of rivalry, reconciliation, and redemption decades after The Karate Kid. While Danny’s status is still up for debate, one thing is clear — thanks to the theory and Cobra Kai, it can at least be argued that Johnny Lawrence isn’t a bad guy either.

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