Written by DB Weiss with the help of Tom Morello, ‘Metal Lords’ is Hollywood’s latest attempt to make sense of the minefield of shibboleths and obscure symbology that is metaldom. After the bang up job Weiss did on the finale to ‘Game of Thrones’ I remember thinking “man, I hope this guy applies his talent for understanding characters’ motivations and ability to unpack themes subtly and gradually over a long form story to a comedy film about teenage metalheads”.
The plot is a standard coming of age teen comedy of the kind that was a staple throughout the 1980s and 90s and has been making a comeback in recent years. It hits all the familiar emotional and structural beats one would expect of the easy viewing genre. It is therefore redundant to criticise ‘Metal Lords’ for lack of ambition, nuance, depth, or unwillingness to offer any kind of challenge to the audience’s preconceptions of metal.
But that is precisely what I mean to do here. Because it’s not redundant, a film that says something meaningful about its subject matter whilst retaining a comedic and carefree tone is not too much to ask, and metal has been repeatedly failed in this regard through careless writing and internal self-sabotage across decades of antagonism with pop culture.
So we’ll dispense with a Neil deGrasse Tyson-esque take down of every inaccuracy and lazy stereotype the film throws at us, and there are plenty to go at. From the shockingly dated and predictable soundtrack which failed to meet even my lowest expectations for a film pitched to a wider audience, to the lazy jokes about metal’s confusing labyrinth of subgenres, to the assumption that metalheads are always unhinged and single minded, or to contrasting metal with classical music as antithesis to each other, which serves to paint kids who like classical music as repressed and sensitive and those that like metal as unhinged and primitive, thus propping up two damaging stereotypes in one go.
But no, the real problem with ‘Metal Lords’ is how dated it feels both culturally and thematically. Aside from some moments where characters can be seen watching Youtube and superficial nods to mental health issues, this film has one foot squarely in the past. We have Hunter, obsessed with “metal” and hell bent on making it with his band Skullfucker, with a music taste largely forty years out of date. We have Hunter’s best friend Kevin, the awkward one, who plays drums in a marching band and doesn’t really get metal at first but for the sheer persistence of Hunter. And then we have Emily, the shy cellist who allows Weiss to pay lip service to a mental health crisis amongst teenagers and to note that sexism exists.
The plot is straightforward enough. Hunter thinks of nothing but Skullfucker and listening to metal. But Skullfucker needs a bassist. Drummer Kevin befriends Emily and they quickly fall for each other. He then proceeds to spend most of the film trying to convince Hunter that Emily should join the band as a cellist in place of a bassist, with Hunter flatly refusing because girls playing cellos aren’t “metal” (some 25 years after Apocalyptica’s ‘Plays Metallica by Four Cellos’ was released, an album that most teenage metalheads would be very much aware of).
Comedy ensures, some serious moments and belligerent ‘Skins’ style teenage misbehaviour, only for the band to come together at the end to give an almost unbelievably tight performance of their song ‘Machinery of Torment’, despite the writers leaving no space in the script for the band to actually rehearse and grow together as creatives. We get one well made montage of Kevin practicing ‘War Pigs’ on drums and a guitar pick subplot to demonstrate their artistic maturation.
Issues with the predictable and flat plot aside, the film is clearly pitched to an older audience, with DB Weiss trying to echo his own experiences rather than to understand or articulate a more culturally resonant message about the adolescent metal experience today. Metalheads are an increasingly diverse bunch. Some have a totally normal one as teenagers, with their obsessions healthily offset by a commitment to academia, social skills, and a modicum of self-awareness. Some are from stable family units, and grow fascinated by it as an intellectual and artistic quandary totally alien from the musical experiences offered by the school system. And some are *checks notes* “women”. But Weiss’s top down approach leaves no room to explore any of this.
In ‘Metal Lords’, Hunter’s motivation for refusing to allow Emily in the band is due to implied sexism that he overcomes by the end of the film. But despite a character achieving the bare minimum by challenging their preconceptions on gender in a feature length film, the innocent, fragile female character must still be guided into the world of metal by Kevin, a man. Incidentally this is done via Kevin scribbling a list of songs on a scrap of paper, and pushing it under the door of Emily’s practice room for her to stare wistfully at as a token of arcane male wisdom. I know mix tapes haven’t quite made a convincing comeback, but c’mon Kevin, at least throw together a Sp***** playlist or something. Again…dated, top down writing.
The experience and joy of a young mind discovering metal for the first time is largely untold. We are introduced to Hunter as a ready made metalhead, already adept at guitar and occupying an absurdly lavish basement filled with metal iconography. Kevin – despite being given the “discovery” arc and working his way through Black Sabbath and Metallica numbers – never seems quite sure about the music itself, being more driven by the path of least resistance in the face of Hunter’s unrelenting persistence and finding a way to win Emily’s heart.
The film ends after a dramatic battle of the bands performance with a scene of the band rehearsing together in harmony in Hunter’s basement, now replete with photos of famous female metal musicians. Despite the implication being that he has overcome his sexism, and made peace with the overt homoeroticism of metal, again, the film has no story to tell about how he underwent this journey beyond a few passing jokes.
If the filmmakers wanted to be applauded for championing diversity in metal, it’s not enough just to notice the issues, you have to actually say something about them. If they wanted to work these themes into a story about young people struggling to fit in at school, struggling for some form of validation, who find in metal a form of music that challenges them intellectually and emotionally, helping them cope with isolation but also helping them understand the nature of identity and responsibility in 2022, there are some simple changes they could have made.
For instance why not make Emily the main character? Why not give her the agency to discover metal on her own without the help of a man? Why not make the story about Emily and Hunter trying to form a band, and clashing over Hunter’s sexism and Emily’s battle with depression? Or why not write Kevin as gay, and explore his confusion over metal’s homophobia in spite of worshipping images of a leather clad Halford and a bare chested Manowar? Or make mental health a central theme, and explore how metal can help kids overcome adversity via an exploration of challenging and diverse forms of music and not just as an outlet for one dimensional teenage rage?
With some imagination, you can do all these things and retain the light hearted and comedic tone. But instead Weiss opts for a plot that essentially belongs in the 1980s, and gets away with such lazy stereotypes by throwing in a casual line or two to let the audience know he is at least aware that issues exist. Aware…but incapable of saying anything substantive about them.
Now let’s compare this to another film about the teenage metal experience: ‘Deathgasm’, released in 2015. The plot is essentially the same but with a supernatural demon possession element thrown in along with lashings of pleasing gore (and a far superior soundtrack). Both have issues with laziness in portraying the metal experience. Medina, the female character in Deathgasm, must also be guided into metal by a man, thus appealing to the masturbatory fantasies of teenage boys everywhere.
But the chief difference with Deathgasm is the treatment of metal as central to the characters and the story, and not just a plot device to add superficial dramatic seasoning to a generic teen comedy. In ‘Deathgasm’, Brodie is the mild mannered outcast at school, but uses metal to cope with his sense of alienation. He is placed in a new town with his devoutly Christian aunt and uncle due to his mother’s drug addiction, and the story is told via him connecting with the local metal scene, and befriending Zakk, a dangerous wild card and town outcast.
Both characters are fully fleshed out as people beyond their love of metal. Both are deeply flawed, and their friendship takes some dramatic turns throughout the film that feel natural precisely because they are better established as people. Underpinning this – along with the Frankensteinian metaphors that make up the demon subplot – is a sincere and nuanced love of metal that informs how the characters communicate, how they understand the world, and how they wish to be seen as people, which ultimately leads to a far more satisfactory story than the bratcore treatment that makes up Hunter’s relationship to the music in ‘Metal Lords’.
‘Deathgasm’ is not without its flaws. But it demonstrates that it is at least possible to tell a straightforward teen comedy involving metal without falling back on lazy stereotypes, and one that can still appeal to an audience well outside of metal itself.
Everyone experiences adolescence differently. Different aspects of coming-of-age films will resonate with different people. The problem with ‘Metal Lords’ is not the fact that it gets this experience all wrong, it’s the fact that it is a film made for an audience that grew up in the 1980s (with a soundtrack to match), that tries to disguise this fact by throwing in some tokenistic nods to how things have moved on whilst failing to say anything meaningful about any of it.
Metal has a gender problem. It has a homophobia problem. It has a racism problem. And it is more aware of these things than ever before. It is currently colliding with this legacy, making these issues a central concern for metalheads, informing how they understand their purpose and responsibility in the world from a very young age. To make a film about metal and young people’s identity whilst breezing over these things is crass and lazy.