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In August 2019, just a few months after the polarizing finale of Game of Thrones airing on HBO, showrunners DB Weiss and David Benioff signed a $200 million deal with streaming giant Netflix. Their eagerness to move on to other projects became apparent at the end of thrones‘, but the stream of new material has hitherto come on a trickle. The two were executive producers of the Sandra Oh-led 2021 miniseries The chairbut the new teen movie Metal Lords is the first taste of post-thrones writing from one of them since they closed the Netflix deal. The duo’s co-executive produced the film, but the screenplay is a solo project by Weiss, loosely based on his own adolescence spent in high school bands. It’s a small film and an almost self-consciously restrained sequel to the massive Game of Thronesbut Weiss has the personal experience to realize his more modest ambitions.
Metal Lords revolves around a pair of childhood best friends with a rift between them in their middle teens. Hunter (Adrian Greensmith) is constantly resisting the contours of a world he has come to loathe: a drab prosperous, mostly white suburb. His lean, angular stature is a physical echo of his sharp temper. Kevin (THE and Blades off‘s Jaeden Martell, styled to eerily resemble a young Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree) is a softer presence. He is gentle and nervous, and often gets swallowed up by Hunter’s larger personality. But he’s also curious about girls, parties, and anything else his more popular classmates might enjoy.
Hunter is a seasoned metalhead and a serious guitarist. Kevin doesn’t know much about the music, but he agrees to play drums in Skullfucker, the high school band that Hunter says will take over the world. Metal eventually deepens the bond between the two, but the tension they work through drives the film and makes for some mindful observations about what it means to dedicate oneself to a niche art form.
Numerous films have explored the seemingly intrinsic link between social alienation and heavy metal. A foundational film for the pseudo-subgenre was Jim VanBebber’s 1994 short my dear satanThat dramatizes the true crime story of teenage metalhead and murderer Ricky Kasso. Jonas Åkerlund also looked to real life for inspiration for 2018’s Lords of Chaosdocumenting the rise of the Norwegian black metal scene in the early 1990s and the black cloud of church fires, suicide and murder that followed the young anti-heroes.
The moody, atmospheric film from 2013 metal head delivered something like a photo negative of those films, depicting a grieving young Icelandic woman whose only solace comes from the lightless void of black metal. Lukas Moodysson’s Anarchist Film from 2013 We are the best! — a clear influence on Metal Lords — is steeped in punk, not metal, but it also bestows loud music on its disgruntled teenage main characters as an amulet against the conformity of their Swedish hometown. In all these films, heavy guitar riffs and pounding drums become a lifeline for children who can’t handle the world. Something almost supernatural seems to draw them into this cacophonous, confusing music that square society can’t bear. That describes Metal LordsHunter – but it emphatically doesn’t apply to Kevin, or to Skullfucker’s eventual third member, classical-loving cellist Emily (Isis Hainsworth). Metal Lords does its most interesting work in the gaps between its leads’ relationships with the genre.
At the beginning of Metal LordsHunter has already sold his soul to metal. His no longer-black wardrobe, the posters on the walls of his rehearsal room and his reflex rejection of all non-metal music leave no room for doubt. He is an archetypal movie metalhead, a child of a broken home with behavioral problems and an inability to get along with his peers. He puts all his energy into cultivating an encyclopedic knowledge of metal and practicing the guitar. Every headbanger in the audience has had a fighter at some point in their life.
Kevin, on the other hand, represents a less documented demographic of metal fans: the enthralled, committed newcomer. Forget the bullet-belted message board dwellers who say otherwise: No one was born and knew the difference between early and mid-period Morbid Angel. Every metalhead spent a staggering few months or years discovering what they loved about this music, and Kevin’s journey in Metal Lords arguably the best on-screen representation of that process yet. The smile that creeps across his lips when he first listens to Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs”—the kickoff song on a playlist Hunter assigns him as homework—captures a magical, indescribable sense of discovery. The day a metalhead first hears “War Pigs” (or “Master of Puppets” or “The Number of the Beast”) often feels like the first day of the rest of their lives. Martell’s performance infuses that revealing moment beautifully.
Less convincing is the depiction of Emily in the film, a sort of Metal Pixie Dream Girl who serves as a love interest for Kevin, as well as what Hunter cringingly calls a “Yoko” to Skullfucker. She is introduced in a scene where she yells at the conductor of the school’s marching band (author Chuck Klosterman) and impales her clarinet into the turf. When Emily later reveals that she only acted for not taking her happy pills, it’s clear she’s just a pile of girly clichés. The script doesn’t let the audience know the exact state of Emily’s mental health, but the way it arrogantly casts aside about her medication reveals how little she really cares. Everything she does in the film can be excused or explained away by the presence or absence of mood-stabilizing drugs. She rarely seems like a real person.
That’s no disgrace to Hainsworth, who delivers a quietly powerful performance despite the script’s flaws. Emily eventually joins Skullfucker as a cellist, helpfully renaming the band Skullflower so they can play in their high school Battle of the Bands. But her interest in metal is both passive and clearly linked to her crush on Kevin. Their romance is Netflix-cute, in a To all the boys I’ve loved before sort of way, but Emily’s undercooked characterization makes short shrift of female metalheads, most of whom didn’t have to fall for a boy to understand the power of Judas Priest.
Metal Lords‘ climax shows up at that high school concert, where Skullflower girds themselves against the booing of their classmates and performs “Machinery of Torment,” written by executive producer and Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello. In School of Rockanother spiritual predecessor of Metal Lords, says Jack Black’s Dewey Finn, “One great rock show can change the world.” Weiss has clearly internalized this principle. Whatever happened in the first 90 minutes of Metal Lords, it had to culminate in a great musical moment. Skullflower delivers on that promise: The young stars’ performances are legitimately amazing, all the sloppy energy and ear-to-ear grins. The film encodes Hunter, Kevin and Emily as three different kinds of metal fans (and musicians), but the power they evoke when they come together is far greater than the sum of their parts.
There’s a bit of “Who is this for?” baked in Metal Lords† Game of Thrones obsessives checking it out to see what Weiss is up to will have to squeeze hard to find similarities between the two projects, and cranky metalheads are sure to find things to complain about in the sometimes overbearing rendition of their beloved genre. (Cons: Game of Thrones is metal as hell, and metal elitists should be getting over themselves by now.)
It’s also a teen movie, but the subject details aren’t exactly tuned to a Gen Z frequency. In 2022, classic heavy metal isn’t the music of a 16-year-old’s parents — it’s their grandparents’ music. The central thesis of Metal Lords is that, for the lucky few who respond to metal’s siren song, the experience of falling in love with the genre is a timeless, universal rite. There is no social currency to be found in metal, especially in a high school where the only other band plays lukewarm Ed Sheeran covers to loud applause. Hunter, Kevin and Emily embrace it anyway and commit to it as fans and musicians. It’s a strong argument for any teen interested in something no one they know cares about: Do it anyway.
Metal Lords is now streaming on Netflix.