Metalocalypse: Army of the Doomstar Finds Camaraderie at the End of the World

Movies Reviews Adult Swim
Metalocalypse: Army of the Doomstar Finds Camaraderie at the End of the World

It’s hard to be a rock god, especially one with stubborn antisocial tendencies; with legions of frothing fans who would and actually do die on your behalf, in numbers large enough that they can’t possibly be good for business; with a molasses-speed learning curve; and the weight of humanity’s existence on your shoulders, because your bandmates can’t carry it with you (and even if they could, they might not). Brendon Small has played this tune on the world’s smallest electric violin for Dethklok, the stars of his Adult Swim series Metalocalypse, since 2006, when the show first aired. How to pity idiot kings who want for nothing and have everything on a scale that would make other gods jealous?

Metalocalypse: Army of the Doomstar gives that longstanding question its ultimate answer, wrapping up the series after four seasons, aired in 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2012, and a 2013 rock opera. Over the last decade and change, Small has given more than a few good reasons for viewers to feel sorry for Dethklok’s members; each of them has their own deep-rooted baggage, and with each passing iteration of the show, the baggage has gained in weight. This may be the natural end result of aging, not only Small’s but the band’s. Godhood and endless material resources can’t keep melodic death metal icons from going gray and wrinkly, and it’s probably true for most flesh-and-blood types that all the money in the world can’t satisfy the need for emotional substance and companionship. It gets real damn lonely on Olympus. 

Nathan Explosion (Small), Dethklok’s hulking frontman, is feeling that loneliness as Army of the Doomstar opens. The film picks up where 2013’s Metalocalypse: The Doomstar Requiem leaves off, with Explosion unraveling under the strains of PTSD following the rescue of guitarist Toki Wartooth (series co-creator and co-writer Tommy Blacha) from the hands of the vicious Metal Masked Assassin (George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher, arguably the greatest institution of Metaloclypse’s real-life metal musician guest stars). Explosion puts his best foot forward with reviving Dethklok’s touring schedule, but collapses from the stress. All he needs is some R&R. All he gets is more stress. The band, which includes Toki, lead guitarist Skwisgaar Skwigelf (Small), Pickles the drummer (also Small), and bassist William Murderface (Blacha), is tasked with saving mankind from extinction, which is exactly the kind of thing a globally renowned metal outfit would sing about at least twice on each of their albums.

Dethklok is prophesied to sing the “Song of Salvation,” sparing Earth from devastation by preventing Metalocalypse’s overarching antagonist Mr. Salacia (Mark Hamill) from rising to full power. The particulars of this ancient forecast are vague around the edges, but this is hardly the kind of show or film where the particulars are more important than the broad summary, which is simple: If Dethklok doesn’t play a truly kickass show on a literal world stage, then the world will turn into a giant writhing ball of corpses and lava, and Salacia will clean up whoever’s left alive in the cataclysm. Small writes himself an “out” to further establishing the show’s mythology with the return of Dick Knubbler, music producer and all around garbage person, now one of the top clerics in the Church of the Black Klok; Knubbler (whom Small also voices), when asked about the prophecy’s details, only responds “nobody knows” to each question in order.

Army of the Doomstar rejects the thankless chore of lorecraft and instead beams with brutal positivity. Metalocalypse is an unlikely source of uplift. This is a show that kicks off in Norway, at a one-song performance for Dethklok’s new coffee jingle, where enormous pots of hot java melt attendees. But as much as Army of the Doomstar sticks with the metal music parody that is the series’ bread and butter, it fully embraces a real, authentic love for metal that goes beyond the surface-level accouterments – the fashion, the language, the attitude, the callous indifference to all things good – in favor of a full-throated endorsement of why metal matters

Small isn’t into pop psychology. Metalocalypse, in any form, isn’t “about” the true meaning of heavy metal; it’s about metal as an awesome countercultural aesthetic, with hyperviolence, genre trappings, and bone-grinding riffs to give that angle some ballast. Army of the Doomstar, on the other hand, is about finding unity with others through a mutual fondness for metal. That message could be reapplied to any other style or artform, but there’s weight behind Small’s decision to make a 17-year thesis about why that message applies so well to metal especially: listening to heavy metal is good for mental health, even if in Metalocalypse’s context it can be bad for your mortality. Watching Small’s exaggerated ode to and representation of metal subcultures is good for mental health, too, by extrapolation, and right now even reads like a necessary tonic for heaps of bad news coming down the pipeline. (It isn’t all bad, of course. Yevgeny Prigozhin might’ve just died in a plane crash.)

The sweetness Small finds and fully expresses in Army of the Doomstar, latent in the rest of the Metalocalypse canon but nonetheless there, adds a new dimension to the series; this new chapter may be its last. (Unlike The Doomstar Requiem, there’s no cliffhanger tantalizing us with the promise of more.) The gang’s lovability has never wavered. It’s simply been tempered by their recklessness, their stupidity, and their habit of massacring their own audiences or, say, accidentally poisoning Danish royalty. Army of the Doomstar prioritizes well-earned sentimentality over grisly comedy, and balances the film’s heart with the best animation of the series to date. The movement is more fluid, even alchemical, the way all great animation appears to have a life of its own despite being the product of an artist’s hand; the atmosphere is hazy, dreamlike, and frequently bathed in red tones right out of Panos Cosmatos’ palette. (If Small and Blacha aren’t big huge fans of Mandy, Beyond the Black Rainbow, and The Viewing, it’d come as a shock.) If it’s hard to be a rock god, then it’s even harder to be a metal fan tasked with finding love, warmth, and empathy in a genre popularly and unjustly seen as lacking all of the above. That Small handily succeeds while doing what so many series rarely do – ending neatly and satisfactorily, much less ending at all — is a black metal miracle.

Directors: Brendon Small, Tommy Blacha
Writers: Brendon Small, Tommy Blacha
Starring: Brandon Small, Tommy Blacha, Malcolm McDowell, Mark Hamill, Victor Brandt, Thundercat, King Diamond, Amy Lee, Scott Ian, Juliet Mills, Laraine Newman, Livia Zita, Jon Hamm
Release Date: August 22, 2023

Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.

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