“We put a lot of money, time and effort into it, then it disappeared.” The story of Metallica: Through The Never – how metal’s biggest band and a Spider-Man star disastrously bombed at the box office

Photos of James Hetfield and Dane DeHaan, and a poster for Metallica Through The Never
(Image credit: Metallica: Michael Tran/FilmMagic | Metallica: Through The Never: Blackened/Picturehouse | Dane DeHaan: Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

Bands making movies has always been a risky business. When they work, they’re monumental: the Beatles affirmed their mainstream fame with A Hard Day’s Night and Eminem swept up awards after 8 Mile. However, there are four or five Kiss Meets The Phantom Of The Parks or Vanilla Ice Cool As Ices for every one of those triumphs.

Surely though, if there were one band that could have successfully thrust metal onto the silver screen, then Metallica would have been the safest bet. The Four Horsemen are global superstars and the biggest heavy band of all time after all, and they have one of music’s most awe-inspiring live shows to boot. So, how come when it came about, their effort was such a disaster? A decade down the line – and in a career that also includes St Anger, Lulu and that Napster debacle – Metallica: Through The Never remains one of Metallica’s greatest missteps.

Metal Hammer line break

The early 2010s were a bizarre time to be in love with Metallica. The aforementioned Lulu, their 2011 collaboration with Lou Reed, frustrated a fanbase that simply wanted a follow-up to 2008’s thrashy Death Magnetic. Instead, we got a 90-minute spoken-word concept album about a play from the 1920s. The band’s own festival, Orion Music + More, followed in 2012 and boasted a laudably eclectic line-up – but there were still grumblings from metalheads that didn’t want to see Arctic Monkeys and Modest Mouse prior to two hours of riffing. The weekender got one more edition the following year before folding, given it essentially haemorrhaged money.

Everyone’s patience was tested even further when it was announced in 2013 that Metallica were to release – not a long-awaited new studio album – but a movie. Through The Never was initially talked up as being in the vein of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, with bassist Robert Truijllo telling Classic Rock, “We’ve obviously been influenced by some of the great music films of the past… but this is pretty unique. It’s like a cross between Mad Max and The Twilight Zone.”

As the release of the movie approached, more and more information was drip-fed regarding exactly what Through The Never would be. It was to be set at a Metallica concert while also following one of the band’s roadies – Trip, played by a one-year-away-from-starring-in-Spider-Man Dane DeHaan – as he escorts a package across a rioting city. Much like The Wall, there was to be minimal dialogue and a bigger focus on symbolism than traditional storytelling. It was also going to be released in 3D, the 2010s being one of the many times in cinema history when that format was in vogue only to swiftly die. 

When asked about the inspiration and creation of Through The Never, singer/guitarist James Hetfield said that it was an idea that had been in Metallica’s heads ever since Imax asked the band to try and capture the energy of their live shows for a special over a decade prior.

“We felt honoured but it never really happened until recently when a couple of ideas combined,” he explained. “We wanted to make it even more different, so we added a storyline to it. I’ve seen it and I am absolutely proud of it. I think it was a big risk for us.”

It was certainly intriguing. With the promise of a full Metallica show and a plot that tipped its hat to both music and action filmmaking, it all felt genuinely brave and exciting. And Metallica promoted their first cinematic foray since Some Kind Of Monster hard. As well as the typical print and TV interviews, the band appeared at the 2013 San Diego Comic-Con, released a tie-in two-CD live album and played a secret set at the 2013 Orion festival under the pseudonym of their lead actor’s surname, DeHaan. Through The Never had its worldwide premiere at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival on September 9, before getting a general release on September 23.

The reception from film critics was actually rather positive, too – surprising, considering just how snooty most non-metal voices can be about the genre we all hold so dear. The Guardian called Through The Never “awesome” and Sheila O’Malley of RogerEbert.com said the film was a “gigantic spectacle, a virtual-reality experience that is both ridiculous and sublime, sometimes in the same moment”.

Metallica’s big multimedia gamble was paying off – until the box office numbers came back. Through The Never didn’t even recoup its production budget, making $31.9 million when it had cost $100,000 more to make (and that’s not even factoring in the marketing spend). Although the sight of Metallica heroically ploughing through a greatest hits set in full 3D and HD was great to see, the tacked-on narrative hit hardcore metalheads as a needless distraction and made the whole thing crumble down around itself.

Within a few months of the film being released, it was depressingly evident that Through The Never was a dud. Hetfield admitted as much during an interview with Metallica fanclub magazine So What!. He called the entire experience “bittersweet” and said, “We put a lot of money, time and effort into it, and how awesome we thought it was. How ‘Wow, this is pretty unique’ we felt about it, at the end of the day, was its downfall. It was not so much a concert film, not so much an action drama, it was somewhere in the middle. It just fell right down the crevasse. It disappeared. And it was sad to see that.”

A decade later, Through The Never is arguably the most large-scale road bump of Metallica’s career. Watching it back today, despite the band not necessarily doing anything wrong onscreen, the 3D is outdated and clunky. Plus, the plot – if you can call a bloke running around during a riot while Master Of Puppets plays in the background a “plot” – may be style over substance by design, but it doesn’t have the same inventive images or enigmatic meaning as The Wall.

They might not like it, but when you think of Metallica in conjunction with the movies, their pinnacle remains the revelatory Some Kind Of Monster. The band did learn from Through The Never’s failure, though, giving a more limited release to 2020 concert film S&M2, which had no needless storyline frills and actually managed to turn a profit. The moral of the story is that Metallica are at their best when they’re simply Metallica, and not trying to be the biggest blockbuster stars of the day.

Stephen Hill

Since blagging his way onto the Hammer team a decade ago, Stephen has written countless features and reviews for the magazine, usually specialising in punk, hardcore and 90s metal, and still holds out the faint hope of one day getting his beloved U2 into the pages of the mag. He also regularly spouts his opinions on the Metal Hammer Podcast.