Title: The Sandman (Netflix 2022)
Creators: Neil Gaiman, David S. Goyer, Allan Heinberg
Stars: Tom Sturridge, Jenna Coleman, Gwendoline Christie, Boyd Holbrook, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Patton Osward, Charles Dance, David Thewlis, Stephen Fry, Mark Hamill, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Askim Chaudhry
The time has come. The Sandman, Neil Gaiman’s epic comic book masterpiece, has been gloriously adapted for Netflix, and for the last year or so, its substantial fandom has been alternating between delight, exhilaration and downright dread.
Adapting something like The Sandman could have gone wrong in so many ways. It didn’t. It worked better than I had dared to dream.
I haven’t been a fan of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman for very long, only discovering it when Audible released their full-cast audio drama in 2020, with its own fantastic cast. That shaped my initial impression of the story, and I picked up the comic books relatively recently and was promptly blown away. The myths, the creativity, and the world-building were some of the best I had ever seen. Neil Gaiman’s new takes on old stories, myths and fairy tales were inspiring and unique.
Going into any depth about the universe Neil Gaiman’s comic book series takes place in would take too much space here. Articles, even books, could be written about these worlds. And indeed, they have, if I’m not mistaken. And we will have articles of our own in the coming months here at FilmLore.
But let’s scratch at the surface. At the beginning of all existence, there were a set of siblings, brothers and sisters representing the drives and urges of mortal life. They were called “The Endless” because, well, they were. These godlike creatures were Death, Destiny, Desire, Dream, Delirium, Despair and Destruction. And they ruled their realms, often interacting with the mortal creatures of the universe when and how they needed to – or wanted. Like some dysfunctional family, they had their own little conflicts, petty or otherwise. And as they did, a few mortals – the power-hungry and the desperate – learned of them. Some even plotted against them to steal a sliver of their power for themselves.
In The Sandman, we meet Dream of the Endless, also known as Morpheus. Dream is played by Tom Sturridge, who looks, acts and talks as if he has been constructed in some kind of laboratory to play this exact role. As the King of Dreams, Morpheus has shaped the dreams of mortals for as long as mortals have existed. From his ever-changing castle in the Dreamworld, he travels into dreams of mortals, changing, affecting and using them, hunting lost and stolen things. And some of these dreams find their own life in his realm, becoming creatures of myth and nightmares. Creatures Morpheus works hard to contain so as not to spill over into the mortal world.
But when the power-hungry occultist Roderick Burgess (played by Charles Dance) mistakenly summons Morpheus in a ritual (he was going for Death), Dream is trapped for decades, which affects mortals around the world, sending many of them into either endless sleep or constant waking. The weakened Morpheus slowly plots his escape and returns to his own kingdom to rebuild and restore.
In essence, The Sandman is an epic, dark fantasy tale about a king coming to terms with his own faults. During the series, we meet many of his subjects, his siblings and his rivals, including Lucifer the Morningstar (played by Gwendoline Christie) and the escaped nightmare and eye-devouring serial killer, The Corinthian (played by Boyd Holbrook). It is a dark tale, often nightmarish, especially when it comes to David Thewlis’ chilling portrayal of the murderous, truth-seeking psychopath John Dee. But it is also profoundly moving. As in “I’m not crying. You’re crying!” sort of moving. Damn you, The Sound of Her Wings…
Overall, the casting in The Sandman is excellent, although there were a few surprises here and there. I first delved into Neil Gaiman’s universe with the audio drama, and that excellent cast, led by James McAvoy as Morpheus, might have colored my expectations. But for the most part, the series cast is stellar, with many standout performances, such as Tom Sturridge himself and Gwendoline Christine as Lucifer Morningstar (aka Satan). In the audio drama, the Lord of Hell was played by British veteran actor Michael Sheen (something fans of Good Omens might find hilarious).
Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Death was another pleasant surprise, delivering some of the series’ most emotional scenes in the episode The Sound of Her Wings – which I think is my favorite of the ten-episode season. But still, I couldn’t help but miss Kat Dennings’ interpretation of the role from the audio dramas. She embodied Death as she was in the comic books slightly better, in my opinion, or rather, more accurate. But I’m not complaining; Howell-Baptiste did a fantastic job in the role. We’re choosing our favorites among excellence here.
Netflix has outdone itself with this new adaptation, and it is easy to see the hand of the story’s creator, Neil Gaiman, in this production. The mood and storytelling are on point, alternating between the mythical and fantastical vistas of the worlds beyond – like the land of Dreams and Hell, where Lucifer sits on her throne – and the real-world, often drab and, well, real. These opposites in mood, the fantastical and mythical vs. the common and regular, were one of the first things I noticed, and it works for the show’s benefit, especially when dreams and nightmares begin to bleed into our world.
The Sandman blew past my nervous expectations and quickly became one of my favorite series on Netflix. It is pure creativity, and it is clear that Neil Gaiman has had a direct impact on the show’s creation and presentation. It is also a love letter to his stories, with dialogue and even frames lifted straight from the pages of the comic books, clearly with a nod to the fans of these stories. However, with all the various plots and references, I suspect those not familiar with the comic books or the audio drama might find some of the concepts presented here hard to get into, as the series goes out of its way to stay true to the author’s works without over-explaining everything.
With its fantastic cast and a massive amount of material to draw from, I’m hoping this show will go on for several seasons. After having watched all ten episodes of the first season for this review, I was struck by how close and respectful it seems when compared to the comic books. This will be loved by the fans, right? One never knows with fandoms these days.
Move over, Marvel. This is how you adapt a comic book series!
This review is based on all ten episodes of the first season of The Sandman.