Review: THE SANDMAN, Neil Gaiman's Magnum Opus Gets the Streaming Treatment It Deserves
Between 1989 and 1996, a then little-known, British-born writer, Neil Gaiman (Stardust, Good Omens, American Gods), wrote what many justifiably consider an unequalled masterpiece of serialized comic-book storytelling and a standard-resetting, genre-redefining work of dark fantasy, The Sandman.
Well before The Sandman ended its ground-breaking run for DC after 75 issues (not counting spinoffs, prequels, or sequels), talk on- and off-line eventually turned toward the possibility, however seemingly remote at the time, of bringing Gaiman’s singular creation to film or cable TV. Repeated attempts over the better part of three decades, however, went the way of most potential, hoped-for adaptations (i.e., nowhere), leaving longtime fans, not to mention Gaiman himself, frustrated at the inability of studio executives from seeing the obvious and green-lighting The Sandman’s jump from the comic-book panel to the analog or digital screen.
That long, sometimes seemingly endless wait, while difficult for many Sandman fans, has been fully rewarded with the much anticipated arrivial of a10-episode series on Netflix’s streaming platform. With Gaiman’s involvement, the new series follows Morpheus, the Lord and/or King of Dreams (Tom Sturridge), on his alternating adventures between the Waking and Dreaming worlds, the former not by personal choice, but by the devious devices of a so-called magus, Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance), a wealthy, World War I-era Brit and occultist obsessed with bringing his dead son back to life. Morpheus's abilities don't extend to resurrecting the dead, only his sibling, Death, can, but Burgess’s errant, bungled spell binds Morpheus into an invisible prison for the better of a century.
As in Gaiman's source material, the Morpheus we meet in the series is a classic Euro-Goth brooder, outwardly compassionate and concerned about the well-being of humanity (whose collective unconscious creates the Dreaming, the world Morpheus rules), but also self-obsessed with his own all-too-human concerns that border on arrogance or hubris. A century in an invisible, dungeon-like prison does nothing to improve Morpheus’s somber, sullen mood and when he does escape, it’s first to recover the accoutrements of his power, a leather pouch filled with an infinite supply of sand, a red ruby empowered to grant the holder his or her wishes, and the helmet or helm shaped like a medieval plague mask that allows Morpheus to move effortlessly between worlds and realms.
The initial episodes focus primarily on Morpheus’s captivity, his escape, and a relatively straightforward quest narrative, with the usual set of complications, including an on-again, off-again antagonist in the form of the Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook), a Nightmare who’s escaped into the Waking world where he can live out his ambitions as a serial killer, John Dee (David Thewlis), an escaped mental patient with peculiar ideas about humanity, Johanna Constantine (Jenna Coleman, Doctor Who), an ambitious gender-flipped version of John Constantine (immortalized for now in the 2005 film starring Keanu Reeves) with a main hustle as an exorcist-for-hire, Lucifer Morningstar (Gwendoline Christie, Game of Thrones), the current ruler of Hell, and Morpheus’s bickering siblings, Desire (Mason Alexander Park), Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), and Despair (Donna Preston).
Rather than play out the usual season-long arc with a “Big Bad,” The Sandman loosely follows the episodic structure of the comic-book series. Characters appear over one, two, or three episodes and then recede into the background once their role or function in Morpheus’s quest has been resolved, with only Morpheus, his pet raven, Matthew (voiced by Patton Oswalt), and Lucienne (Vivienne Acheampong), Morpheus’s capable second-in-command of the Dreaming world, appearing in more than a handful of episodes. It’s a level of faithfulness and fidelity to the source material rare in comic-book-to-screen adaptations, but one fans of The Sandman should welcome, especially when a 10-episode series allows for thematically linked one-off episodes like one in particular set in a roadside diner centered on John Dee testing his plan for humanity to disastrous results, practically panel-for-panel from its comic-book counterpart.
So much of The Sandman’s success in graphic form, however, depended on a combination of Gaiman’s skillful, lyrical writing, an impressive range of influences both classical and modern, a dedicated team of talented illustrators, including Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, and Jill Thompson, and cover paintings by Dave McKean that captured Gaiman’s otherworldly prose and world-building through a uniquely distinctive, ethereal style. Bringing that visual style to digital screens was and will always be a tall order, but its one the Netflix series achieves more often than not. When it doesn’t, it’s usually due to under-rendered CGI (time, budget issues) and not through a lack of ambition by the production team tasked with bringing Gaiman’s world-building to virtual life.
Casting-wise, The Sandman isn’t flawless, but it does come closer than most. Sturridge makes for a near-perfect three-dimensional representation of the brooding ur-Goth Lord. Holbrook plays the amoral Corinthian with just the right amount of smugness and self-satisfaction without spinning his characterization into an outright cartoon while Coleman and Thewlis, both in standout, if limited parts, understand their individual and collective assignments, neither overplaying nor underplaying their roles as essential adjuncts to Morpheus’s journey to repair a world broken by his prolonged absence and, of course, its interior counterpart toward self-knowledge.
The Sandman is now streaming worldwide on Netflix.
- Neil Gaiman
- Riz Ahmed
- Mx Justin Vivian Bond