Director: Jamie Childs, Andrés Baiz, Mairzee Almas, Mike Barker, Coralie Fargeat, Louise Hooper, Hisko Hulsing
Writers: Vanessa Benton, Neil Gaiman, David S. Goyer, Allan Heinberg, Catherine Smyth-McMullen, Heather Bellson, Jim Campolongo, Jay Franklin, Austin Guzman, Alexander Newman-Wise, Ameni Rozsa
Cast: Tom Sturridge, Jenna Coleman, Taron Egerton, Boyd Holbrook, David Thewlis, Patton Oswalt
To be able to film the unfilmable, is indeed a remarkable achievement – and that is something no reviewer or viewer can take away from Netflix's The Sandman. There is a scale, a cosmic grandness, and a darkness to the original comics by Neil Gaiman that was repeatedly pointed out as being beyond the capabilities of silver screen to translate. And then technology caught up. It's 2022 and the streaming adaptation of The Sandman is indeed a testament to the ability of computer-generated imagery to translate the limits of human imagination.
In the hands of Gaiman and comic book movie veteran David Goyer, and screenwriter and comic book writer Allan Heinberg, The Sandman is a show faithful to its source material. It's mesmerising first episode ranks amongst streaming's finest hours, as we find our way into the home of Robert Burgess, a 'Magus' (wizard) who is attempting to capture Death in the hope bargaining for deceased son's life. Robert's ritual delivers him Death's younger brother, Dream (Tom Sturridge) instead. In the universe of the comic, Death and Dream are part of The Endless – ancient and powerful beings who embody key aspects of the universe (and by extension humanity) – which includes Desire, Despair, Destiny, Delirium and Destruction. In the course of the first season of The Sandman we meet two more members of this family.
Robert holds on to Dream, partly because one of Dream's key possessions — a ruby — brings him great fortune and power. The other two symbols of Dream's power are a helm and a bag of sand, which Robert keeps in his safe along with the ruby. Meanwhile, trapped deep under Robert's mansion and unwilling to bargain with Burgess, Dream (aka Morpheus, Kai'ckul, Sandman, Oneiros) bides his time. He escapes eventually and once back in his kingdom, known as The Dreaming, Dream realizes he needs the symbols of power that Robert took from him to restore both himself and his domain. Dream sets out on a quest to retrieve the helm, ruby, bag of sand and himself. The adventures that follow make up the arc of the show's first season and are derived from the first two volumes of the compiled comic book series, Preludes and Nocturnes and The Doll's House. Viewers get to meet some fan favourites like Constantine (Jenna Coleman), Lucifer (Gwendoline Christie), Hob Gadling (Ferdinand Kingsley) and The Corinthian (played to chilling effect by Boyd Holbrook).
With the first season, Netflix's The Sandman achieves a baseline that was long considered impossible – it meets and delivers on the expectations of a legion of hardcore and casual fans, across comic book and mainstream divides. The performances and visuals are a major part of why The Sandman works. Holbrook as The Corinthian chews up every scene he is in with a performance that is flawless. By the end, he manages to invoke empathy for a literal nightmare. Christie shines as a comic-book accurate Lucifer and Coleman's Constantine is just about right (for now). The hardest job was always going to be Sturridge's and his performance is uneven in the first five episodes. However, as the season progresses, he gets more comfortable in Oneiros's skin and The Sandman proves itself to be a gorgeous, entertaining horror fantasy.
Do you sense a 'but' coming? Because there is.
For all the things it gets right, The Sandman also feels like an algorithm-driven, clinical interpretation of its source material. It's by the numbers, by the budget, by the panels, by the visuals translation of what is possibly one of the most seminal comic books ever written. The show has the same 'lens of reverence' precision of Zack Snyder's The Watchmen. As someone who has pored over the comic books for two decades, over and over again – in moments of calm, peace, sadness, hope and dreaming – there is absolutely nothing new to be found through the storytelling that The Sandman delivers in its first season. This is a tad bit disappointing for a story whose underlying concept is change. Be it Dream's showdown in hell, or Death and Dream's catch up in the park, or even the 'Cereal Convention', it's so faithfully recreated the scenes could be out of the comic book. There's nothing wrong with being faithful to the source, but in this case, it almost feels like a limitation. Remember Watchmen (which is streaming on Disney + Hotstar)? The show felt pathbreaking because it took bold steps to break away from the source, while still being faithful. That newness is what's missing in The Sandman.
In the comics, Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, Jill Thompson and crew delivered genre-defying art that was way ahead of its time. The art doesn't feel dated, even today. Yet, the show's interpretation of their ground-breaking work, feels strangely sanitised. There's nothing that surprises you and the art in end credits by Dave McKean? Meh.
However, there is about 20% of the show that feels new and that's where The Sandman feels powerful – whether because of a nuance in a performance, or a small twist in a story. For example, the sixth episode is 'The Sound of Her Wings' but it also weaves in an arc from the comic 'Men of Good Fortune'. As Dream and Hob Gadling strike their deal and meet over centuries, there is an emotional heft that Ferdinand Kingsley brings to the proceedings. In Dream and Hob's meetings across centuries, there are moments where Kingsley dials up the Hob's human vulnerabilities, like his understanding of friendship, the longing and sadness from an unnaturally-long life. These weren't evident in the comics. Dream's reciprocation of their relationship is captured significantly better too. Altogether, this segment is one of the finest parts of The Sandman.
There is so much left in The Sandman mythos that remains untapped and chronologically, some of the best arcs the comics have to offer may not even be available till the third season. Perhaps in its second season, The Sandman could take a few tips from The Boys … .
The Sandman is available to stream on Netflix. Watchmen is on DisneyPlus Hotstar and The Boys is available to stream on Prime Video.