Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the show’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the show’s own trailer. However, be aware that potential spoilers may be inferred throughout the review.
Despite what modern Hollywood has led audiences to believe, there are plenty of films and TV shows based on comics not featuring superheroes. The comic book medium is home to all kinds of stories and genres, ranging from horror, to romance, to fantasy to crime. Some notable examples would be Ghost World (2001), Road to Perdition (2002), Oldboy (2003), Sin City (2005), A History of Violence (2005), V for Vendetta (2005), and Persepolis (2007), all of which have become iconic cinematic pieces. The deeper you go into the comic book store, the more you’ll realise we’ve barely scratched the surface of weird and wonderful stories ripe for the screen. Some are so beloved, so groundbreaking and so iconic that they’ve been regarded as unfilmable. Chief among them is The Sandman (2022).
Adapted from the Neil Gaiman comic book series of the same name, The Sandman follows the exploits of Lord Morpheus/Dream (Tom Sturridge), the king of a mysterious realm known as The Dreaming. As the name implies, it is the place where people’s minds go when they sleep, and Dream is in charge of governing over the dreams, dreamers and nightmares. He is the anthropomorphic personification of this idea, just like his brothers and sisters Death, Desire, Destiny and Despair. Together they are known as The Endless, and they exist alongside other benevolent and frightening Gods. Following a troubling encounter with the human world, Dream’s powers are unleashed in deadly ways, leading him to confront various celestial beings, as well as his own feelings towards humanity.
As you can probably tell, The Sandman isn’t the easiest story to wrap your head around, which is probably why it’s taken almost 30 years for the comic to be adapted. There have been plenty of attempts to bring it to life, but no one could figure out how to condense all its cerebral ideas into a two hour package. Thankfully, it’s perfectly acceptable these days to pivot to TV, allowing adaptations a chance to really develop and flesh out their world. This was incredibly necessary for a story like The Sandman, as there are simply too many characters and heady themes to accurately portray in a single film. Happily, the show utilises this advantage to the fullest, exhibiting an uncommonly controlled narrative pace, thus allowing for a staggering amount of subtle detail. Fans of the books will be particularly thrilled, as it’s almost a one to one translation.
However, it’s one thing to adapt the source material panel for panel, but another thing entirely to accurately translate the original’s meaning. For example, Zack Snyder’s Watchmen (2009) does a fine job faithfully recreating the imagery, dialogue, and plot from the graphic novel, but the film seems to miss the point of the story. The characters in Watchmen were sad, pathetic, and psychologically terrifying, yet Snyder seemed to frame them all as heroic, cool or admirable. This shows it’s not enough to simply bring the pages to screen, you need to understand the reasons why you’re bringing it to screen. In this regard, The Sandman is probably the best example of an adaptation truly understanding what made its source material special.
With that in mind, nearly every element of the show has been given the utmost attention. This includes the controlled pacing, eye-popping special effects, gorgeous cinematography, haunting music and nuanced characterisations. Whatever, Netflix spent on The Sandman, it certainly looks, sounds, and feels like they spent a whole lot more, which is definitely the best outcome with such a high concept show. What’s even more impressive is that with each new episode, The Sandman finds fresh themes, concepts, visuals and emotional beats, meaning that nothing is repeated or recycled. Additionally, the ever growing list of ideas aren’t just random, as each moment deftly and appropriately blends into the next. In the best cases, these narrative points come together to deliver some of the most heartbreakingly powerful moments you’ll see on screen all year.
Happily, the brilliant cast is there to ensure all of the thematic layers are satisfyingly portrayed on screen. Tom Sturridge is a revelation as Dream, perfectly embodying all the mystique, grandeur, power and dark introspection of the character. He is expertly matched by Vivienne Acheampong, who more than holds her own as Dream’s level-headed advisor, Lucienne. The supporting cast is also a Murderers’ Row of accomplished character actors, all of whom bring their absolute A-game to the material. This includes Boyd Holbrook, David Thewlis, Charles Dance, Mason Alexander Park, Stephen Fry, Ferdinand Kingsley, Kirby Howell-Baptiste and Vanesu Samunyai. Special mention has to be given to Gwendoline Christie and Jenna Coleman, who deliver wonderfully reimagined versions of already famous TV characters, Lucifer Morningstar and Constantine respectively.
Oddly, the weak link in The Sandman is its reverence for the source material, as this may result in a fairly constricted final product. To be sure, fans of the comic will definitely be satisfied by what they’ve been given here, but the story only covers roughly 15 chapters out of nearly 80. Granted, this wouldn’t be an issue if we knew for sure more seasons were on the horizon, but it’s still up in the air as to whether or not Netflix will be continuing the story. Without more seasons to flesh out the story, this one season may feel a little incomplete. This is especially apparent due to the show’s comic book style structure, in which a handful of chapters tell a standalone story, followed by the next handful and so on. We wouldn’t really see the full picture until the end, meaning The Sandman may feel like a series of disconnected first act stories to some.
If we’re lucky, the very deliberate cliffhanger at the end of the season indicates that Netflix has every intention to continue the saga. Let’s hope they do, because The Sandman has the potential to become one of the greatest Television achievements of the modern age.
Best way to watch it: Before going to sleep.