[Spoiler-Free Series Review] THE SANDMAN

[Spoiler-Free Series Review] THE SANDMAN
The road to adapting Neil Gaiman’s ‘The Sandman’ has been a long one. Spanning over thirty years, Gaiman’s fear has been letting someone adapt this property poorly. Frankly, no one should blame him. Morpheus’ world is vast, blending different mythologies, universes, and the like that would not have been possible before now. And while there may still be some technical effects work in need of a little smoothing out and a couple of bumps along the way, Netflix’s THE SANDMAN fares well here.

THE SANDMAN stars Tom Sturridge, Boyd Holbrook, Patton Oswalt, Vivienne Acheampong, Gwendoline Christie, Charles Dance, Jenna Coleman, David Thewlis, Stephen Fry, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Mason Alexander Park, Donna Preston, Vanesu Samunyai (formerly known as “Kyo Ra”), John Cameron Mitchell, Asim Chaudhry, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Joely Richardson, Niamh Walsh, Sandra James-Young, Razane Jammal and Mark Hamill.

When we close our eyes, where do our minds go? In the world of Netflix’s SANDMAN, human beings go to the realm of the Dreaming, the realm where the Master of Dreams, known aptly as Dream or Morpheus (Tom Sturridge), rules. He shapes our very dreams and nightmares, guiding us through whatever it is our minds are working through. That is until one day in a ritual gone wrong, he is captured and held captive for decades. The impact of his absence has a ripple effect not just on mankind, but the Dreaming itself.

Throughout the course of the series, viewers watch as Dream makes his way out of captivity and starts to fix the mistakes he’s made over the course of his long life. But there are many obstacles on his journey, some that will threaten to end him and – ultimately – dreams once and for all.

Tom Sturridge as Dream, Vivienne Acheampong as Lucienne

THE SANDMAN will feel familiar to those who’ve read the comics. Certain moments will give a sense of deja vu. While a couple of changes have been made, for the most part, there’s a faithfulness here that sometimes feels lacking from other comic book adaptations. Certain scenes of dialogue are pulled directly from the comics and will – hopefully – please and induce flails in fans everywhere. The only real gripe is the arcs that are tackled end a bit abruptly.

For new viewers being introduced to this world, be prepared to dive feet first after the first episode. With the variety of ensemble characters introduced, it can be a bit overwhelming. But, fear not, as all characters have a part to play in Dream’s journey, however brief it may seem.

In the world of Dream, the characters are arguably the biggest draw in the comics. With a live-action adaptation, there come the dreaded fan expectations regarding casting. For the most part, there isn’t a bad performance out of the bunch here in THE SANDMAN. There are, however, some notable standouts among this ensemble cast. While he might not have been everyone’s choice, Tom Sturridge’s Dream is a presence. Though not adorned with his signature black eyes (which Gaiman has stated did not work well in execution), Sturridge utilizes his piercing gaze to convey much whilst Dream ceases to speak. He is watchful, waiting. Sometimes kind, but with a hint of superiority. He also subtly captures Dream’s harshness and pettiness, a defining characteristic of the comics.

Boyd Holbrook’s Corinthian is confusingly terrifying. Confusing in the sense that he is so goddamn charming in the role that it triggers a bit of a flight or fight response. He is unsettling. Equally unsettling is David Thewlis as John Kripps, a man cruelly shaped by the lies his mother told him all his life. His character’s past and motivations will garner sympathy, but how Thewlis manages to convey the sinister undertones of John’s psyche in just a look or a shift in body language will have you warily keeping an eye on him.

Providing a soothing balm is Kirby Howell-Baptiste’s Death, reminding us (and Dream) of the importance of our responsibilities in life and how we can handle them. If I have a complaint, it’s that we didn’t get more time. The same can be said for Gwendoline Christie’s Lucifer. Her Lucifer is so ridiculously close to what we experienced in the comics. While initially cordial and inviting, there are ripples of emotion underneath that surface her Lucifer projects. Envy, rage, malice, and the need to conquer and control, are all there. To iterate, though, there are so many good performances in this cast that it’s difficult to cover all of them. Seriously, great casting.

Tom Sturridge as Dream, Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Death

There are a couple of areas that may draw some criticism, but they seem small given the grand scale of what all had to be tackled. THE SANDMAN is an ambitious undertaking. The pacing of the overall series is a bit of a mixed bag, and part of it may be due to sticking so closely to the comic book. In the original comics, things jumped around a bit, with the tone and pacing changing sometimes at warp speed. The series is similar, with the first half bouncing around as we follow Dream on his journey. The second half’s pacing is much more settled and reads less disjointed. I’d argue that when you’re dealing with dreams, a bit of rattling around never hurt anyone. Others may feel differently.

The VFX work is another area that most likely needed more time to smooth out. With such heavy fantasy elements, there’s a tall order for the VFX team to take on to smoothly blend everything into the scenes featuring magical characters or larger than life scenescapes. Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of scenes where the scenescapes and the more fantastical elements will take your breath away, and nothing is played safe here with the visual display of the manipulation of matter and reality. Modern audiences are more sensitive to a digitized world and, with a series like this that has leaned on practical sets more than expected, the VFX elements are a bit easier to spot. It’s a nitpick, but certain moments were more noticeable than others. Nothing a little more time can’t fix.

A heavy mixture of fantasy and gore, THE SANDMAN has a lot to tackle in ten episodes. There is a reason why it has taken so long for an adaptation to be properly attempted. It is so tricky to capture everything Gaiman has poured into the pages. There’s a lot for viewers to chew on in this series as it pertains to humanity, the fragile nature of dreams, and more, but it’s handled well. Most importantly, the series has a solid emotional core that resonates off the screen.

THE SANDMAN reminds us all of the importance of seeing the good over the bad. It is easy to have our minds clouded by the negative actions of others. To hold onto the wrongs that have been inflicted on us by those lesser in character and mind. But, with time and effort, we can move on from this mindset, and like Dream, we too can change for the better in the process.

THE SANDMAN will be released on Netflix on August 5, 2022.

All images courtesy Netflix. As a general trigger warning, there is animal death and violence featured in this series.

Sarah Musnicky
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