When it comes to cult classic comic book series, very few stand out from Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, which featured work from a long list of artists like Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, Jill Thompson and Michael Zulli for n’ to name a few. It wasn’t quite an anthology series, but it often turned into unique one-off stories. It wasn’t exactly a superhero comic either, but it did exist in the DC Universe and crossed paths there frequently – often in the most unexpected ways. The end result was something weird and wonderful that quickly became a deeply beloved part of comic book history. Now, more than 20 years after its original publication, The Sandman has finally been adapted into live-action by Warner Bros. and Netflix. It’s been a long road to get there, with the project going in and out of different stages of production with different creatives at the helm for almost as long as the comic book series itself has been around. So to say that the expectations – and anxiety – around the end result of such a protracted effort are high would be to put it lightly.
And, unfortunately, some of that anxiety is duly justified. The end result of Netflix’s The Sandman TV show is a mixed bag at best with as many brilliant and perfect choices as there are confusing and clunky ones. That’s thanks at least in part to a slavish faith in the source material. Very, very little of The Sandman was changed for the show – entire panels are recreated one-for-one and entire lines of dialogue are frequently lifted for scenes. Virtually every plot follows the same framework of rhythms. It’s not always to the show’s detriment – some of the directly adapted moments will obviously be fan favorites – but other times they can feel mundane or even dated in this new context. The comic book series was, after all, a product of the late 80s and early 90s, so some of the gags (visual or otherwise) just aren’t the same now in 2022 as they would have done at the time.
This fervent adherence to the source material also creates a strange lack of tension for fans who come to the show with a deep knowledge of the comics. There are a handful of surprises, of course, but the show never says or does anything really new or interesting with the stories it adapts. For some it will be a feature rather than a bug – there are certainly demographics served by shot-for-shot remakes of stories they love. But ultimately, the live-action aesthetic never really captures the whimsical surrealism or daring experimental styles of comic books, so having things so directly transplanted from page to screen really only serves to make the comic look like a Michelin star meal and the show looks like a chain restaurant on hold.
Similarly, The Sandman never really decides if this is the demographic he wants to target. While about half of the show is painfully dependent on viewers wanting to see their favorite panels come to life, the other half feels deeply concerned that newcomers might not “get it.” There are moments, especially early in the season, that pause the action to tackle various parts of lore or streamline otherwise dense elements of world-building with sticky elements of simplified exposition aimed at clarify the magic and mysticism inherent in the world of history. Then, in the second half of the season, entire plot points and major concepts are glossed over without even a backward glance, waiting for you to fill in the gaps or already know enough to do more than some wild jumps in order. to be continued. The end result feels disjointed and more than a little awkward in terms of pacing and action, like he’s tried to split the difference a little too many times and ended up with something that doesn’t fully serve any of its target audiences.
Now, none of that is to say the show is a complete failure. The casting, with very few exceptions, is a home run. From the set, Boyd Holbrook’s turn as The Corinthian, an escaped nightmarish serial killer with two little mouths for eyes, and Kirby Howell-Baptiste’s take on Death, one of the Endless who presides over mortality, shine. Tom Sturridge, who plays the titular Sandman, Morpheus AKA Dream of the Endless, also manages to embody the eerily charming, deeply taciturn, brooding character that anchors the entire series. But even with that handful of stars, the set is as close to being perfectly cast as anyone could get. In fact, the show probably would have felt more cohesive and engaging had the roles of Howell-Baptiste and Holbrook been expanded in the narrative, because they really are that good. However, while Sturridge shines as Dream, the character’s arc doesn’t really kick off until the second half of the season, which gives another reason to have Death with more regularity, especially early on, might have helped. things to take off.
Visually, The Sandman isn’t quite cohesive but manages to look very good looking and very expensive most of the time. There are plenty of practical backdrops to maintain some of the more obvious visual effects moments, and more than half of the recurring CGI characters look very polished. But the show’s overall aesthetic — especially the dream sequences — never gets as surreal or visually impactful as it should. It’s hard to tell if it was a budget issue or a time constraint in post-production, but the end result is pretty poor.
Ultimately, Netflix’s The Sandman is doing just fine. It tells a cohesive story with several engaging hooks, it uses a truly impeccable cast of beloved characters, and with just 10 episodes, it never overstays its welcome. It’s certainly not the worst possible outcome of a decades-long wait, but it’s not the best either. But hey, there are far worse ways to spend your evening than this – and, at the very least, it might inspire you to dust off your comics again.