The Sandman review: dreamy adaptation exceeds expectations

There’s been no shortage of skeptics when it came to The SandmanNetflix’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s fantastic comic-book saga revolving around Morpheus, the lord of dreams.

Widely regarded as one of the greatest series ever published, Gaiman’s comic is a massive, expertly crafted narrative that spans myriad planes of existence and encompasses a wide swath of characters, yet somehow remains powerfully human and familiar in its themes and the mythology that informs it . Efforts to adapt The Sandman began more than two decades ago, with a multitude of starts, stops, and years spent in limbo leading many to believe the best fans could hope for is the sort of messy, soulless translation that typically results from troubled, long-developing projects.

And yet, amazingly, The Sandman delivers a surprisingly authentic adaptation of Gaiman’s saga, weaving some of the comic’s most memorable story threads together in a busy (but never rushed) 10-episode season that introduces many of the characters, concepts, and lore that made its source material so enthralling.

Tom Sturridge as Morpheus stands in front of a misty backdrop in a scene from The Sandman.

Developed by Gaiman, David S. Goyer (the Dark Knight trilogy), and Allan Heinberg (Wonder Woman), The Sandman casts Tom Sturridge (Orphans) as Dream, aka Morpheus, one of seven siblings known as the Endless who embody the basic primal forces of existence. The series finds Morpheus, the ruler of the dreamscape where imagination, nightmares, and inspiration are nurtured, imprisoned by a human hoping to capture his sister, Death. Held captive for more than a century, Morpheus eventually escapes, only to find that his kingdom has changed dramatically in his absence, forcing him to embark on a far-reaching quest to reasset control over his realm.

Casting Morpheus was always going to be a tough task, but Sturridge and the show’s creative team do an exceptional job of delivering audiences a live-action version of the character that feels faithful to Gaiman’s vision for him not just visually, but in his mannerisms, tone, and relationship to the characters around him, too. Sturridge presents Morpheus’ detached, otherworldly nature perfectly, and effortlessly pivots from quiet observation to godly gravitas as moments demand.

The Sandman surrounds Sturridge with plenty of additional casting choices that feel just as inspired, too.

Boyd Holbrook wears sunglasses as The Corinthian in a scene from The Sandman.

As sinister, toothy-eyed nightmare The Corinthian, Boyd Holbrook’s performance is as fascinating as it is terrifying, and the Vengeance actor delivers one of the show’s standout supporting performances. Just as memorable is Harry Potter franchise actor David Thewlis’ portrayal of the tragic, tortured criminal John Dee, whose fractured sanity and possession of a powerful artifact from Morpheus’ realm combine to deliver one of the season’s most disturbing episodes — a story lifted almost directly from the comics.

About the course of the season, The Sandman finds some creative ways to craft a somewhat linear narrative out of Gaiman’s saga, which often took detours into standalone tales that would reveal their importance much later in the over-arching story. The Netflix series attempts to do the same, but accelerates the slow drip of these subplots, connecting them to one another and the main narrative earlier and more overtly than their source material.

Tom Sturridge sits on a bench with Kirby Howell-Baptiste in a scene from The Sandman.

One such story arc has Morpheus spend the day with Death, portrayed extremely well by Kirby Howell-Baptiste (Why Women Kill). The series makes smart — and in some cases, powerfully dramatic — use of their interaction as she goes about her duties ushering people into whatever comes next, and does so while exploring Morpheus’ relationship to humanity and his siblings. The story also becomes a convenient segue to several other, noteworthy chapters of the comic adapted for the series, and manages to squeeze them all into a single episode without it feeling overstuffed.

Bringing The Sandman to the screen is a constant balancing act, and Netflix’s series seems keenly aware of when to reign in the story’s most surreal elements, and when to let the fantasy of Gaiman’s world run wild. The first season of the series casts a wide net with all of the worlds, concepts, and story threads it introduces, but it also finds a way to center all of these elements around a single, strong narrative that moves ever forward, sweeping you along as it goes.

That the series also makes all of this colorful scenery around the main narrative feel important makes the journey feel even more rich and rewarding.

Gaiman and the series’ creative team clearly have a grand vision for The Sandman series on Netflix, and although season 1 ends on a satisfying note, it also hints at big things to come for Morpheus. For fans of the comic, the first season of the series should be a pleasant surprise, offering both a sincere, faithful adaptation of the source material and enough fresh interpretations of that material to keep things exciting. Newcomers to the world of The Sandman are even more fortunate, however, as the series delivers a great introduction to the saga of Dream and the Endless that’s likely to bring even more fans into Gaiman’s masterfully crafted world.

Season 1 of The Sandman is available now on Netflix.

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