The Sandman Review: A Dream Come True, or Near Enough

After decades in developmental limbo, The Sandman finally comes to live-action as a streaming series on Netflix. The show adapts the seminal comic book created by Neil Gaiman, who wrote each of its 75 issues, with original artists Sam Kieth and Mike Dringenberg that debuted in 1989 and ran throughout the first half of the 1990s. Gaiman developed the streaming adaptation with prolific comic book adapter David S. Goyer and showrunner Allan Heinberg, turning it into what may be one of the most faithful comic book adaptations of all time. That fidelity to the source material makes certain changes stand out, some for the better and others not. However, taken in its entirety, Gaiman, Goyer, and Heinberg have done an impressive job of making this dream come true.

The Sandman follows Morpheus (Tom Sturridge), the lord of dreams and ruler of The Dreaming, that ethereal realm all humans visit during their sleep. Morpheus has gone about his functional duties for ages uncounted until, one day, he is forcibly summoned and imprisoned by mortals. After a century in captivity, he escapes and returns to The Dreaming to find it in ruins. During the quest to reclaim his lost power and rebuild his realm, Dream, as Morpheus is also known, learns that the world around him has changed and, perhaps, so should he.

The first two episodes of The Sandman may be worrying. The debut episode, adapting the captivating first issue of the comic, "Sleep of the Just," plays out like an overlong family drama and is likely not what viewers expect. The second episode, "Imperfect Hosts," is more in line with what The Sandman is, but proves an uneven episode.

What's worse is that the series doesn't seem to trust its viewers. Whereas the comic begins with the occultists summoning of Dream, the Netflix series, as if recognizing that their "Sleep of the Just" isn't a great first impression, begins with an introductory scene (borrowed from prequel comic The Sandman: Overture) that preemptively introduces certain characters and concepts. Surprisingly, it leans somewhat into the popular superhero narrative. Morpheus is introduced like a hero tasked with wrangling stray nightmares who seek to harm the waking world. The show then introduces The Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook) to play the villain, having the nightmare appear much earlier and more often than in the comic. There's another superheroic simplification later on, when the Dream Vortex -- the nature of which is somewhat ineffable -- is described as a simple superpower allowing its possessor to walk through dreams. This nervousness in the storytelling is felt occasionally in the season's darker episodes, which are uplifted by spotlighting (in one case literally) certain optimistic undercurrents left subtextual in the original telling.

However, by Episode 3, things start to come together. In exorcist Johanna Constantine (Jenna Coleman), Morpheus finally finds someone he can interact with who isn't a cowed subject, instantly improving the character dynamics. The series builds from there, setting Dream against Lucifer Morningstar (Gwendoline Christie), Lord of Hell, and John Dee (David Thewlis), a man driven to sadistic madness after coming to possess one of Dream's objects of power.

Gaiman's Sandman writing reached for profundity as it attempted to elevate what was an obscure corner of the DC superhero universe to literary heights. It's challenging to make such perfectly manicured dialogue feel natural coming from the mouths of actual humans. A couple of actors struggle to carry that weight, but the cast impresses on the whole. Coleman, Christie, and Thewlis each prove more than up to the task, and Sturridge, in particular, impresses as Dream. He brings just the right mix of imperious arrogance and fragile, emotional vulnerability to the Prince of Stories as if playing Robert Smith after somehow ascending to the throne of England.

It's generally agreed upon among Sandman fans that the comic doesn't find its voice until its eighth issue, "The Sound of Her Wings." The adaptation of that story in the show's sixth episode proves the highlight of this first season, with Sturridge sharing scenes with Dream's big sister, Death, played by Kirby Howell-Baptiste. This Death is perhaps a little older and more mature than her comic book counterpart but still works well as a more empathetic, cheerful foil to her reclusive brother while avoiding what could have misfired as something akin to a manic-pixie anthropomorphic personification of a character.

This episode exposes the heart of The Sandman, and it beats in sync with the comics. The Sandman is about the very idea of dreams. By giving that concept a human visage, Gaiman and his collaborators leverage the premise to meditate on humanity's relationship to dreams and all of the many things that they can represent, from sleep to hope to creativity. It's a versatile framework that allows for incredibly humanistic storytelling wrapped in a high concept, and the blending of the two makes The Sandman something special.

Structurally, The Sandman's first season encompasses the first two volumes of the comic book series. While each volume builds on the last, they're also distinct, and here it feels almost as if two seasons of the show debuted simultaneously. The back half of the season has a different tone and plot, playing out more like a drama (Gaiman has described The Sandman as alternating between "male" adventure stories and "female" internal, character-focused arcs). Those later episodes also have an almost entirely new set of supporting characters, a group of human housemates replacing the magicians, demons, and other such entities of the first few episodes. While Episode 6 is the season's peak, these later episodes are still stellar, but the transition may feel jarring, especially to binge viewers.

Similarly, where episodes mostly adapt individual issues of the comic on a 1:1 basis, a few combine two issues into one, which isn't a problem in theory but does lead to the second halves of those episodes stepping on the endings of the first halves. "The Sound of Her Wings" is a prime example; while the comic ends on a memorable, pitch-perfect note, Dream's discussion with Death here instead segues into the adaptation of another issue (which won't be spoiled here). Perhaps viewers unfamiliar with the original comics won't even notice this. However, it gives off the sense that someone decided to stitch two episodes together, and it's the one odd beat in an otherwise beautiful work of television.

On the whole, The Sandman feels like a much more episodic experience than what Netflix has trained its subscribers to expect from its original programming. In much the same way as with Star Trek: Strange New Worlds earlier this year, it's refreshing to again be able to watch a single episode of television in a major franchise and come away feeling like it was a complete experience with a beginning, middle, and end. The Sandman's standalone issues remain some of its best-loved, and those stories continue to shine here. 

Visually, The Sandman couldn't and doesn't match what Kieth and Dringenberg brought to original comics, where the artists represented the strangeness of dreams with creative layouts, an effect not easily recreated for television. Instead, the show mostly presents the nature of dreaming by having characters move from one location to another in a single bound through the magic of editing. It's a less expressive but more realistic approach to dreams, one more akin to how people recall them once they awaken.

The series uses plenty of digital effects to enhance its visuals, particularly while in the ever-shifting realm of the Dreaming. At first, it's too noticeable that most scenes set there are composed of two or three characters, each standing approximately a COVID-appropriate distance from the others on a flat plane framed by roiling digital vistas. Eventually, as Dream rebuilds his realm, there's more going on in each shot. After a while, once viewers have grown accustomed to them, the digital horizons come to enhance the strangeness of being in the world of dreams. There's no substitution for the original artwork, though some designs and panels are recreated in remarkable detail by VFX artists, directors, and production designers, making for an apt and thoughtful visual translation.

The first season of Netflix's The Sandman wrangles what many consider the most offbeat and unwieldy Sandman stories into a neat package, losing some of the weirdness at the fringes in favor of a more streamlined whole. Once past those shaky first steps, the adaptation does justice to the source material series, serving as a 21st-century update to the long-revered epic that will appeal to longtime fans as a new way to engage with it while also bringing that story to an entirely new audience. While purists may bemoan some of the changes, they ultimately make for a more cohesive viewing experience that still allows the individual short stories within the grander saga the room needed for viewers to fully appreciate them. The Sandman team has taken Dream's comics and crafted a worthy adaptation of a story that is, after all, about how we take the stuff of dreams and apply it to our lives, our art, and our relationships. And after seeing that tease at the end of Season 1, viewers will almost certainly be dreaming of what comes next.

Rating: 4 out of 5

The Sandman is streaming now on Netflix.