When it comes to cult classic comic book series, very few stand above Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, which featured art by a laundry list of artists like Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, Jill Thompson, and Michael Zulli to name a few. It wasn’t quite an anthology series, but it frequently spun out into unique one-off stories. It wasn’t exactly a superhero comic, either, but it did exist within the DC Universe and frequently intersected with it–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 to live-action by Warner Bros. and Netflix. The road to get here has been long, with the project entering and exiting various stages of production with different creatives at the helm for almost as long as the comic series itself has existed. So to say expectations–and anxiety–around the final result of such a protracted effort are high would be putting it lightly.
And, unfortunately, some of that anxiety is duly justified. The final result of Netflix’s The Sandman TV show is a mixed bag at best with just as many brilliant, pitch-perfect choices as there are baffling and clunky ones. This is thanks at least in part to a slavish reliance on the source material. Very, very little of The Sandman has been changed for the show–whole panels are recreated one-for-one and whole lines of dialogue are frequently lifted for scenes. Virtually every plot follows the same cadre of beats. This isn’t always to the show’s detriment–some of the directly adapted moments are going to be obvious fan favorites–but other times they can feel trite or even dated within 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 don’t quite hit the same now in 2022 as they would have back then.
This fervent adherence to the source material also creates a strange lack of tension for fans who are coming to the show with deep comic book knowledge. There are a handful of surprises, to be sure, but the show never actually says or does anything truly new or interesting with the stories it adapts. For some, this will be a feature rather than a bug–there are certainly demographics being served by shot-for-shot remakes of stories they love. But ultimately the live action aesthetic never actually captures the whimsical surrealism or bold, experimental styles of the comic, 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 look like a chain restaurant standby.
Similarly, The Sandman never really decides if that’s the demographic it wants to go after. While about half of the show is achingly reliant on viewers wanting to see their favorite panels brought to life, the other half feels deeply concerned that newcomers might not “get it.” There are moments, especially early in the season, that grind the action to a halt to belabor various parts of the lore or streamline otherwise dense bits of worldbuilding with sticky bits of simplified exposition intent on clarifying the magic and mysticism inherent to the world of the story. Then, in the back half of the season, whole plot points and major concepts are glossed over breezily without so much as a backwards glance, expecting you to either fill in the gaps or know enough already to make more than a few wild leaps in order to keep up. The end result feels disjointed and more than a little awkward in terms of pacing and action, like it tried to split the difference a few too many times and ended up with something that doesn’t quite serve any of its intended audiences fully.
Now, none of this is to say the show is a full-on failure. The cast, with very few exceptions, is a homerun. Of the ensemble, Boyd Holbrook’s turn as The Corinthian, an escaped nightmare serial killer with two tiny 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 strangely charming, deeply taciturn and broody character that anchors the entire series. But even with that handful of standouts, the whole ensemble is as close to being perfectly cast as anyone could as for. In fact, the show would have arguably felt more cohesive and engaging had both Howell-Baptiste’s and Holbrook’s roles been expanded in the narrative, as they really are that good. However, while Sturridge shines as Dream, the character’s arc doesn’t really get going until the back half of the season, giving another reason having Death around with more regularity especially early on could have helped things get off the ground.
Visually, The Sandman isn’t quite consistent but does manage to look very good and very expensive most of the time. There are plenty of practical set pieces to hold down some of the more obviously reshot VFXs moments, and more than half of the recurring CGI characters do look very polished. But the overall aesthetic of the show–especially the dream sequences–never quite get as surreal or as visually impactful as they should. It’s hard to tell if this was a budget or a time constraint issue in post production but the end result is pretty middling.
Ultimately, Netflix’s The Sandman is aggressively fine. It tells a coherent story with several engaging hooks, it employs some really impeccable casting of beloved characters, and with only 10 episodes it never overstays its welcome. It’s certainly not the worst possible outcome of a decades-long wait, but it isn’t the best, either. But hey, there are far worse ways you could spend your evening than binging this one–and, at the very least, maybe it’ll inspire you to dust off your comics again.