When The Sandman premieres on Netflix this week, it will be to an audience that includes fans of Neil Gaiman’s comic series who weren’t even born yet when Hollywood’s first failed attempts at adapting the story were made. The beloved fantasy saga has been in and out of development for decades, to the point that finally seeing it now feels like a bit like seeing one of Dream’s lifelike visions: it’s quite simply hard to believe it’s actually real.
Thankfully, The Sandman series isn’t just real but also very good. The show brings a complex and imaginative world to life with care, attention to detail, and a very Gaiman-esque sense of whimsy. It juggles a wide cast of characters and several somewhat disparate plot arcs while remaining faithful to the source material and accessible to new fans. The show isn’t without a few key weaknesses, but in all, it’s an ambitious and confident retelling of an utterly cinematic story.
The series begins with an instrumental inciting incident: Dream (Tom Sturridge), a member of a godlike group of beings called The Endless, is captured by mortals who are intent on using his powers. He’s stripped of his magical vestments – including a ruby necklace, a pouch of sand, and a gas mask-like helm – and placed in captivity for the better part of a century. The series’s first season measures out its plots well, covering about the first two volumes of the ten-volume original comic book run. Once Dream returns, the king of dreaming aims to track down his lost items, along with some stray dreams and nightmares that are walking around in the real world wreaking havoc.
The world of The Sandman is populated by wonders that pull from everything from pop culture to world religion and myth to classic fantasy. Like other Gaiman works, including American Gods and Good Omens, The Sandman has a broad scope, aiming to capture the beauty, humor, pain, and complexity of centuries of existence in the course of one story. For the most part, it does so beautifully, matching imaginative, fantastic-looking visuals and character designs with a slam-dunk supporting cast.
The Sandman has too many characters to highlight, from a talking raven played by Patton Oswalt to a pair of biblical brothers who can’t stop committing fratricide. The entire supporting cast is strong, but a few standouts emerge throughout the season. David Thewlis is tremendous and frightening as an insidiously powerful madman loosed upon the world. Kirby Howell-Baptiste is his perfect opposite, a profoundly humane and lovely representation of Death herself. Gwendoline Christie’s gender-swapped Lucifer and Mason Alexander Park’s slinky Desire are two other standouts in a cast full of actors who seem to be having an unusually great time on screen.
Unfortunately, Sturridge himself initially appears to be either miscast or poorly directed as Dream. The actor plays the powerful character with neither menace, cold, or ethereal aloofness. Instead, his Dream starts off the series sulky and dull, a brooding emotional vacuum that sucks the air out of scenes. The first episode of the series, in general, is markedly less effective than those that come after it, to the point that it could make newbies to the franchise disengage early on. Aside from the on-screen void that is emo Dream, it’s also quite dense, burdened by exposition and unlikeable characters, and less visually arresting than anything that comes after.
Thankfully, the series picks up immediately after its middling premiere, and even Dream improves a bit as The Sandman gets into its groove. Netflix is known for pouring its budget into projects that aren’t always memorable, but this is one series that greatly benefits from its production value. Much of the show takes place in somewhat liminal and otherworldly spaces, and directors like Jamie Childs (“His Dark Materials”) and Andreés Baiz (“Narcos: Mexico”) make both the earthly settings and their more mind-bending counterparts look striking. Camera shots float and drift through some dreamier sequences and hold steady for more grounded scenes.
Purists of Gaiman’s comics will certainly find some quibbles with The Sandman, while newcomers might have a tough time transitioning to the somewhat unconnected volume two plot. But I’d be hard-pressed to think of a series that works as tirelessly as this one to keep its source material’s ambition, breadth, and tonal complexity intact. Gaiman’s story sacrifices next to nothing from his original vision in the move from page to screen and, in a few spots, even improves upon it by bringing now-famous characters to vibrant life on screen. Dazzling, entertaining, and occasionally overwhelming, The Sandman is, in the end, like a long-imagined dream finally made real.
The Sandman debuts on Netflix Friday, August 5. Watch the series trailer here.