REVIEW: ‘The Sandman’ captivates with its blend of comic book myth and magic

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After decades of waiting, fans finally have the near-perfect adaptation of the DC comic book series. In photo: Tom Sturridge as The Sandman. Photo from NETFLIX

The Netflix adaptation of acclaimed author Neil Gaiman’s DC comic book “The Sandman” finally drops this Friday, Aug. 5, after decades of attempts to put the “unfilmable” material onscreen.

The comic book used to be called “unfilmable” mainly because of the tenuous nature of the material itself: a meditative trip across time and space that eschews traditional arcs and occasionally burrows into short stories where main characters vary and the titular character dips in and out. There have been many attempts to film the series — at some point even Joseph Gordon-Levitt was attached but dropped due to creative differences — and Gaiman even made it public that he’d rather have no adaptation if the result would be bad. (“I’d rather see no Sandman movie made than a bad Sandman movie. But I feel like the time for a Sandman movie is coming soon. We need someone who has the same obsession with the source material as Peter Jackson had with ‘Lord of the Rings’ or Sam Raimi had with ‘Spider-Man.’”).

The Sandman (Tom Sturridge) in captivity. Photo from NETFLIX

But time proved to be kinder to “The Sandman.” From the talks of a film adaptation during the late 1990s to attempts at a TV show in the 2010s, it would be Netflix who would finally bring to life Gaiman’s vision of what a “Sandman” TV show should be. Aided by co-showrunners David S. Goyer, and Allan Heinberg, and a host of directors such as Mairzee Almas (“Shadow and Bone,” “Jessica Jones”), Coralie Fargeat (“Revenge”), and Jamie Childs (“Doctor Who,” “Willow”), Gaiman is finally able to introduce his beloved characters into the streaming world.

Charles Dance and Ansu Kabia in the pilot episode of "The Sandman." Photo from NETFLIX

The first season covers the events in the first two books “Preludes and Nocturnes” and “The Doll’s House,” where The King of Dreams, Morpheus (Tom Sturridge) is captured by a magician (Charles Dance) in an attempt to summon Death, who happens to be Dream’s older sibling. This happens at an unfortunate time as Dream attempts to deal with a rogue nightmare named The Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook), who has teeth for eyes and has become a serial killer in the waking world. Morpheus’ hundred-year captivity is but a catalyst to the events in this ten-episode series, which should be an event for fans of the graphic novels as well as anyone who is interested in mythology and dreams.

Dream with Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste). Photo from NETFLIX

Dream is part of The Endless, seven siblings (Destiny, Death, Desire, Despair, Destruction, and Delirium, who was formerly known as Delight) who are representations of the forces that govern the world of humans — gods and monsters alike. They are powerful entities who are tasked to take on responsibilities in their given realms. Death, for example, deals with souls and ferries the dead to the afterlife. Destiny knows everything there is, from past, present, and future. Dream is responsible for The Dreaming, a place you go when “the waking world leaves you wanting and weary,” a place where “sleep brings you… to find freedom and adventure.” In the first season, we only meet Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) and the twins Desire (Mason Alexander Park) and Despair (Donna Preston) among the siblings. Their appearance will serve to flesh out the duties and complexities of the Endless as beings and as a family.

Johanna Constantine (Jenna Coleman) and Morpheus (Sturridge). Photo from NETFLIX

Speaking as a longtime fan of the series, it was hard for me to be objective in reviewing the show. I blazed through the episodes, crying multiple times during the pilot (“Sleep of the Just”) — occasionally letting out a little squeal whenever some of my favorite characters came onscreen — through “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” a heartbreaking dip into Johanna Constantine’s story, where “Doctor Who’s” Jenna Coleman brings a compelling performance as the magician and exorcist who happens to have one of Dream’s missing tools. Do I wish they retained the original character of John Constantine like in the comic book? Sure, for continuity. But from the moment I saw Coleman in that trenchcoat, I was hooked.

“Sleep of the Just” kickstarts the series, acting almost as a bottle episode of Dream’s capture in the hands of the magus Roderick Burgess (Dance, in another menacing performance). From there, Dream sets off to recover his lost tools (a helmet, a pouch of sand, and a ruby) that aid him in performing his duties as the King of Dreams. The pilot episode brought me to tears, not only because of the joy of seeing my favorite characters come to life, but because of how meticulous they were in bringing the world of “The Sandman,” finally, on screen.

Gaiman has said in interviews that it took them thousands of auditions before deciding on who to play Dream. Eventually, they went with an actor who they saw during the first wave of auditions, Tom Sturridge. He is perfect as Dream. I can see why Gaiman immediately picked him. As the Endless incarnate, he is brooding, mystical and unknowable, yet possessing his own charm that draws you immediately to him. It’s not an easy role to play. A lesser actor could have just stuck with the brooding part and called it a day. But Sturridge acknowledges Morpheus’ complexity. That even as a powerful being of the universe (and many universes), Morpheus can still be a narrow-sighted punk who can be a stickler when it comes to doing his job.

But for me, Boyd Holbrook as The Corinthian is the scene stealer of the season (just a little above David Thewlis’ John Dee). Holbrook has the sinister appeal required of a character that has teeth for eyes and seduces people into dreaming of becoming serial killers. It was always a pleasure seeing him on screen — though his final meeting with Dream was a little anticlimactic. He brings a deliciousness to the role — a sly look here (even though his teeth-eyes are hidden by sunglasses), a knowing smile there — and the way he nibbles on his lines make him a perfect antithesis to Morpheus.

Boyd Holbrook as The Corinthian. Photo from NETFLIX

David Thewlis as John Dee in "24 Hours," perhaps one of the best episodes of the season. Photo from NETFLIX

“The Sandman” is faithful to its source material to a fault. It follows the stilted cadence of the comic book’s story arcs, going in and out of its threshold of stories without giving us a time to breathe — and this could turn off audiences who are new to the source material. Even just describing what the show is about is a little difficult and may and not fully capture its magic. Adventures of a Dream King? Perhaps. A family drama involving cosmic beings? Might be so. I finished the series with a big smile on my face (that tease by the end of episode ten sets the stage for the next season which might be an adaptation of one of the most acclaimed books of the series), knowing that the decades of waiting had culminated and that we finally got “The Sandman” adaptation that we deserve.