Netflix’s ‘The Sandman’ keeps Neil Gaiman’s comic book spirit intact, avoiding (most of) the usual streaming trappings – TV review

As a newcomer to Neil Gaiman’s seminal comic book series “The Sandman” (point out die-hard fans immediately clicking on this review, and fair enough!), I came to the Netflix adaptation with an open mind and a curious eye Knowing that this 1989 title had spawned on-screen spinoffs of “Sandman” characters — “Lucifer,” “Constantine,” etc., but never one of its own — it was hard not to wonder what could have made a live-action version so cool. so hard. that never happened until now. However, as it went back and forth between the TV show and the original volumes, the difficulty any production would have in addressing its scope became more clear, and it also made Netflix’s result more impressive.

According to Gaiman’s adaptation, Allan Heinberg (“Wonder Woman”) and David S. Goyer (“Constantine,” “Foundation”), the television series “The Sandman” veers toward a literal translation of the comics most often possible. As complex as the series’ mythology becomes, the show finds a way to introduce new fans without completely confusing them. All he has to do to bring us up to speed is explain that The Sandman (aka Dream, played with grim gravity by Tom Sturridge) is one of several brothers who rule over crucial aspects of humanity, from Dream to Death (Kirby Howell – Baptiste), twins Desire (Mason Alexander Park) and Despair (Donna Preston). From there, you’re either in or you’re out, and voila.

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Each of the season’s 10 episodes tends to correspond faithfully to specific comedic themes, from the opening saga (“The Dream of the Righteous”) to how Dream was captured by a nefarious amateur magician (Charles Dance, good as always for make an immediate ominous impression), to Dream facing a challenging vortex that threatens to swallow his kingdom forever (“Lost Hearts”). Some episodes transpose Gaiman’s lines word for word, including “The Sound of His Wings,” which casts Howell-Baptiste as a warm and especially magnetic version of Death. Others expand and develop an issue’s opening ideas, such as a deeply disturbing chapter (“24/7”) in which an escaped psychiatric patient (played with unnerving accuracy by David Thewlis) turns a diner into a rest stop. in his own personal experiment in morality. .

There are, of course, a couple of exceptions to the “one problem equals one episode” rule. For one thing, the season completely excludes the “Tales in the Sand” flashback volume, which, frankly, may be for the best. The TV show, on the other hand, runs through the season with the lurking threat of “The Corinthian,” a vicious roguish nightmare played by Boyd Holbrook with a chilling, silky grin. But if any die-hards have gotten this far into the review, rest assured that Netflix’s “The Sandman” comes unusually close to its source material in terms of content. Where it diverges most, then, is in its cast and visuals, one of which proves an immediate improvement while the other ends up being a disappointment.

As Dream, Sturridge can’t do much beyond what’s asked of him (ie, embody an incredibly serious immortal being without making him insufferable), which he does admirably. But one of the smartest aspects of Gaiman’s initial approach to outlining the series’ huge mythos is that the story weaves together so many other main characters for the audience to latch onto when Dream is too busy depressed to be convincing. What’s more: In one of the most obvious and welcome shifts from page to screen, many of them aren’t exactly white blondes either. In addition to Howell-Baptiste’s death, who started out as an animated emo girl in the comics, there’s Lucifer, the guardian of Hell, now played by “Game of Thrones” standout Gwendoline Christie. Dream’s faithful librarian turns from Lucien to Lucienne (a steady-eyed Vivian Acheampong). Cockney demon hunter John Constantine, who’s already had plenty of TV portrayal, appears here as Johanna (a refreshingly untethered Jenna Coleman). All told, and to his credit, the on-screen “Sandman” thankfully includes a much broader swath of people and backgrounds than its source material.

It would be tempting to say that the show is less monochromatic than the comic, if that were true of its aesthetic. The original illustrations, first created by Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, and Malcolm Jones III with colorist Daniel Vozzo, combined Gaiman’s raw words with equally distinct images of formidable gods, twisted realities colliding with dream worlds, and the shocking viscera of violence. There’s always a lot to ask for a comic book screen adaptation to match its inspiration, but the Netflix version rarely captures the same visual spirit outside of, perhaps, Jamie Childs-directed “24/7.” Otherwise, Dream and her minions too often get lost in dreary darkness or in wide, muddy CGI landscapes that sound too fake to be truly engrossing. Even Lucifer’s black feathered wings cannot match the majesty of those drawn on veined pencil and paper and stretched leather of unfathomable age. That “The Sandman” ends up looking a lot like Netflix’s adaptations of “Locke and Key” or “Shadow and Bone” is remarkable, considering how wildly different Gaiman’s self-consciously gritty comic book is from those YA fantasy novels.

However: The show works hard to set itself apart from those Netflix attempts to revive beloved properties that instead squashed them. Most notable, at least from the perspective of this jaded TV critic, is that the season distributes its material with a budget approach (no episode is longer than 54 minutes) and a clever narrative structure. Although The Corinthian features prominently throughout, the first few episodes send Dream on the hunt across the waking world in search of his beloved “tools”, which act as a helpful introduction to his powers and attitude towards his human subjects. ; At the end of the season, the show changes to explain Dream’s brothers and the precarious place between them as the clock ticks down to a potential catastrophe. With enough momentum going forward and the power of Gaiman’s increasingly complicated story behind it, Netflix’s “The Sandman” justifies its existence, and the potential for many more stories to come, again and again.

“The Sandman” is now available to stream on Netflix.

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