Strictly speaking, Netflix the sandman it’s yet another superhero adaptation produced to feed the audience’s seemingly insatiable appetite for people in weird costumes who save the world. But this DC Comics creation isn’t Thor or Iron Man. Instead of the Incredible Hulk, say hello to the Incredible Sulk.
Morpheus the Lord of Dreams – no one actually refers to him as the Sandman – is a dark gadabout, who dresses like a depressed version of The Cure’s Robert Smith circa 1985. His hair culminates in a sort of dystopian pompadour; His complexion is 50 shades of translucent. And instead of jumping into tall buildings, he jumps into people’s subconscious – weaving together the dreams that thrill and haunt us.
At least he does until he’s kidnapped by Jazz Age occultists. Which is where this often stunning and solidly compulsive series begins.
The Sandman has long been perceived as the ultimate “unfilmable” comic. Neil Gaiman’s saga for DC’s Vertigo imprint, which ran from 1989 to 1996, surfs a dreamlike logic considered impossible to shrink for TV. Or, if not impossible, then useless. Hopscotch characters between the timelines. The plot has the zigzag anti-logic of the uncontrolled human imagination. Pure ’80s gothic melancholy leaves no room for Marvel-type jokes or innuendo.
All these qualities have been preserved in Netflix’s highly anticipated Sandman, developed by Gaiman and Batman v Superman screenwriter David S Goyer. This fidelity to the source material will delight hardcore Gaiman fans (there is no such thing as a lukewarm Gaiman fan). But The Sandman might also intrigue newcomers weary of Marvel spin-offs and open to a comic book caper that puts their views higher than playful ultra-violence.
The cast is the stuff of dreams. Gwendoline Christie from Game of Thrones is cool as Satan. Jenna Coleman goes all EastEnders playing Cockney demon hunter Johanna Constantine (John’s gender reversed). Sanjeev Bhaskar and Asim Chaudhry made a great extended appearance as eternal rival brothers Cain and Abel. And they really should come up with some sort of award to jointly present to Mark Hamill, voicing a talking squashman named Merv Pumpkinhead, and Lenny Henry, playing furry dream monster Martin Tenbones.
Most impressive of all is Tom Sturridge as Morpheus himself. In the original comic, Morpheus’ speech bubbles are rendered in black; Sturridge, a devotee of the material, gets this unbridled melancholy in just the right measure. He really does sound like every word he utters arrives dripping ink in midnight tones. He’s also so pale it makes Robert Pattinson look as if he’s just returned from a fortnight in Lanzarote.
The 10-part series bites a lot, spanning the first two of the collected Gaiman graphic novels. But it moves quickly, the episodic nature of the books well suited to television. Only at the end does it fall apart, when Gaiman and his co-writers are forced to swallow a conventional season finale that feels forced.
Until then, it’s a thrilling goth romp – one that sometimes feels like The Avengers to fans of the Sisters of Mercy. Morpheus is one of the Infinites, a family of interdimensional beings who serve as midwives to the human experience. Its ranks also include Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste – a highlight in the strongest episode) and Desire.
The latter is interpreted by Mason Alexander Park as something of a nightmare mash-up of Annie Lennox, Mark Almond and a wine bar yuppie celebrating the deregulation of the London Stock Exchange. The performance is irresistible, although it is one of the few examples of the source material’s origins in the late ’80s.
The Sandman begins relatively conventionally in a Downton Abbey-style pile in 1916, where an embittered wizard Sir Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance) attempts to summon Death so that his son, killed in the war, can be brought back. Instead, he conjures Dream, who arrives wearing a nightmarish elephantine mask that will be familiar from the comics and has been locked away for decades by Burgess and his descendants.
With Morpheus trapped, the dream world falls into disrepair and a plague of disturbed sleep is unleashed (some people are trapped in an eternal slumber). The action from there jumps all over the place – spanning time, dimensions and genre. This multifaceted approach extends to the characters, who are more diverse than in the comics.
That this sparked rancor online says more about the closed minds in certain corners of the nerd community than it does about Gaiman. If the idea of Death as a young black woman keeps you up at night, the best advice is to delete your Reddit account and go for a walk.
The Sandman arrives as the latest addition to Neil Gaiman’s troubled television universe. American Gods on Amazon started off promisingly only to melt into a white heat of indecipherable plot. Likewise, the BBC/Amazon slant on Good Omens, her beloved collaboration with Terry Pratchett, was very pleased with herself.
But The Sandman gets it right most of the time and is as authentic an adaptation as could reasonably be expected. For Gaiman fans, the game has finally started.