the sandmanNeil Gaiman’s iconic and groundbreaking exploration of dreams, fantasy and the occult is getting a lavish adaptation on Netflix. famous described by Norman Mailer as “a comic strip for intellectuals”, the sandman is some of the best story and art we’ve seen in the comic book genre. It’s famously defiant, thought-provoking, philosophical, and unwilling – or perhaps unable – to limit itself to a particular category. Like its famously elusive protagonist, the sandman flows, twists and turns through a story that remains captivating, even if it is not always approachable.
Reviews for the show were strong out of the gate; it currently sits at an impressive 86% on Rotten Tomatoes. Critics call it loyal to a flaw in the source material and praise the production values, ambition and willingness to bring Gaiman’s vision to life. the sandman‘s positive reception is a victory in itself; like Alan Moore’s guards, Gaiman’s graphic novel was often considered too inflexible for a traditional adaptation. The word “unfilmable” often accompanied the title, despite several attempts to bring it into live action.
So why now? Why is now the right time to adapt? the sandman? If anything, now is the worst possible time to do it. We live in the age of “content”, where entire movies can be scrapped to maximize profits and investments. Artistic integrity takes a back seat when CEOs and studio heads are held accountable to Wall Street. Is it wise to release a notoriously inaccessible project in such a climate? And is Netflix, the king of impatience, the right place for a story that stands out for its slow approach?
The problem with Netflix
Netflix started the streaming boom we currently live in, building its empire through acquired and ultimately original content. The streamer became known as the land of “yes”, throwing large amounts of money at top talent in an attempt to position itself as a legitimate film and television studio. And it worked… well, anyway.
Although not without flaws, Netflix has an impressive collection of original movies, many of which have become major players in the award season. The streamer also has a slew of certified hits, with projects such as the above average Extraction and the really pathetic one Red notification is one of the most streamed movies ever. However, this winning formula is already showing glaring cracks, leading many to believe the impressive empire will crumble sooner than expected.
For starters, Netflix is impatient. If something doesn’t immediately hit the mark, the streamer pulls the plug without thinking twice. Promising shows that could have found audiences over time, such as I’m not okay with this, Raising Dionand The community, is abolished with little to no explanation. Deadline reported that the recently canceled first murder failed to hit Netflix’s episode completion threshold, which provided more insight into how the streamer is handling its properties. Netflix is all about the stats. Nobody knows anything except the algorithm.
Will the statistics be on? the sandman‘s side? Gaiman’s comic is a slow burn if ever there was one, with heavy and sometimes demanding themes mixed with a story that tries and barely manages to act more traditionally. the sandman deftly juggles metaphysical concepts and ideas and personifies them with compelling characters that make the journey more engaging, if not necessarily more palatable. On paper, it works thanks to Gaiman’s sharp and insightful words, who, accompanied by the richly unique art of countless artists, including Sam Keith and Bryan Talbot, construct a world of fantasy and awe that conveys his ambitions beautifully and accurately.
Netflix’s the sandman pulls off the impressive feat of replicating the striking imagery of its source material in the service of its abstract narrative. But if you keep the flow of the story and themes almost intact, it can shoot itself in the foot, especially when the place it calls home is notorious for being in a constant state of rush. Viewers will find the sandman challenging, as it should be. It’s a work of art that rewards patience and dedication, two things Netflix usually doesn’t understand.
How can the streamer expect this bold project to resonate with the audience it has trained to break free from slow storytelling? Is Netflix willing to take the time to develop? the sandman, or just expect it to triumph over name recognition? Is doing the sandman even have such an appeal to the modern audience? It’s not your average DC property; the sandman cares more about the spectacle that goes on inside. It’s not The Witcherand it certainly isn’t Game of Thrones. the sandman is its own thing, a corner of fantasy that inhabits a place where the real awe comes from ideas rather than execution. Does Netflix understand this? Even want it?
Who’s talking about this?
Circle back to first murderalso the showrunner, Felicia D. Henderson, blamed Netflix for the lack of marketing for the show’s abrupt cancellation. Indeed, the streamer is notorious for never putting any marketing effort into some of his freshman shows, and for years it wasn’t necessary. People ended up watching everything on Netflix out of boredom or genuine involvement with the platform’s catalog. Shows like Virgin River are huge successes on the streamer, but no one ever talks about it, to the point where many people may not even be aware of it.
Recent developments have shown that Netflix’s formula is untenable. Word of mouth can do wonders for a project — it guided the executive Top Gun: Maverick up to a whopping $1.3 billion at the box office. But word of mouth can only do so much, especially for original projects without a built-in fan base. Most of Netflix’s cancellations come from audiences who were unaware of the show in the first place; how can they look at something they don’t even know exists?
To be fair, Netflix has made a significant marketing effort to support the sandman. Their campaign relied heavily on Gaiman, recognizing him as the real star of the property. In a bizarre but admirable choice, the show chose not to cast any actual stars. Sure, it’s got Gwendoline Christie – a really inspired choice to play Lucifer Morningstar – plus Stephen Fry and even Patton Oswalt. However, it lacks a big Hollywood star, the kind of actor that would make sense in a big IP like this; there is no Henry Cavill here, no Winona Ryder or Jason Bateman. Netflix has pulled this trick with great success before, casting mostly unknown actors in some of its biggest successes – Bridgerton, Never have I ever, and the Haunting shows come to mind. But does the public expect something more from the comic book content? the sandman might have benefited more from having a “leading man” in the title role.
Aware that Gaiman alone would not sell the show, the sandman lived up to its geek credentials by having a significant presence at this year’s Comic-Con. The show had a panel of most of the major players, with a trailer that looked promising and gave fans hope for a show that didn’t corrupt the source material like many other Netflix adaptations do – I’m looking at you, Persuasion. But was it enough? No, it wasn’t. Any sound the sandman would have caused was all but drowned by the roar that came courtesy of HBO’s House of the Dragon and the avalanche of Phase 5 and 6 news from the MCU. Even DC’s skinny panel had more impact than the sandman‘s, mainly due to a lightning-shooting Dwayne Johnson.
Netflix tried to generate buzz for the sandman, but have you tried hard enough? Any effort seems significant when all that came before in fact does not exist. However, the streamer doesn’t seem to understand that a good marketing campaign can make the difference between a hit and a flop. Netflix can no longer survive on reputation alone, especially since its reputation is in the gutter. And while most of the industry is currently too focused on hating Warner Bros. Discovery because of HBO Max’s treatment, Netflix doesn’t have enough goodwill to launch a major IP into the void and hope it only works on brand awareness and loyalty.
So what’s the future of? the sandman on Netflix? At best performing according to Netflix’s desired stats, the show will run for three seasons before coming to a peaceful and unceremonious end. Fantasy shows seem to be a hit or miss on Netflix. The Witcher was very strong out of the gate, but season 2 saw a significant drop in audience interest. Likewise projects like Lock & Key even Shadow and Bone are far from the streamer’s most impactful entries, even if they perform well enough to ensure a long lasting stay in the catalog.
On the other hand, the worst case scenario is: the sandman crashes and burns, causing Netflix to pull the plug earlier than expected. I don’t see it happening though; Netflix will want to save face and give the show a second outing before deciding its fate, especially given Neil Gaiman’s prominent involvement.
Like every other streamer and network, Netflix is looking for its next big franchise – the next one Game of Thrones. Unfortunately, the sandman is not that. Rich in ideas rather than worldly building, Gaiman’s work is meant to be enjoyed, analysed, analyzed and appreciated. However, it is somewhat limited in its size; the sandman is not the type of property that can produce endless spin-offs that focus on the past and future of its environment. What spin-off potential it does have has already been done (Match on Fox) or being developed for another platform (Constantine and Dead Boy Detectives for HBO Max). It’s irrelevant as the show’s intricacies come from within, offering very little in the way of exploitation and overt franchising. If Netflix Thought the sandman was his next big thing, it thought wrong, and I think it knows it. Some dreams are best not realized.