Identity politics recedes in Hollywood

“Diversity is woven into the very soul of the story.” If that accolade from a glowing review in a left-leaning newspaper sounds as inviting as a cup of cold, then my advice would be to steer clear of The sand man.

Neil Gaiman’s epic graphic novel series (launched in 1989), set in the world of dreams, was relentlessly inclusive long before it became the norm. “I wanted to change hearts and minds,” Gaiman said in an interview. “I had trans friends and still do, and it seemed like no one was putting trans characters in comic books. And I had a comic.

If this TV version had been made five years ago, it would probably have been considered very avant-garde. But thanks to recent developments in the world of on-screen comic book adaptations, it feels awkwardly dated. There’s a new mood on TV and in Hollywood, exemplified by the shock cancellation of a $100 million superhero movie titled bat girlwhich is widely seen in the industry as part of a backlash against identity politics.

The man behind this backlash is David Zaslav, new boss of the Warner Bros Discovery studio. Zaslav would have had enough of the orgy of political correctness that engulfed the superhero genre, in which Superman, Robin, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman all went gay or bisexual, and Batgirl was swapped. “The best way to protect your job for the past 11 years in Hollywood was to wake up. Now, overnight, that’s how you get fired,’ an insider tells me.

Well, good! And I’m not saying that just because I’m a reactionary old asshole. My real beef, from a critical standpoint, is that any time a filmmaker prioritizes finger wiggling over aesthetics, the end result is inevitably a flawed product.

Grab the opening episode of The sand manpartly set in the spectacularly realized dream world (a fortified city with spooky architecture, game of thrones meets Harry Potter) inhabited by the sleepy-voiced main protagonist, Morpheus (Tom Sturridge), and partly in Edwardian England, where a mage resembling Aleister Crowley (Charles Dance) attempts to conjure and capture death himself.

Dance misjudges her fate a bit and ends up kidnapping Morpheus instead, with terrible consequences for the kingdom of the day. With the King of Dreams gone, a sleeping sickness besets the land, exemplified by a scene of an upper-middle-class black family looking disturbed that their crinoline-clad daughter won’t wake up. The standard defense for this kind of opposite anachronism is that in the fantasy genre, anything goes. But I’m not so sure. For the fantasy elements to work, surely everything has to be grounded in verisimilitude. That is to say, if, as a viewer, you are going to become emotionally invested in the otherworldly view of a drama, the last thing you need is to be snapped back to reality with quibbles like, “Well, hang in there”. It’s unlike any version of Edwardian England I can believe.

There is also a problem with some castings. When you have actors of the caliber of Charles Dance and David Thewlis playing naturalistically and convincingly, it really doesn’t help when one or two of the other performances barely exceed the level of decent school acting. Again, this brings you short. I won’t name names, that would be cruel. But the feeling I have is that if this production had been a little more versed in the basics of casting, all those awkward irregularities could have been avoided.

Even though I think The sand man
would have been hard to bear for more than two episodes. As someone else noted, Gaiman is much more interested in “world building” than plot or character development. Much like a real dream, it’s more of a series of vignettes, grotesques, quirks, and impressions than a compelling, well-crafted story. I felt this especially in the scene where, for some tortured reason or other, Morpheus goes to visit a cute griffin resembling the bastard offspring of Dobby the house-elf and a creature from the ineffably annoying How to train your dragon.

The Griffin belongs to a disturbing Tweedledum and Tweedledee comedy duo called Cain and Abel, whose schtick (spoiler alert) is that Cain continues to kill Abel. It reminds me of the turgid fantasy of a Tim Burton movie crossed with the end of the period Doctor Who. About as engaging and welcome as the words, “I need to tell you about that amazing dream I had last night.” No thanks.

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