Why Joseph Gordon-Levitt's next comic book movie is taking so long


Sandman #1 cover

DC Entertainment

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the latest in a long line of people to attempt the impossible: Bring acclaimed writer Neil Gaiman's "The Sandman" comic book series to the big screen. Gordon-Levitt has been attached to "Sandman" since December of 2013, mostly as a producer, but industry buzz has long held that Gordon-Levitt would direct and star as well.

It has been nearly a year and a half since any significant news regarding the "Sandman" film has surfaced, but during an interview with MTV last weekend, we got a quick update: He's working very hard to make "a big spectacular action movie ... but without any punching."

This is very good news.

Here's why:

"The Sandman" isn't like most comic books. Created by Neil Gaiman and artists Mike Dringenberg and Sam Keith, with contributions from a deep roster of acclaimed artists, it tells the story of Dream of the Endless, a member of a family of personified abstractions. His siblings are Desire, Delirium, Destruction, Destiny, Despair, and Death.


Endless poster

DC Entertainment

Dream's story begins with him escaping a decades-long imprisonment by human occultists to find his kingdom, the Dreaming, in disarray, and nightmares on the loose in the real world. So he goes about reinstating order, while a decision he made long ago begins to slowly creep up on him.

But knowing the broad strokes of "The Sandman" actually does very little to tell you about what makes it special.

What makes "The Sandman" unique among millions of other comic books is the way it ends up being a story about stories, a grand meditation on the power of myth and fable. The best parts of "The Sandman" aren't really the moments that contribute to the grand arc, but short stories about characters like Hob, a man who believes dying is for suckers and decides he's just not going to do it, or about a deal William Shakespeare struck with Morpheus (Dream has many, many names) that led to his writing "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

"The Sandman" sinks into your subconscious and weaves its dreams into your own. It is utterly enchanting, and sometimes genuinely scary - it was originally pitched as "a horror-edged fantasy set in the DC Universe," and it goes to some dark, disturbing places early on.


DC Entertainment

Really, it just gives its readers so much to think about. It's steeped in mythologies from all over the world, full of enough allusion and symbolism to earn its reputation as one of the most literary series in comics. It is not the sort of story where punching belongs - although there is certainly violence, some of it horrifying.  

This is why Joseph Gordon-Levitt's job is so hard right now: Absolutely everything that makes "The Sandman" great is also what makes it impossible to turn into a movie.

It's probably wise to remain very skeptical that a "Sandman" movie will even happen, let alone be any good - a film adaptation has been in the works for 30 years, first in the '90s with Roger Avary of "Pulp Fiction" fame attached, then languishing until 2010 when it was rumored to be a television series developed by "Supernatural" creator Erik Kripke that quickly dissolved to become the movie project headed by Gordon-Levitt, David Goyer, and Jack Thorne.

There's even a case study we can look at: Zack Snyder's "Watchmen" adaptation.

Like "Sandman," "Watchmen" was an acclaimed comic from the late '80s that was widely considered unadaptable, for mostly the same reason: It was created specifically as a comic book, using the language and storytelling techniques unique to the medium in order to comment on and enrich its narrative. "Watchmen" #5 in particular, is acclaimed for this, deliberately constructed to be entirely symmetrical with the first half of the book mirrored in the last half. That's something you can't really do in film. 

"Watchmen" was also mired in development hell, with an adaptation in the works from pretty much the moment the comic book miniseries ended in 1987. 22 years and many writers and directors later, we got a movie no one really talks about much anymore. Why things turned out that way is a story for another day, but the lesson is pretty simple: "Watchmen" the comic is a timeless work, while "Watchmen" the movie is not.


And that's what worries "Sandman" fans the most. 

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