What really defines a true good versus evil conflict? Is it the high stakes, the intensity of the emotions, or the self-reflective aspects of the antagonistic hero/villain duality themselves? One of the first problems the story tries to answer in Neil Gaiman's The Sandman, which may be seen in many ways as a meta-commentary on the nature of storytelling itself, occurs as Dream of the Endless faces his first foe, Doctor Dee. The initial-arc climax not only delivers on the grim premise but also expertly predicts the demise of the protagonist, Lord Morpheus himself, despite the fact that it may have been difficult to foresee at the time. This may be what has made this hero/villain match-up such an enduring and shining example of this trope within the medium.
The early storylines of Sandman, which are now the subject of a popular Netflix television series, have frequently been criticised by fans and critics for being overly indulgent in the horror subgenre from which the series originated. They have also been seen as being somewhat at odds with the more philosophical direction the series would later take, as Dream's adventures as Lord Morpheus would frequently be overshadowed by the tales of other supporting characters and historical episodes. In fact, the early fights between Dee and Lucifer and other more superhero-like clashes would end up being the only typical supervillain/superhero fights over the entire 75-issue run. Gaiman would finally fulfil his promise of narrative cohesiveness despite the frequently disorganised and experimental structure that would subsequently become his signature, despite these early episode tonal dissonances. Gaiman demonstrates his propensity for using people as instruments by having his antagonist, Dee, almost accurately foresee the terrible demise of Lord Morpheus.
King of a Lost Empire
When the series starts, Lord Morpheus has been imprisoned for the previous 70 years, which has led to the abandonment of his country, The Dreaming, and the theft of his three magical tools (his pouch of sand, helm, and ruby). It should be remembered that all of the creatures found in The Dreaming, including these crucial tools, as well as the concept of The Dreaming itself, are merely representations of Morpheus' power; they are actually parts of him that he has torn from himself and given sentience in order to help him. In reality, they are only extensions of his will.
The villain Doctor Destiny, who has used Dream's ruby, known as "The Materioptikon," to manipulate reality since his Silver Age debut, is actually an established character in the comic books when John Dee first appears as him. He frequently uses the power of the gem within his dreams to alter the waking world. Dee had lost his capacity to dream, which caused him to go insane when first featured in The Sandman. This terrible occurrence, which follows Dee's escape from Arkham Asylum, is described in the now-famous The Sandman #6 story "24 Hours."
After breaking out of the asylum and taking the ruby back, Dee hatches a wicked plan to send everyone insane. He uses six unsuspecting diners patrons as his test subjects, torturing them to death over the course of a day while intermittent news reports warn of ever-worsening disaster outside. Dee takes sadistic pleasure in depriving his victims of their dignity and free will before finally driving them to animalistic murder and suicide, until Dream himself finally arrives to reclaim his stolen ruby. Dee has the unstoppable ability to override and control emotions and thoughts using Dream's stolen power.
It should be kept in mind that Dream's tasks involve helping those who enter The Dreaming understand themselves by engaging with their subconscious wants because Dream is a primal manifestation of humanity's ability for hopes and aspirations. He advances their welfare and personal development in this way. Dee utilises the weapon Morpheus made for him to help him in this objective as a cudgel to punish the innocent in the nightmare sequence of "24 Hours," generating a turbulent and violent image of a world without empathy or meaning. He eventually gets each of his victims to admit to doing evil things, then makes them end their lives in agony as a kind of retaliation.
The Dream of No Mercy
The first Dee-centered storyline was released in 1989. Gaiman would oversee The Sandman for for additional seven years, during which time the premise would significantly alter. After Dream defeats Dee, readers witness the villain burn the ruby while in The Dreaming, unintentionally giving Lord Morpheus his former abilities back. The focus of the series shifts to being more on Dream's personality and psychology, frequently seen through the prism of how his prolonged existence has impacted the lives of others.
Gaiman frequently shows in the narrative how Dream has acted callously and without concern for others' suffering in his interpersonal connections, including those with his mistress Nada and his son Orpheus. By the end of the series, when the narrative has significantly expanded to include dozens of storylines and POV characters both fantastical and mundane, it is evident that Morpheus has started to feel serious doubt about his judgement in these matters, even though he enacts these punishments in the name of a supposed duty to see their stories come to a just conclusion.
The penultimate arc of Sandman, "The Kindly Ones," is one of the most perplexing and confusing series wrap-ups in comic book history. In its own peculiar way, it symbolises the zenith of Gaiman's aesthetic as seen by what the series had evolved into. Morpheus starts a chain of circumstances that leads to his own demise because he is unable to see a fitting ending to his own tale in which he escapes his just retribution. In the end, his carefully orchestrated scheme, which involves the acts of almost thirty other characters, leaves him with little choice but to let his sister kill him in order to be reborn as a more mature and forgiving version of himself. His guilt over inflicting pain on people he believed deserved it served as his primary driving force. He eventually realised, though, that he was only exaggerating his own sense of moral superiority.
Doctor Dee and Morpheus Both Share the Lack of Empathy
In the most recent Netflix series, Dee is recast as a victim of his mother's arbitrary usage of Lord Morpheus' "secret" gem, with his desire for more "honest" behaviour among diners serving as his primary driving force. This portrays Dee's self-justification as being rooted in a lack of empathy for other people, judging their basic social compromises, sometimes based in polite regard, to be unforgivable "falsehoods." This is similar to his comic book counterpart Doctor Destiny. This explanation is compatible in its own unique way with a fundamental defect in Morpheus, who may have been his truly tragic flaw: his failure to adequately empathise with those who were weaker than him, especially those in the mortal realm.
How the passing of Dream was foreseen
The Sandman has always been about the potency of stories and how they can both develop into newer, more evocative narratives while yet holding onto some of the inherent power of the more ancient mythology. The fact that his lone real super villain battle ultimately reveals the most about his character, with some clarity from a television version, is hence fitting. Dream was obviously the good guy there, but the same thing he was battling against, his own propensity to use other people as tools, was already foretelling his demise.