Actor/director Joseph Gordon-Levitt has departed the upcoming Sandman movie, based on the classic series of graphic novels by Neil Gaiman.
Gordon-Levitt has been at the forefront of this latest attempt to get the character on-screen, citing problems with the tone of the books - thoughtful, character-based and contemplative - and what studios seem to want from comic book movies. Apparently those issues had been overcome and Warner Brothers were happy with the progress Gordon-Levitt and producer David Goyer had been making on the film with screenwriter Jack Thorne. However, Warner Brothers have since shifted responsibility for all films based on the Vertigo Comics brand (of which Sandman was the founding title) over to their subsidiary New Line. According to Gordon-Levitt, his vision for the film and New Line's were incompatible, so he has chosen to leave the project. This comes a day after the news that Jack Thorne had also departed, with screenwriting being handled by Eric Heisserer instead.
To say that this is a cause for deep concern would be an understatement. In the early 2000s a Sandman movie was in development to be produced by the infamous Jon Peters (he of the "giant spider" obsession on the aborted Superman Lives project, as brilliantly retold by Kevin Smith) and, to Gaiman's immense relief, it never got off the ground. The draft scripts featured Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams, as an ass-kicking superhero with explosions going off and lots of standard action beats (fortunately Peters had gotten the giant spider obsession out of his system with Wild Wild West, otherwise that would have no doubt showed up).
Whilst some took issue with Gordon-Levitt producing, directing and maybe starring as Morpheus, there was no doubt that he had deep respect and appreciation for the source material and its tone. Bringing in Jack Thorne, the writer of British TV dramas such as This is England and particularly his supernatural series The Fades was a stroke of genius. Thorne is one of the most interesting and respected scriptwriters of his generation.
Heisserer has written the remakes of A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Thing, along with Final Destination 5. That's a pretty big step down in writer quality.
The fear now is that we are going to get a much more conventional movie that eschews much of what was interesting from the graphic novels in favour of a more standard superhero/action film. The presence of David Goyer, who hasn't written a good script since Batman Begins (although he did work on the story treatments for The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises), also isn't tremendously encouraging on that front.
Hopefully this still all works out, but it certainly looks like a step in the wrong direction right now.