Dark Tidings within a Hero

The Spider Within: A Spider-Verse Story

It’s been a long wait for the third film in the animated SpidermanSure, DC Comics has Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, but among the most popular superheroes stands a guy from Marvel Comics, a younger hero dressed in red and blue who shoots webs and sticks to walls. Introduced in the 1960s, Spider-Man has been a constant presence in comics and more, featured in movies regularly since his big screen debut in 2002. series. Spider-man: Across the Spider-Verse came out in June, 2023, and the sequel, Spider-man: Beyond the Spider-Verse, was supposed to arrive in March of 2024. That date has, of course, come and gone and we’re still seemingly no closer to the sequel just yet. Production on the film resumed in December 2023 but no official release date has been set. That’s a tough pill to swallow considering the second movie ended on a massive cliffhanger, one that was supposed to get resolved a mere nine months later and… well, hasn’t yet. Who knows when it will?

Still, Sony wants to keep fans interested, to prime the pump so that their one successful Spider-man series not under the control of the Marvel Cinematic UniverseWhen it first began in 2008 with a little film called Iron Man no one suspected the empire that would follow. Superhero movies in the past, especially those not featuring either Batman or Superman, were usually terrible. And yet, Iron Man would lead to a long series of successful films, launching the most successful cinema brand in history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (sorry Morbius, Venom: Let There Be Carnage, Madam Webb, et al). Fans want more of Miles Morales and his adventures in the Spider-Verse, so while the movie they were expecting still isn’t out yet, there are other things Sony can release just to tease the future. One of those is a new Spidey short, featuring the characters from Spider-man: Across the Spider-Verse.

Titled The Spider Within: A Spider-Verse Story, the short received a wide release on YouTube in March, 2024, to “make up” for the fact that it wasn’t going to play in front of the next film in the series that month. Unlike the previous short, Spider-Ham: Caught in a Ham, which was a comedic short loosely connected to the main series of films, this second slice of tiny Spidey goodness takes a different tack. It’s a psychological thriller, one that tries to get to the very essence of who Miles is and what he’s fighting for. It is, in fact, very different from anything we’ve really gotten in the series up to this point.

Set between the first and second films, The Spider Within finds Miles (Shameik Moore) dealing with the troubles of being Spider-man. He’s always late to school and late getting home. He “slacks off” on his responsibilities with family and school, which is a struggle for him since he has to try and balance all of that against his secret super-heroics. He can’t tell his family who he is, but he also can’t always be there when he needs to be, all because he has a calling that pulls him away. So it causes stress, and depression, and fights with his parents.

Coming home after a long day, Miles runs into his dad, Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry). Jeff just rented a bunch of movies and has a big bowl of popcorn ready. He’s hoping the two could spend time together, just hanging out, watching horror films. Miles pushes him off, though, for “another day,” and then goes into his room to crash. But thoughts and stresses pull at him, and Miles starts seeing visions of a giant spider. He’s tormented by it, chased by it, a manifestation of all that he’s feeling seemingly coming to him from the Spider-Beyond. Miles has inner demons and, if he doesn’t find a way to push through, they might just take over his life.

The Spider Within is interesting on a number of levels. First there’s the fact that the short sets up a basic premise – Miles doesn’t hang out with his dad to watch horror films because he’s stressed out – and then uses it as a way to explore Miles’s own feelings – as he then gets caught in his own horror film. That’s a solid thematic device that lets us know what Miles is seeing, scary as it is, is also a manifestation of his own mind. Who knows what Miles might have seen if his dad hadn’t prompted a vision from the talk of “horror movies”?

But it also works on a second level, as the film, because of its horror trappings, is also able to get into Miles’s mental state. The longer movies (and the other short) are comedic in nature. While they have serious and dramatic moments, much of their entertainment comes from the light-hearted comedy that is an indelible part of the Spider-man universe. But shifting into a tense thriller, the short is better able to explore what is going on with Miles than any of the lighter films could. They had their strong character work, sure, but they couldn’t get into the territory that Miles experienced here.

A short like this does a lot. It says to the audience that it’s okay to have fears, to stress, to deal with mental health issues. By having Miles go through this the film says that, “even superheroes can have mental health crises. And that’s okay.” Mental care has a stigma in Western society, and most works tend to deride people in need. A short like The Spider Within shifts that discussion. It allows people to know that something like this can happen to anyone and it’s okay to feel what you feel, to go through it. It’s rough in the moment but there’s a way out eventually.

The short ends with Miles coming out and asking to talk with his dad. They go for a walk and just chat, not about anything specific but just for the sake of it. That’s a good thing to illustrate for the viewers, that a good way to pull yourself out of a bad cycle is to talk, to have someone around that can chat with you. Jefferson doesn’t pry, he’s just there for his son in a moment of need, and as the trappings of the horror film dissolve away, you can sense that, at least for a little while, Miles will be better. For a time, anyway.

That’s also key to this short: there’s no easy solution. The spider stalking Miles isn’t defeated. He doesn’t get to have a fight and declare afterwards, “my mental health crisis is solved!” He gets through it this time but the short does make it clear he could maybe fall into it again. That’s real, that’s true. It’s not so easy to pull yourself out, and it’s not always easy to stay out after. You have to work, and talk, and work again. It’s a road (that Jeff and Miles walk down) and not simply a destination you can reach.

The short is well made, with the same meticulous care of the movies. But what’s more important is what The Spider Within has to say, and on that front this short nails in. It’s well put together, well written, with a lot to say about its main character for the audience to (hopefully) notice and hear. It might not be the adventure that fans were expecting in March, but it is a solid story about Miles that was worth the wait all the same.