Spider-Verse | The Spider Within and the need for “street-level” Spider-Man stories

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In The Spider Within, Miles Morales battles anxiety, but how is the Spider-Man franchise at large handling its hero’s personal life?

NB: This feature contains spoilers for for most of the live-action and animated Spider-Man movies, including 2023’s Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse.

“I just got so much on my mind, you know?”

Taking place one evening during the 16 months between the two Spider-Verse features, the short film The Spider Within sees a tired-out Miles Morales duck a horror movie marathon with dad Jeff and go straight to his bedroom. But rest doesn’t come easy, and Miles suffers a panic attack brought on by the stresses of school and his dangerous double life, which manifest themselves in a shadowy, shapeshifting monster.

The horror-tinged seven-minute short was produced by graduates of Sony’s LENS (Leading and Empowering New Storytellers) Program – director Jarelle Dampier, writer Khaila Amazan, VFX supervisor Clara Chan, and animation supervisor Joe Darko – and if you haven’t seen it yet, you can now watch it on Sony Pictures Animation’s official YouTube channel below:

Separate from the expected multiversal stakes, the short unfolds at a pace that the (excellent) Spider-Verse features only occasionally manage. For those of us who hoped to see further animated adventures with Miles Morales as a Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man, this isn’t that, but it’s a welcome aside.

Sure, the short comes with the expected Easter eggs for Marvel buffs – a Spider-Ham toy here, a flashback to fighting comic baddy Gog there – but it uses its format and the now-familiar Spider-Verse animation style to tell a smaller but more striking story. In feature films, especially the Marvel Studios ones, the opposite is more common.

And although the praise for Puss In Boots: The Last Wish’s “realistic panic attack” got memed to death by irony-poisoned Film Twitter last year, this portrayal of young men’s mental health slots neatly into our hero’s character arc across the Spider-Verse trilogy so far.

Whether in features or this short, the animated franchise is doing a great job of exploring the essential quality that makes Spider-Man the best superhero – how much it sucks to be him. But have the live-action features, now fully integrated with the MCU’s repeated power fantasies and team-ups, lost sight of what it means to pull your Spider-suit on one leg at a time and go to work every morning?

Spider-Verse of Sadness

across the spider-verse review

It’s worth acknowledging that the Spider-Verse features don’t shy away from Miles’s personal life either. Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse tracks him as he gradually rises to the mantle accidentally bestowed upon him after the death of his universe’s Peter Parker. Even with five more alternate Spideys in the mix, it’s about Miles right through to his final monologue:

And when I feel alone, like no one understands what I’m going through, I remember my friends who get it. I never thought I’d be able to do any of this stuff. But I can. Anyone can wear the mask.

The Spider Within dramatises that within a short’s runtime, while Across The Spider-Verse challenges it over a longer story. It’s churlish to complain that it’s somehow “not a complete film” – there are whole trilogies that cram in less than this movie does.

The sequel is more ambitious but still squarely focused on Miles even as it simultaneously spins an arc for Gwen Stacy that furnishes the “Part One” of it all with a clean prologue and finale. Even so, Miles has a complete emotional journey. He starts the movie itching to run off on adventures with Gwen and the Spider Society because he’s struggling to juggle his Spider-Man duties with his personal commitments.

By the end, when he’s been there and learned what he learns, he only wants to go home again. The plot twist and cliffhanger where he hasn’t arrived there yet is for “Part Two”, the currently undated Beyond The Spider-Verse, to resolve.

Since the first film was released, Marvel Studios had launched its Multiverse Saga, the most successful entry of which is still the multi-dimensional live-action crossover Spider-Man: No Way Home. and Into The Spider-Verse’s unique selling point might have seemed more rote by the time of Across The Spider-Verse. Crucially, the focus on Miles and his journey makes sense of the sequel’s visual and narrative overload.

For instance, there are a couple of big moments that pop in the trailers for Across The Spider-Verse only make real sense in context. First, that money shot of all the Spider-variants lounging in the lobby still lands in the movie, even though you’ve seen it, because it’s the point in the narrative at which Miles learns the Spider-Society is not some small exclusive group but his very own No Homers Club, a betrayal that kicks off the second half of the movie.

There’s also Miles’s line “Nah, I’mma do my own thing”, which comes as the climax of that sequence. Again, the trailers gave away a lot, but not the movie’s Empire Strikes Back moment, if you like, though it’s a twist of a different nature – we’ve already seen the glitching spider that originally bit Miles, but only now do they explicitly say it wasn’t from his universe and what that means for him.

Between these two aforementioned points, the fan language of “canon events” and even the racist backlash against the introduction of Miles in the comics are both utilised as part of a story where he’s rejected by people who, well-meaning or not, can’t grasp the possibility of better things for the next generation. He’s just not supposed to be Spider-Man, apparently.

It’s a canny way of keeping “our” Spider-Man as the underdog and the outcast, even in a movie where most of the good guys are also Spider-Man or something like him. These are the optimal conditions for Spider-Man stories, because unlike most superhero stories, they aren’t just great power fantasies. They’re all about… well, you know what comes with great power, right?

Great responsibility

Spider-Man 2

In all variants, Spider-Man’s crises of confidence are defined by responsibility rather than power. And it’s all because Peter Parker has the greatest superhero origin story – a straightforward morality play about a teenager doing whatever a teenager can with his new superpowers, suffering the consequences of his irresponsibility when his uncle dies, and then vowing to do better, all in the length of a comic-book issue.

It’s no surprise that even variants of the character are defined by riffs on the ur-narrative. Into The Spider-Verse has a scene where the other Spider-people talk about losing Uncle Bens. Across The Spider-Verse reintroduces Gwen by showing how her Peter died, and then goes on to comment on Marvel’s repetition of the formative trauma (as well as its own).

There’s no shots of an exploding planet Krypton or Martha Wayne’s pearls clattering on Crime Alley or a furry and bloodied bloke running naked from a lab – all superhero origins that have been repeated more in the movies than Spidey’s – but heck, even the live-action movies have done Uncle Ben twice to date. The second iteration, with Andrew Garfield and Martin Sheen, is visually referenced in Across The Spider-Verse’s “canon event” sequence.

The MCU understandably avoided a third telling for Tom Holland’s Peter Parker (beyond “The spider’s dead, Ned”) but it’s inexorably drawn to reimagine this origin in No Way Home. We’ve written on the site before about the grotesque irresponsibility of Holland’s character, how it’s been addressed, and what it might mean for future films.

Read more: Spider-Man – where do we go from No Way Home?

With this quintessential story looming large, we have a grounding for why Spider-people must do what they do. But as the multiversal stakes have grown larger, the live-action Spider-Man movies have touched on Spider-Man’s day-to-day less and less as they’ve gone on.

Holland’s Peter frequently comments that he doesn’t get to be normal because of his entanglements with the Avengers, S.H.I.E.L.D., and the cinematic universe at large – his rejection of an Iron Spider costume at the end of Homecoming is immediately undercut in Avengers: Infinity War because that’s what was next on the big spreadsheet.

Conversely, The Amazing Spider-Man and its sequel often seem to be movies in search of a cinematic universe. All muddled storytelling aside, they never lose sight of what a terrible time Peter Parker is having. The sequel’s tragicomic high-point comes early on when Andrew Garfield’s Peter can’t even go and buy cold medicine without having to foil a stick-up, and to cap it all, he sneezes inside his full-face Spider-mask:

We can quibble about personal rankings all day, but the only live-action movie that takes the character in its stride is Spider-Man 2. While all the others have Spidey either getting to grips with great power or fighting against it, this one is all about great responsibility.

Twenty years old this year, Sam Raimi’s sequel is still a high benchmark for the franchise and for comic-book movies in general. If anything, it’s overbalanced towards the personal side of things rather than the hero versus villain plot – the timing of Peter’s “Spider-Man no more” with Doc Ock still at large is questionable, but the villain keeps himself to himself in the second act.

And if that’s an evident flaw in this perfect Spider-Man movie, it’s not the worst problem to have. Raimi’s Spidey is always struggling to pay his rent or running late to work or behind on his college projects or pining for Mary Jane – they’re all the hard bits when you’ve got superpowers.

Occasionally dismissed as too cheesy for viewers accustomed to the contemporary beef-and-beans production line, Raimi’s approach is as grown-up to the target audience as the Silver Age comics that influenced it. Is there any superhero movie before or since that makes time for a scene like Peter sitting at Aunt May’s kitchen table, finally explaining what happened the night Uncle Ben died and apologising? Would a modern version of that scene end with May getting up and leaving without a word, or would that distract from the gags and the quips and the next action setpiece?

What’s more, this character conflict is bookended with Peter failing to save people because he’s chosen to give up both power and responsibility. First, he sees a mugging and turns the other way, then more dramatically, he saves a child from a burning tenement building without his powers, only to overhear that someone else died.

These are literal life-and-death stakes in the Raimi movies, but as subsequent Spider-Man movies have blown up to global, intergalactic, and multiversal scale, it’s the sort of thing that’s got a bit lost in the mix.

Within the Spider-Verse

Spider-Man: No Way Home

At the time of writing, there are reports that a fourth Holland Spider-Man movie will start shooting later this year. Following No Way Home, there’s every chance the MCU Peter will finally reject leg-ups from his allies and just be the best darn Friendly Neighbourhood Spider he can be… except the other two movies ended on the same beat and didn’t follow through in the sequel. And the internet tells me there are more Avengers movies coming.

The rumour mill works overtime on movies like these, but there are also reports that Sony and Marvel are having disputes about whether the script should be a multiverse story again, like No Way Home, or a “street-level” New York story, involving Daredevil, Kingpin, and characters from the Disney+ shows. And don’t forget there’s a big black blob of Tom Hardy’s nonsense newly let loose in the MCU too.

On the animated front, Beyond The Spider-Verse was originally earmarked for 29th March 2024, just nine months after the previous film. It’s not out this week, with last year’s strikes and reports of behind-the-scenes churn leading to the third instalment being undated. Producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have since told ComicBook.com that the film will “take the time necessary” to complete it.

The release of The Spider Within is no small commiseration for anyone who marked this week aside for the conclusion of the Miles Morales trilogy. It’s a real treat, but especially for those of us who prefer Spider-Man at street level, where “street level” doesn’t just mean cameos from other characters who are in the neighbourhood. Like Spider-Man 2, it’s a superhero story about anxiety and burnout and self-doubt.

As the features go Into, Across, and Beyond their wacky and wonderful multiverse, the choice of preposition in the title of the Sony LENS alumni short seems fitting. Neither the live-action or animated movies seem grounded Within a single universe any longer.

However, if live-action Spider-Man features will continue until morale improves anyway, they should go deeper than street level – simply taking The Spider Within’s lead and looking at characters and their conflicts at eye level would be a step back in the right direction.

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