“The Spider Within”: New short film shows teens how to escape web of anxiety

Most Spider-Man villains are easy to spot. Doc Ock has four tentacle-like appendages extending from his back. The Green Goblin hurls pumpkin bombs. Venom oozes through the world behind an amorphous, liquid-like form.

But what if the enemy was invisible? 

In the new short film “The Spider Within: A Spider-Verse Story,” the sinister force that Brooklyn teenager Miles Morales must confront is an increasingly familiar foe to young people across the globe.

It’s called anxiety. And it can be as scary as any monster.

“I always felt that anxiety is basically your own personal Spidey Senses going haywire,’’ said  Khaila Amazan, the writer who penned the film. “In my understanding of the horror genre, it’s all about suspense and what’s about to happen. And I think that’s the definition of anxiety.”

The short film, released digitally in late March and available on YouTube, was produced by Sony Pictures Animation and Sony Pictures Imageworks and released in partnership with the Kevin Love Fund. Sony Pictures Entertainment is a long-term Enterprise-level partner with the Geena Davis Institute. “The Spider Within: A Spider-Verse Story” is directed by Jarelle Dampier and written by Khaila Amazan, and produced by LENS program creators Michelle Raimo-Kouyate and David Schulenburg. Rounding out the LENS team are Clara Chan who served as vfx supervisor and Joe Darko who served as animation supervisor.

Over 7 tense minutes, the film tells the story of Miles dealing with mounting anxiety.  The first lines we hear in the movie are from Miles’ internal monologue as he recounts the pressure building on him from the adults in his life: These grades are unacceptable, Miles… Focus Miles. Focus … Miles, you need to apply yourself.

It’s a chorus familiar to students of all ages, and the filmmaking team heightened the suspense with ominous visuals – the redness of terror intensifying until morphing into a cool blue when the feeling subsides.

“Miles represents so many of us doing the best we can in our day-to-day lives,” director Jarelle Dampier said. “We don’t often realize all that we’ve been through until our own body forces us to become aware of its experience. My intention is that The Spider Within can motivate deeper conversations amongst friends and family about their own mental health journeys – and I hope it feels like a love letter to those who adore Miles Morales.”

The short film was developed and produced in the inaugural year of Sony Pictures Animation and Sony Pictures Imageworks’ Leading and Empowering New Storytellers (LENS) program.

The LENS program is backed by Sony Pictures Entertainment’s global, multi-pronged racial equity and inclusion strategy, Sony Pictures Action. The program’s goal is to provide creatives who have traditionally lacked access to leadership roles with a first-hand opportunity to deepen their understanding of every element of the animated filmmaking process. 

Khaila Amazan, writer of "The Spider Within, is a smiling woman with curly hair wearing a light pink sweater stands against a backdrop of city street and skyline scenes.
Khaila Amazan, Writer

Amazan owes her start to the LENS program and said her distinctive background helped inform the script. She said she’s part African American, part Cuban, Haitian and Syrian. 

So she felt a kinship with Miles. 

“To have a Spider-Man that’s like a similar ethnicity to me was pretty cool,’’ Amazan said. “It was a pleasure to write Miles. And we tried to add little cultural things like, ‘Quit slamming my door, son!’ Like, I’ve heard that so many times. Representation can be as big as showing someone as a hero or as small as ‘Oh, my parent does that, too.’’’

As the film barrels toward its crisis moment, Miles experiences a panic attack that forces him to confront the manifestations of his anxiety and learn that reaching out for help can be just as brave an act as protecting his city from evil. 

Amazan, the writer, could delve with authority into this debilitating academic pressure. Because she lived it herself as a student at the University of California-Irvine.

“My anxiety peaked in college. I had to go to the hospital, actually, which was really sad,’’ she said. “And I was like, ‘OK, this is too much.’ And so what I did is that I started writing about it, which would help alleviate my fears. My debut writing sample was actually called ‘Black Anxious’ – which is about being Black and anxious. That actually started my writing career.”

The Geena Davis Institute has long recognized the power of programming created for young audiences. GDI serves as an advocate for authentic portrayals, such as the unflinching depiction of Miles’ panic attack. A new GDI study examining the portrayals of mental health in children’s television will launch at the Bentonville Film Festival, which runs June 10-16.

The short film’s focus on academic pressure blends well with the educational mission of the movie. “The Spider Within: A Spider-Verse Story” will be incorporated into the Kevin Love Fund’s new mental health-focused lesson called “The Hero Within.”

The program, as described by the Lesson Intention on the website, gives students “the opportunity to rethink the way a hero is usually described – as someone who is invincible and never shows emotions. After watching Miles’ story, they will see that vulnerability is actually our superpower.”

Some suggested methods:

  • Reaching out to a trusted adult to share what they are experiencing
  • Using drawing and writing as a form of expression
  • Sharing their stories with each other, helping them to know they are not alone when they feel overwhelmed

The curriculum was created by two distinguished educators. Sara Hahn holds a master’s degree in human development studies (from Vanderbilt University) and a master’s degree in education (from Pepperdine). Ellie Foster’s degrees include a Ph.D.  in literacy education (from the University of Colorado at Boulder).

Two women smiling and posing together in front of red stadium seats. Both are wearing black t-shirts with "Love Fund" written on them. The woman on the left is Sara Hahn and the woman on the right is Ellie Foster
(L-R) Sara Hahn and Ellie Foster, Curriculum Developers

Some of their most important lessons, however, come from witnessing how stressful life is for students in the modern classroom.

Hahn transitioned into working in an education nonprofit because of the hurdles she saw while teaching fifth graders where even the most promising and motivated students ran into challenges.

“They couldn’t compete with their counterparts who were in better school districts and had more resources because so much was lacking in their social- emotional world and their mental health worlds,’’ Hahn said. “I saw firsthand that my students wouldn’t actually achieve their highest academic potential until they felt safer to express themselves and felt less pressure in their emotional lives and their mental health space.”

The Kevin Love Fund education team developed the new lesson for their free, evidence-based curriculum to encourage students to share a challenging experience from their lives by writing and illustrating their own series of storyboard panels, similar storyboards used in developing an early version of the story portrayed in “The Spider Within.” 

The short film resonates, Hahn said, in part because the dramatic conclusion is so understated. There are no spectacular fight scenes, no fiery explosions, no wild chase through the streets of New York. 

Miles, near his breaking point, says to his father Jefferson, “Do you have a minute?”

And then a healthier dialogue begins. It looks so easy, but it’s a staggering plot twist nonetheless – the kid who has been bottling things up finally asks for help.

“I think the Spider-Man lesson is so cool because it’s not even the tip,’’ Hahn said. “Like, we’re trying to change the environment so that teachers can share more with their students. And coaches can share more with their players. And counselors are allowed to share age-appropriate and intentional things that make their students feel they’re more humanized.”

Foster underscored that the film is mission-aligned with the Kevin Love Fund. It was founded by someone viewed as a real-life superhero in the world of mental health. Love is a rugged 6-foot-8, 251-pound NBA All-Star player who privately suffered with anxiety issues for years. 

When he finally disclosed his inner torment, in a breathtakingly candid first-person story for The Players Tribune on March 6, 2018, it served as a watershed moment for national conversations about mental health.

“My hope for the short film would be for everyone, especially young people, to understand that your feelings are valid and that you are not alone in this,” Love said in announcing this project. 

Tough people – whether it’s Kevin Love or Gwen Stacy or Miles Morales – can be suffering below the surface, too. 

The curriculum advises educators that when discussing mental health, it is important to teach young people how to reach out when they are struggling themselves. With Miles as their example, students will learn how to reach out to a trusted adult and begin the conversation by saying, “Hey, you got a minute?”

“What we’re working on with the Kevin Love Fund is a paradigm shift in what schools can be, that they’re not just places for critical thinking or learning important content,’’ Foster said. “And those things are important. Certainly, we want students to reach learning goals in all the subject areas. But can we also make schools into places where they can bring their whole selves into the classroom – where they’re allowed to talk about what’s really going on in their lives – because of course they are emotional beings.”

“Miles sharing and deciding to talk to his dad is an example for what we hope all kids will be able to do,’’ Foster said. “Like, let’s open up and be vocal about how you’re feeling. You don’t have to keep it hidden and quiet.”