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Film / Super Size Me

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"This is the best part of the day, when I get to be fat, on the bed, with my quart of Coke."
Morgan Spurlock

Super Size Me is a 2004 documentary made by Morgan Spurlock, which follows him as he attempts an experiment to only eat McDonald's food for 30 straight days.

This experiment is used as a framing sequence as Morgan takes a cross-country look at the various facets of fast-food culture in the United States, including its effects on the human body over a sustained period of time, diehard fast-food fans, the use of processed food in the American public school system, and the impact of fast-food on American society and business.

The rules of Morgan's experiment are:

  1. For 30 days, he can't eat or drink anything that isn't on a McDonald's menu.
  2. He must eat three meals a day — breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
  3. He must consume everything on the menu at least once.
  4. If a cashier asks Morgan if he wants to "super size" his meal, he must agree.
  5. He will attempt to walk about as much as (or rather, not substantially more than) a typical U.S citizen, based on a suggested figure of 5,000 steps per day.
  6. He must consume everything on his plate.

As a result, Spurlock ends up suffering from various health problems, such as lethargy, depression, headaches, a reduced sex drive, heart palpitations and weight gain. However, Spurlock completes the experiment, and concludes that fast-food can have incredibly damaging effects on the human body if eaten consistently and constantly, as well as stating that the experiment was an extreme case.

The film was generally well-received, and earned over $11 million dollars (against a $65,000 budget) at the box office. Soon after this documentary was released, McDonald's stopped offering the super-size option for their meals and introduced a 'Go Fit!' meal. Whether or not McDonald's instituted these changes to save face after the movie came out is unclear; McDonalds itself claims they actually started phasing out the super-size in early 2004 (the film was released in May of that year) and had already been market-testing healthy alternatives. On the other hand, Spurlock is shown continuously reaching out to them throughout this period, but their spokesperson kept stalling for an interview (which ultimately never materializes), so they were at least aware of the negative press coverage they were likely to get.

Super Size Me inspired a great deal of criticism from the scientific community, including several counter-documentaries (such as Fat Head) which pointed out serious flaws with Spurlock's film, such as the fact that he was a vegan before the supposed experiment and not just his then-girlfriend like the film implies, thus explaining his more extreme reactions to suddenly eating multiple cheeseburgers a day, or that his then-undisclosed alcoholism likely contributed to his health problems during the experiment.

The following year, Spurlock released a reality show called 30 Days, which had a similar structure to the film and involved people living a different lifestyle to what they're accustomed to for 30 days. This included Spurlock living on minimum wage, a conservative Christian living with a Muslim family, a straight man living in a gay community, and a mom living the college binge drinking lifestyle. The show ran for three seasons.

Years later, Spurlock would produce a sequel, Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken!, where he decided to open his own chicken restaurant to uncover how fast-food tries to pass itself as "healthy".

Tropes applying to this documentary are:

  • Artistic License – Biology: The film has received controversy over the way it depicts Spurlock's experiment. Several details were left out of the documentary, presumably to better support its point.
    • The fact that Spurlock was a vegan prior to beginning the experiment is not addressed, which makes his body's extreme reaction to the new diet (such as vomiting after his first meal) more understandable.
    • Spurlock later admitted to struggling with alcoholism for 30 years, including the duration of filming the movie. While his doctor gives him a clean bill of health at the beginning of the film, Spurlock's drinking habits likely had some effect on his health during the experiment, either due to drinking on top of his already unhealthy diet or going through withdrawals.
    • Some of Spurlock's rules seem designed to create a worse outcome. Ostensibly, he intends to emulate what the "average American" would have happen to them if they ate nothing but McDonalds, which explains why he tries to limit the amount of walking he does daily as it counts towards exercise, but always accepting the Super Size option and Force Feeding himself even though he isn't hungry anymore isn't what an average consumer would do in that situation.
    • Spurlock's experiment commonly violates what those in the legal profession call the "reasonable person standard": A reasonable person wouldn't consistently order extra food they didn't want and force themselves to eat it when they're not hungry; a reasonable person wouldn't eat fast food everyday for all three meals for an extended period of time, for reasons as simple as it'd get too expensive and they'd get tired of always eating the same thing; a reasonable person wouldn't make such an extreme alteration to their diet and exercise routine completely off the cuff and even if they tried, they'd reverse course relatively quickly if their body responded to it as negatively as Spurlock's did.
  • Big Bad: McDonald's. Though other companies are criticized, the Golden Arches take the spotlight in the blame of the obesity epidemic.
  • Big Eater: The documentary shows the consequences of being one.
  • Deep-Fried Whatever: In an extra feature on the DVD release, Spurlock visits a fish and chip shop that also experiments with deep-frying candy bars. Since Morgan is still on his McDonald's-only diet while they visit, he defers to his cameraman.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: A number of critics compared the vomiting scene to the way heroin addicts often throw up when using their drug of choice. Spurlock seems to be saying that fast food is just as addictive as heroin. (Although unless Spurlock was forcing himself to throw up, this was almost certainly unintentional. It's much more likely his body was just reacting to having food which was much more unhealthy than it was used to eating, given Spurlock was a rather strict vegan before filming this movie.)
  • Everything is Big in Texas: Present and discussed when Morgan goes to Texas, the fattest state of the Union in absolute numbers and the one where he is offered a "Super size" most often.
  • Fan Boy: Spurlock visits renowned Big Mac fanboy Don Gorske, who achieved notoriety for eating at least one Big Mac a day for well over a decade. Unlike Spurlock during the film, Gorske's health has been unaffected because he only eats the Big Macs, which doesn't contain as much salt or sugar as the rest of the McDonalds menu; he doesn't eat the french fries or drink the soda (he's since gone on to eat a total of 30,000 Big Macs).
  • Fast-Food Nation: Morgan Spurlock's documentary paints America as obsessed with McDonald's and the titular super-size option, to the point of health risk without care by the corporation.
  • Force Feeding: Spurlock does this to himself, since one of the rules of the experiment is that he has to finish his meal, even if it's an absurdly large Super Size option. At one point he keeps stuffing himself until he throws up.
  • Friend to All Children: Spurlock is shown to have a good bond with children when it comes to discussing with them fast food, interviewing many schoolchildren across the nation, and even playing in the playpen with the little ones at one point.
  • Gross-Up Close-Up: Spurlock reveals a closeup of a long hair stuck in his yogurt parfait cup.
  • Indestructible Edible: One of the DVD extras had him put McDonald's food products in jars and see how long it took them to go bad. The fish sandwich was the first to go, lasting only a couple of days, the various burgers lasted about two weeks before becoming moldy. The french fries on the other hand were completely unchanged (at least visibly) after ten weeks, at which point they were accidentally thrown out by an intern.note 
  • Insane Troll Logic: Spurlock's experiment is commonly criticized as being based off this.
  • "Last Supper" Steal: One segment is a painting that shows grotesque caricatures of various fast food mascots set up like The Last Supper.
  • Leitmotif: Takes after the film's title too.
  • Lost Aesop: The film briefly explores how the junk food peddlers' massive marketing budgets and utilization of popular celebrities as spokespersons allows them to dominate the public conscious in a way the government doesn't have a prayer of countering with healthy eating awareness efforts/PSAs. Spurlock then goes a step further and suggests that all the ways fast food chains market their products towards kids (ie giving away free toys, having playgrounds in their restaurants, hosting birthday parties) is cynically done with the intent of infecting their childhood memories during a key developmental stage, ensuring lifelong brand loyalty as they consume their product as an adult (and feed it to their own kids) purely for the sake of nostalgia. To that point, Spurlock demonstrates how random children he meets in public can easily identify a picture of Ronald McDonald but struggle to identify pictures of then-President George W. Bush and Jesus Christ. These are incredibly poignant points that deserve further discussion, but are instead completely glossed over as the audience instead focuses on Spurlock and his use of Insane Troll Logic to drive home his Captain Obvious Aesop.
  • Manchild: Morgan takes pride in playing in the McDonald's playpen with the kiddies, and sitting on the birthday boy chair.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Ignoring all the issues with the way Morgan did his experiment, the message "too much fast food is bad" is a good one. However, the influence of the film caused McDonald's and other fast food restaurants to alter their menu to include fewer "super-size" options, as well as more healthy ones - which helped them survive the backlash from the film and continue to largely do business as usual, while hiding behind the argument of "we've got healthy stuff, not our fault most people still get the artery-clogging stuff!"
  • Manipulative Editing: The film leaves out some important context that would help explain Spurlock’s visceral reaction to his new diet. The most obviously, even at the time, misleading element of the film is making it seem like only Alex was a vegan. Changing a diet so radically so quickly would make anyone sick. Spurlock’s later admission to a lifelong struggle with alcoholism also adds another wrinkle of context in hindsight. Especially because the doctor at the end even says his liver resembles an alcoholic’s.
  • Non-Mammal Mammaries: One of segments explained that McNuggets were originally made from chickens with larger-than-normal-breasts. This was demonstrated with an animated chicken with pendulous breasts so big that it had to walk with a cane.
  • Scenery Censor: At one point, Morgan is interviewing someone while they have lunch at McDonald's. A McDonald's bag is placed to conceal what the interviewee was eating: A McDonald's salad.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Several cartoon characters, such as Bugs Bunny and Sylvester, Krusty the Clown, and Kyle Broflovski make cameos in the parody art of "The Last Supper".
    • Three weeks into the experiment Spurlock's GP is shocked by how swiftly his new extremely high-fat diet is destroying his liver, comparing it to Leaving Las Vegas where the same thing was accomplished with an alcohol binge.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: The "Blue Danube Waltz" during scenes of gastric bypass surgery.
  • Think of the Children!: One of Spurlock's interview subjects is an attorney building a case against the fast food industry. The attorney explains that his particular focus on McDonald's is because of their focus on children: the PlayPlace playgrounds, birthday parties, the Happy Meal, the advertising mascot Ronald McDonald...
  • Title Drop: Right before the opening credits, Morgan pitches the idea of eating nothing but McDonalds for a month, ending with the title.
  • Vomit Indiscretion Shot: Spurlock force-feeds himself a Super-Sized meal and almost immediately pukes it back up again.
  • A Weighty Aesop: This is the point of the film, where Morgan Spurlock goes on a McDonald's diet for a month. It doesn't turn out well for him.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The DVD version tacked a section onto the end credits detailing what has happened to several of the interview subjects and Spurlock himself since the theatrical release.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Parodied. Spurlock mentions that when he has kids and they pass by a McDonald's while on a car ride, he'll punch them in the face to prevent them from asking to go there.
  • You Are Fat: Some fun is poked at the obesity of Americans.