Is fast food good for you? The answer is obvious, to the point that the question sounds insane, and one reason it’s obvious is that Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me,” back in 2004, colored in the answer in a highly entertaining and informative way. Spurlock’s 30-day-McDonald’s-binge documentary was an experiment that took the form of a gluttonous fantasy (what would it be like to pig out on McDonald’s every day?), and it demonstrated what any halfway informed person already knew: that fast food, as good as it tastes, is bad for your heart and (maybe) your soul — that it makes you fat, sluggish, and demonstrably unhealthy.
So what’s left for Spurlock to demonstrate in “Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken!”? A lot more than you’d expect. As it turns out, the reality of fast food — that it’s succulent addictive junk — is now competing with a counter-myth: that it’s all a lot healthier than it used to be. And one of the reasons it’s competing with that myth is because of “Super Size Me.” Spurlock’s film turned the spotlight on what’s actually going on in your body when you eat a hamburger and fries at McDonald’s. And so the McDonald’s corporation, like any shrewd company, got busy.
Did they get busy making their food healthier? Here and there, but mostly they got busy pretending to make their food healthier, constructing a massive propaganda campaign designed to protect their brand by convincing people that McDonald’s had seen the light on greasy calories and clogged arteries. The rest of the fast-food industry followed suit. The result? Consumers are now in far greater denial of the toxic qualities of fast food than they were when “Super Size Me” came out.
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“Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken!” is Spurlock’s attempt to rectify that situation. Yet it’s now clear, more than it was then, that he may be fighting a borderline impossible battle. “Super Size Me 2” is built around what’s meant to be another irresistible what-if-I-did-this? logistical culinary stunt. Playing off the notion that sometimes the only way to solve a problem “is to become a part of that problem,” Spurlock decides to open his own fast-food restaurant. In theory, it’s a fun idea, and it gives Spurlock a hooky way to demonstrate how the sausage — or, in this case, the chicken sandwich with the grill stripes literally painted on — gets made.
He builds his one-shot franchise outlet from the ground up, and each step along the way provides another McNugget of a lesson for the audience in how the fast food we crave actually gets created. First off, Spurlock buys an independent hatchery in Alabama, demonstrating in the process that 99 percent of America’s chicken farms are owned by what he calls Big Chicken: the five vertically integrated corporations (Tyson, Perdue, etc.) that control the industry. He calls his hatchery “Morganic Farms,” but he can’t make his chickens organic, because that’s too expensive. And when it comes to the issue of whether they’ll be free-range or not, he learns that the industry definition of “free-range” — a term that makes a lot of us feel both humane and hungry — is more slippery than we thought.
Spurlock’s chickens are massed inside, under less horrific conditions than some of the guerrilla footage of chicken farms has revealed over the last decade. But as long as they’re given the theoretical option of stepping outside (in this case, into an area of about four square feet), that counts as “free-range.” Grilled chicken is healthier than fried chicken, but Spurlock interviews consumers who salivate at the thought of anything fried and turn up their nose at grilled for being boring. So he comes up with a “healthy” gimmick: He will make a chicken patty that’s grilled and fried, giving his customers the best of both worlds.
Beyond that, he investigates the use of the tantalizing words that fast-food corporations now ritually employ to seduce you into thinking that the food they’re marketing is healthy. On the menus, they bombard the customer with words like “fresh,” “natural,” “no additives,” “made from scratch,” and the substitution of the light-and-tasty-sounding “crispy” for the dreaded old-school “fried.” Throw in a salad or two, and America, from what the film shows us, is now convinced that what it’s eating somehow isn’t an orgy of utterly non-nutritious and processed-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life fake food.
As Spurlock learns, all those meaningless words — and the new plain brown “environmental” wrappers — create something that the fast-food industry calls a “health halo.” It’s an aura of being good for you. Spurlock, like McDonald’s, paints a bunch of those words and slogans on the walls of his restaurant — a former Wendy’s along a fast-food strip of Columbus, Ohio, that he refurbishes with nice bright green-and-white colors. The whole launch of his restaurant isn’t serious, it’s a piece of conceptual satire: a sham-healthy experience. But the local public buys it.
Spurlock, with slightly thinner hair than he had in “Super Size Me,” is still the same funny and ebullient documentary host in his trademark hipster-handlebar mustache, and he remains an engagingly non-hectoring crusader. “Super Size Me 2” is half a good movie, because it teaches you something. But maybe not enough. Spurlock, as instrumental as he has been in putting these issues on the table, doesn’t seem to fully get what his own movie is about.
He spends a lot of the film’s time — too much of it — on his chicken farm, because he knows that the sight of Morgan Spurlock running his own little mass-produced poultry industry makes for good visual theater. He also captures the plight of farmers who are treated like indentured servants by Big Chicken. Yet the ultimate subject of “Super Size Me 2” isn’t chicken farming; it’s advertising. It’s the Orwellian counter-reality that fast-food companies are now selling us. And Spurlock would have done well to get a glimpse behind the curtain and show us how more of that gets created.
In the 13 years since “Super Size Me,” we’ve seen the rise of a veritable cottage industry of documentary food exposés that spotlight what it really is that we’re eating every day. The most brilliant and mind-boggling of those films is Robert Kenner’s “Food, Inc.” (2008), which was essentially the documentary version of Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation.” It made the extraordinary point that the processed food that constitutes the overwhelming bulk of most people’s diets is made with techniques that were pioneered by the fast-food industry. What we’re eating is, in essence, an illusion (corn syrup and chemicals pretending to be spaghetti sauce, etc.). “Super Size Me,” like “Food, Inc.,” was in its catchy way bringing the news, but “Super Size Me 2” is now just one more chapter in a genre that Spurlock helped create. It has its amusing (and enlightening) moments, but in many ways it’s just dancing around the meat of the matter.