A Larger Kind of Career: Morgan Spurlock (1970-2024)


While the final chapter of his story was shrouded in allegations and controversy, the impact of Morgan Spurlock’s breakthrough film, 2004’s “Super Size Me” cannot be denied. Not only did it shape the way that people look at fast food, but it was also a major part of a wave of documentaries that placed the filmmaker front and center in the storytelling. Along with Michael Moore, Spurlock became one of the faces of a new kind of non-fiction filmmaking, one that felt almost like a hybrid of journalism and the more personality-driven world of reality TV that dominates the culture today. Spurlock rode the wave of this new kind of filmmaking to a successful career in the 2000s, but it came to a halt in 2017 when the director revealed allegations of sexual misconduct and a long battle with alcoholism, which added fuel to the claims that much of the film that made him a star was inaccurate. He passed away last week at the far-too-young age of 53 after a battle with cancer.

Morgan Spurlock started his career as a writer before co-founding his own studio in 2004 named Warrior Poets. One of his first major projects was for MTV, where he created a web show called “I Bet You Will,” which is exactly what it sounds like: How much does it cost to get people to do extraordinary things? A web show in 2002 was undeniably ahead of the curve, a precursor to the millions of similar videos two decades later that often center on extreme challenges.

The breakthrough came two years later when Spurlock reportedly saw a news story about two girls who were suing McDonald’s for their obesity. As nutrition became a larger focus in American culture, Spurlock noticed that McDonald’s was still asking consumers to eat more and more through their super sizing promotion—encouraging more calories for a small cost. He would eat nothing but McDonald’s for 30 days and would have to take the super-sized option whenever offered. To add to the experiment, Spurlock attempted to mimic the lackadaisical American exercise routine. Over the 30 days, Spurlock gained 25 pounds, and, perhaps most disturbingly, his liver started to show signs of disease.

A film that was always shrouded with charges of questionable journalistic practices—Spurlock notoriously refused to release a log of exactly what he ate over those 30 days—grew even more controversial in 2017 when Spurlock’s statement regarding his awful behavior included the phrase that he hadn’t been “sober for more than a week” in decades, leading some to question if the signs of decay in his liver might be attributable to that instead of Big Macs.

Say what you will about the experiment in “Super Size Me,” there are still insights in this film that I think about regularly, particularly the ones about indoctrination of children in small communities where the most exciting play place happens to be at a fast-food restaurant. The stats about the number of people who eat at McDonald’s on a weekly and even daily basis are also startling. The truth is that “Super Size Me” has more interesting ingredients around the dietary experiment than in its notorious gimmick.

Before his reputation fell apart, Spurlock used the fame from “Super Size Me,” which included an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, to create some other notable projects. Spurlock spun off the concept of the 30-day experiment of “Super Size Me” to create his most interesting project, the FX show “30 Days.” Each episode featured a different month-long experiment, often centered on lifestyle clashes like a Christian living with a Muslim family. It was a truly interesting show that ran for 18 episodes over three seasons, the best project of his career because episodic television worked better for the Spurlock approach than feature-length documentaries.

Morgan Spurlock directed other films, including 2008’s “Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?,” 2010’s “Freakonomics,” and 2011’s “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” about the pervasiveness of product placement. He also hosted a series on CNN from 2013 to 2016 titled “Morgan Spurlock Inside Man.”

In 2017, not long after the premiere of “Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken” at the Toronto International Film Festival, Spurlock released a statement titled “I am Part of the Problem.” As the #MeToo movement was racing through the industry, Spurlock revealed that he had been accused of rape in college, settled a sexual harassment allegation in the late ‘00s, and had a life shaped by infidelity and alcoholism. He stepped down from his company and essentially retired. “Super Size Me 2” was quietly released two years later by a different company than the one originally planned.

Almost every time that I see a documentary that’s built around an “experiment” conducted by the filmmaker themselves, I think of Morgan Spurlock. His impact on the industry is undeniable, and, while his on-screen persona became divisive even before the end of his career, he also produced dozens of documentaries, elevating numerous voices that were not his own. The work of people that wouldn’t have been made if he hadn’t supersized his value meals at McDonald’s may end up his greatest legacy after all.

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