On some level, we want our fictional universes to be real. We want our Hogwarts letters; we want the TARDIS to show up on our doorstep; we want to be chosen as the hero by a talking cat or to find faeries in our backyards. And creators have noticed. Many franchises have tried to play into our desire for our fantasy worlds to be real by adding a layer of meta into their creations, inextricably linking the real world and the fictional one. The key to this sort of real world tie-in is subtlety and a firm grasp on the message of the original work.
Marvel has brought the meta with relative success, by those standards. Their meta quietly suggests that their stories are set in our world, mainly through the use of real-world media personalities. For example, Bill O’Reilly appears onscreen in the Iron Man movies as himself. Because O’Reilly is a real person and not just some Marvel-created conservative blowhard, that takes away part of the barrier between the story and reality.
The most recent arc of the Black Widow comic does this as well, as the plot centers around the Widow being forced to run damage control after an Anderson Cooper special spills her life story. Most people are familiar with Cooper and his media persona, and writing him into the story instead of some fictional intrepid reporter provides us with a shorthand understanding of the tenor of his character. The meta-mixing works here because their inclusion doesn’t interfere with the themes of the story, but rather, adds to them. Part of the conflict of the Iron Man films is that Tony has no one to whom he must be accountable, and of course the talking heads would be afire with that. Black Widow’s main personal struggles stem from the sins of her past, and so a tell-all news story would be devastating, both to her personally and to her work as a spy.
Supernatural has had mixed success with meta engagement as its storyline has become more and more convoluted. I’m not really talking about the in-series Supernatural book series and extensive fandom here, but rather their awkward attempts to prove that their banter is culturally relevant. For folks who spend most of their lives in cars and shitty motels, Sam and Dean have a pretty on-point knowledge of current pop culture, and the show has, more than once, cast D-list reality TV stars as villains (see: Paris Hilton and Snooki).
In the first seasons, it was one thing, because you could imagine that somewhere out there in the real world two guys were battling small evils, but once massive observable phenomena distinguish their universe from ours, it’s awkward and unrealistic to force the idea that their pop culture and our pop culture is totally the same. In a universe that’s seen several near-misses on the apocalypse and where at one point the entire United States was going comatose from Leviathan goop in the food, this sort of constant cultural relevancy seems unnecessary and forced. Maybe—and this is just me being catty—if they took a break from being quippy every so often, Sam and Dean might actually have an open conversation and (gasp) grow as characters.
The other side of the meta engagement coin is when creators, rather than bringing our world into the fictional, bring the fictional into our world. Again, this only works if the products keep the tone of the original work. The Harry Potter franchise has made a booming industry out of this idea, with millions of dollars pouring out of our pockets and into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park, gear in our self-assigned House colors, and even customizable Hogwarts letters that arrive in the post. This works as meta-creation; the Wizarding World is, for the most part, something that we want to be a part of, and the books generally celebrate love, family, memory, and strength in togetherness.
The Hunger Games franchise, meanwhile, has tried to capitalize on this same sort of meta, and in doing so, they’ve only succeeded in totally undermining their story’s own message. Probably because there’s no money in “destroy blind consumerist excess and distrust the establishment,” their marketing strategies for tie-in merchandise have centered mainly on pushing Capitol-esque creations, such as makeup palettes and nail polish. On top of that, they’re still tossing around the idea of a Hunger Games theme park, which may be the most tone-deaf thing in the entire world. In short, their merchandising efforts have come to revolve around celebrating the very thing that the series’ entire story works to violently dismantle. Unlike other uses of meta imagery and writing, it’s neither subtle nor effective. Rather, it makes me think that the producers have totally missed the point of their own adaptation.
Tying your franchise into the real world is a tempting choice for creators. Giving nerds an easy in to imagining that their fantasy worlds are real may seem like a great way to make a quick buck. But in reality, it’s not an easy task. The connections have to be made in a way that makes sense and supports your storytelling, or else they become confusing and distracting, and makes the fiction less enjoyable than it was before it was meta-fied.