By Darren Franich
January 06, 2013 at 12:00 PM EST

Imagine a world where everyone is a superhero. Would you like to live there? Do you think it would be better than our own world? Or would it be worse? This is an important question, because judging by the most successful movies made in 2012, our country — and our world — really likes superheroes. We all know that the two highest-grossing films of 2012 were about superheroes – The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises. The third major superhero movie released last summer was, The Amazing Spider-Man, which earned $262 million domestically. It was the sixth-highest-grossing movie of the year in American theaters. We tend to lump these movies together because they are all about costumed codenamed characters who originated in comic books. They are Superhero Movies.

But when you actually watch the movies, they don’t initially seem to have very much in common. The Avengers is an ensemble action comedy, essentially a superpowered riff on the Love, Actually model, with each spin-off superhero’s character arc mixing together into what amounts to a series of mini-movies. (The final battle in New York = “All I Want For Christmas is You.”) The Dark Knight Rises is a bleak epic with explicit (perhaps desperate) Dickens references. It barely seems interested in its own superhero – you could chop out all the scenes with Batman in-costume and still have 90 minutes of a movie. (It would basically be The Siege without Denzel Washington.) The two movies feel like diametric opposites, Goofus and Gallant, colorful and monochrome; one promises the moviegoer a whole series of neverending adventures in a universe filled with heroes, while the other is an explicit capital-C Conclusion to a capital-S Saga, filled with capital-T Themes.

Meanwhile, redheaded stepchild Amazing Spider-Man is essentially a hyper-extended remake of the first half hour of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man which plays like a weird attempt to mash-up The Dark Knight and Twilight, but which is also arguably far more human-focused than the other films. The characters in Amazing Spider-Man interact with a real-feeling awkwardness; compared to the Joss Whedon Banter Brigade and the Christopher Nolan Expositionbots, Amazing Spider-Man feels like a Cassavetes family drama.

So Superhero Movies have evolved to the point where three of the genre’s standard-bearers can embody radically different filmmaking styles – this is a good thing, right? Well, maybe. But the problem is, when you dig underneath the three films’ respective stylistic excesses – and they are excesses; few genres in film history are more fundamentally decadent than the Superhero Film, with the ever-expanding budgets and the swooping digital-effects-crane-shots and the ruined cityscapes and the supervillains planning to conquer/pillage/destroy every city/world/galaxy in sight – there is a depressing sameness to lurking within each movie’s basic DNA. The essential tenets of the modern-day Superhero Movie are:

1. The main character must triumph over their own self-doubt. Indeed, the whole process of becoming a hero becomes a process of Messianic self-realization. Weirdly, all three of these movies are origin stories, even though Avengers and Dark Knight are sequels and The Amazing Spider-Man is a reboot. (And the tendency to focus on origin stories isn’t stopping anytime soon.) This means that all of these movies revel in hyper-extending the audience’s experience of the “Ghost Ship” moment. The Avengers is a movie about superheroes who decide, in the third act, to become The Avengers; The Dark Knight Rises is a movie about a guy who, around the two-hour mark, finally decides to rise – like, literally and figuratively, y’know?

2. The main character must also triumph over adversity. However, that “adversity” does not just represent the nominal villains of the piece; it also represents societal forces which are charged with maintaining order, and which view the hero as a detriment to that order. Spider-Man and Batman are both hunted by policemen; the Avengers are assailed throughout their own movie by the hilariously shadowy World Security Council, who all appear to be calling in on a Skype line from their own private rendition of “Our Town.” This arguably makes the heroes of these movies “misfits,” although it’s probably more accurate to call them descendants of the ’70s loose-cannon cop figure: “You’re off the case, McGarnagle!”

3. On the flip side, even if our heroes are hunted by authority figures, they are praised, even sanctified, by the masses. Batman has become a cult hero in Dark Knight Rises. The first two Iron Man movies establish that the movie incarnation of Tony Stark is a beloved tycoon, Howard Hughes without the dark side, Steve Jobs without the turtlenecks — for that matter, he’s Tony Stark without the alcoholism. And Amazing Spider-Man features the Crane Swing Scene, in which every construction worker in New York teams up with Spider-Man – it’s a vision so ridiculous and sublime and Proletarian that it could have come out of Eisenstein.

4. The heroes’ goodness is constantly called into question, but is ultimately and irrefutably confirmed. There is, in the end, no moral gray area; even characters like Catwoman or the Hulk, who explicitly follow their own anarchic moral code, will wind up selflessly fighting for the cause of human decency by Act 3.

5. The movies exist in a universe built on franchise iconography. This could manifest itself in visuals that are abstract (the child drawing the Bat-symbol in chalk in The Dark Knight Rises), or visuals that are eerily precise (Spider-Man, encountering yet another villain on yet another New York bridge; Batman, getting a kneecap to the spine) or winking dialogue where the whole joke is in the reference (“Hulk smash puny God”).

6. None of the main characters ever die. Any main characters who do die are not really important, and their main purpose is to become a sacrificial lambs whose death serves to justify/inspire the hero’s journey. (See: Agent Coulsen in The Avengers; Rachel Dawes and Batman’s Murdered Parents in the Dark Knight trilogy; Uncle Ben, Captain Stacy, and Spider-Man’s Murdered Parents in Amazing Spider-Man.)

7. Each films revels in an image of self-sacrifice. Batman flying a Nuclear Reactor over the ocean; Iron Man flying a Nuclear Missile into a Black Hole; and, on a slightly less-nuclear note, Peter Parker promising to the dying Captain Stacy that he will stay away from Gwen. In turn, each film ultimately undercuts that self-sacrifice. Batman survives and moves to Europe; Iron Man survives and orders shawarma; Peter Parker basically waits a week after Captain Stacy’s funeral before he flirts with Gwen Stacy again. It’s a have-your-cake-and-eat-it form of catharsis – which, to be fair, is also what happens to the protagonist of the Gospels.

8. There is no blood. And no swearing. And nothing that could possibly come close to earning the movies an R rating.

Here’s the interesting thing. If you remove the costumed-codename requirement and use these six key commonalities, then a funny thing happens when you look at the highest-grossing movies of 2012: They are all superhero movies. Or, anyhow, the top 7 are. The Hunger Games (#3) was, in book form, a darkly comic send-up of reality TV which doubled as an effective thriller; the movie removed all the sting of the satire and reconfigured Katniss Everdeen into a crossbow-wielding superheroine. She has her very own Uncle Ben – poor Rue, born to die.

In turn, the film explicitly reconfigures the book’s vision of an insane society and turns President Snow into the authority-figure villain; it also adds in images of Katniss inspiring rebellion, making it clear that she has the support of the masses. And, like the book, the film stacks the deck unfairly in Katniss’ favor: In a contest that requires kids to kill kids, she manages to succeed by only murdering one person, an essentially faceless Tribute who kills Rue. It’s a justified killing, we can all agree, unless we want to actually have a conversation about whether killing is ever justified.

You could argue that The Hunger Games is purposefully playing into the superhero myth. After all, Katniss is explicitly sold to the public in superhero terms. Her parade dress is a superhero costume; she becomes “The Girl on Fire,” a codename; she wears a mockingjay pin, an emblem. In the book, this played like complicated satire: Katniss is just a normal girl who wants to survive, but the media turns her into hero. The movie buys into this transformation wholesale. It’s propaganda for The Hunger Games franchise, a dark comedy transformed into an advertisement.

Skyfall (#4) has no such ideological confusion. In hindsight, James Bond was always a superhero. The latest film in the franchise just literalizes that realization. It’s established early and often that Bond’s greatest enemy is himself: If we’re to believe the doctors at MI6, he’s an alcoholic drug-addicted wreck with the lung capacity of a dying chainsmoker. Of course, this never affects Bond’s ability to run faster, shoot straighter, and hold his breath longer than any of his enemies – and as if that weren’t enough, we can clearly see that Daniel Craig looks like a cut-from-granite art-school model, his body replete with ambient gym-rat muscles. But Skyfall exemplifies the modern superhero myth in other ways: It gives James Bond the Uncle Ben we never knew he had, and in the process, reveals itself as a stealth origin story.

Skyfall also features one of the loopier showstopping scenes in recent movie history. One of the film’s plot threads has M brought up in front of a panel, where a gaggle of smug politicians (possible on the World Security Council) smugly tell M that her methods aren’t needed anymore. In response, M gives a big speech where she quotes Tennyson and assures the committee that there are still evil men lurking in the shadows, and the only way to get those evil men is to give people James Bond an unlimited budget to do whatever they want to for the cause of justice, basically. The speech ends with a terrorist attacking the room, lest we be concerned that M is not completely right about anything. Of course, Silva’s whole motivation is to kill M. And the whole film only happens because M made a list of every undercover agent and let it fall into the wrong hands. But whatever. Tennyson and 007 both win, and Smug Politicians Who Would Like Some Oversight On Espionage Agents lose.

(ASIDE: More than a few people have noted that Skyfall resembles The Dark Knight in many ways. (Like the Joker, Javier Bardem’s Silva is an anarchist — with facial scars! — who has insanely elaborate plans that involve insanely well-placed explosives.) But in truth, it’s probably more accurate to look at Skyfall as an accidental sibling of The Dark Knight Rises. Both movies send their heroes on a death-resurrection cycle; both feature a hero-villain pair who were trained by the same person, Batman/Bane/Ra’s Al Ghul, Bond/Silva/M. The fact that Skyfall manages to be at once more ridiculous, more coherent, more fun, and ultimately more cynical than Dark Knight Rises is perhaps further proof that John Logan should co-write every film made in Hollywood. END OF ASIDE)

Maybe you’re unwilling to roll with this reinterpretation of the meaning of “superhero.” Maybe you don’t think that Katniss’ incredible crossbow ability or Bond’s incredible ability to survive a simultaneous gunshot/fall/drowning aren’t just superpowers by any other name. Fair enough. But everyone can clearly see that The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 2 (#5) is overrun with characters blessed with unique super-abilities. It’s an X-Men movie, albeit without the Civil Rights subtext — a misfit movie where the misfits are all rich, immortal, and mostly white.

I already know the obvious counter-argument: Breaking Dawn can’t be a superhero movie, because the characters don’t actually do anything heroic. And that’s fair. But the movie strives hard to make them seem heroic. Bella Swan has her own self-sacrifice Messiah narrative – she gives her life away to her unborn child, and is rewarded with eternal life and the ability to run like really really fast. She has her own Authority Figure Who Doesn’t Understand — her Dad. There is a brief moment at the start of Breaking Dawn that hints at the true damage a vampire can do – Bella almost sucks the blood out of a random hiker — but that potentially intriguing note of moral complexity goes out the window almost immediately. (They’re vegetarian vampires, we’re told over and over again.)

Breaking Dawn draws upon all these tropes to make Bella and her friends seem heroic. The truth is, they’re not. They’re selfish and self-interested elitists; they might not be Lannisters, but they sure aren’t Starks.

(ASIDE: The most off-key — and therefore interesting — scene in the movie comes when Lee Pace is introduced as a caddish Han Solo-ish vampire, and part of his introduction is his nonchalant murder of a random drunken English guy. Said murder earns a wry smile from the Cullen siblings, as if Lee Pace is a funny drunk uncle. END OF ASIDE)

And then there’s The Hobbit. In the process of adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s relatively slim, episodic fantasy novel into the first act of a two-or-maybe-three-part epic saga, Peter Jackson & co. didn’t just have to add in plot points. They also felt the need to turn the films into a legitimate emotional journey for their characters. In the process, they took two relatively simple characters – the canny hobbit Bilbo and the arrogant dwarf-lord Thorin — and turned them into superheroes-by-any-other-name.

Thorin gets two origin stories — ah ha, so that’s how he got the Oaken Shield, I get it now LOL — and a new archnemesis. Meanwhile, roughly every half-hour, someone will tell Bilbo that they don’t really think he belongs on an adventure, until finally everyone agrees that Bilbo does belong on an adventure. Essentially, Bilbo’s dramatic arc in The Hobbit is: Will he agree to be the star of the movie called The Hobbit?

Just to gild the lily a bit, Jackson also adds in scenes where various authority figures tell Thorin, and Gandalf, that the clearly heroic quest they have undertaken is not heroic – in this metaphor, Elrond = Captain Stacy = Matthew Modine in Dark Knight Rises = your parents, who just don’t understand. And fans of Tolkien know that future episodes of The Hobbit will juxtapose the dwarves’ search for their lost gold with the battle against a force of pure evil. By comparison, imagine if someone remade The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and added in a subplot where it turns out that the gold-hunters only want gold so they can kill Evil Zombie Hitler.

Some of these movies are good. Some of them are terrible. But I’m less interested in a critical appraisal of these films, and more interested in what their eerily unified themes mean. Because, looked at from this perspective, here is what the Modern Hollywood Blockbuster has become:

1.Movies about protagonists who doubt themselves until they suddenly don’t, because the plot demands that they stop being confused around the Act 3 mark.

2. In fact, movies where the actual saving of human lives is less important, narratively speaking, than the fact that the hero finally decides to be a hero.

3. Movies where, furthermore, the hero is misunderstood, but only by crusty-old-dean authority figures, whereas the common people always love them (and sometimes they actually applaud them).

4. Movies where the heroes pay lip service to the idea that “morality” is a thing that is not set in stone, before ultimately reaffirming their own goodness, nay, awesomeness, therefore establishing a world where, if you are not with the hero, then you are a villain.

5. Movies where everything is a goddamn reference to something, and you can’t even have a clearly Robin-esque character without finally establishing that his name is actually “Robin.”

6. Movies that are, ultimately, set in a world that is essentially the playground for our heroes to decide whether or not they’re going to be heroic. Spoiler alert: They are.

There is something oddly selfish and self-aggrandizing about this entire genre. With the exception of Katniss, all of the heroes are –from a certain perspective — bullies who insist that they’re doing everything for the greater good. The fact that they are so often misunderstood by people in power gives them a victim complex that is rarely ever deserved. Watching these movies is a little bit like hanging out with a bunch of rich people who didn’t get hugged enough by their parents, who think that working a nine-to-five job constitutes self-sacrifice. It’s Chicken Soup for the Popular Kids, over and over and over again.

Why is this important? Because, after over a decade of commercial success, the whole concept of the Superhero has begun to infect other films. Take a look at the two real-life movies at the front of the Oscar race. Zero Dark Thirty is shot like a documentary — or rather, is shot in a way that used to be “documentary-esque” before it became “24-esque” — but I would argue that it’s essential character arc is that of a superhero. Jessica Chastain’s (fictionalized) Maya is engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with the movie’s (arguably fictionalized) Osama Bin Laden, as surely as Batman is with the Joker or Bond with Silva. We know, as citizens of the earth who watch the news, that Maya is right about everything. Even her minor missteps are entirely understandable — a lost file here or there. Maya has an Uncle Ben – the character played by Jennifer Ehle, who dies in a scene that doesn’t have much to do narratively with anything, except justify Maya’s fierce determination. Any character who calls Maya’s greatness into question is proven wrong, immediately or eventually.

I suppose you could excuse Zero Dark Thirty from this argument by pointing out that we don’t really know anything about the hunt for Bin Laden. We depend on the fact that Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow interviewed CIA agents; we depend on the knowledge that they based Maya on a genuine person; we depend on the hope that they didn’t cut too many corners for narrative coherence, that they didn’t invent lines like “I’m the motherf—er that found this place” just because they felt like all this investigative stuff was getting really boring.

But look, then, to Argo, a movie that positively rejoices in rampantly fictionalizing a fascinating true story. The most glaring changes are obvious: The scene in the Bazaar, the trucks chasing after the airport. But more telling is the fact that Tony Mendez’ plan is constantly assailed by Authority Figures Who Don’t Understand That The Hero is Always Right. (In Argo as in Zero Dark Thirty, Kyle Chandler plays J. Jonah Jameson.) This results in a moment when the U.S. Government actually cancels the extraction plan, meaning that Tony Mendez has to go rogue. None of that happened. It’s there to add tension — which, fine, it does. But it also turns a great story of heroism into a perfect example of the Superhero Delusion: Someone who does the absolute right thing, even though other people tell him not to, and succeeds fabulously.

The weirdest thing about Argo is also the weirdest thing about Zero Dark Thirty. Both movies are shot with a stylized shaky-cam dramatic realism. Both movies feature gigantic supporting casts who all play their real characters with a nice quiet realism. And yet, both movies also feature lead roles that feel, ultimately, like two-dimensional heroes. They’re a little bit obsessive, but not so much that they aren’t fabulous at their jobs. (Like The Hunger Games, you can maybe argue that Argo — with its Hollywood-satire subplot — knows exactly what it’s doing and is reveling in it. You can’t say the same for Zero Dark Thirty.) Argo throws in a scene at the end where Tony Mendez, having spent the whole movie separated from his wife because his work makes him impossible to live with, makes a crucial decision: “Oh, what the heck, I’ll go be with my wife now.” Everyone wins. Evil loses, or something.

Tony Mendez and Maya are both “real” people, but in adapting their story into a modern American thriller, the filmmakers cherrypicked certain tropes from the defining heroic archetype of the modern age: The Superhero. But this is a very distinct breed of superhero: Call it the Sad Perfect Badass Messiah. It’s an archetype that represents the crossbreeding three very distinct versions of the superhero. The original model, Superman, was the mid-century dream of perfection: A person who did right, because doing right was the right thing to do. The Golden Age heroes all had their weird affectations, and you could argue there was greater subtext hanging over their heads — Superman was a socialist; Wonder Woman was a feminist; everybody was gay. But the characters didn’t suffer from too much interior or exterior turmoil. They were heroes, and people loved them for it.

Then came Spider-Man and the Marvel age. We all know that Stan Lee came up with the basic idea of Superheroes With Problems, superpowered individuals who struggled with family and money and girls. But what really made the characters interesting — what made them more than petty adolescents with super-strength — was the complicated vision of morality. Spider-Man was a good person, despite the fact that everyone hated him. No matter how many people he rescued, the Daily Bugle would call him a menace and the cops would hunt him down. The X-Men were hated and feared by a country that didn’t understand them, but they would still save the world when they were called upon.

Over time, this idea of the Misfit Superhero evolved and calcified — at times in Marvel’s history, basically every story is an X-Men story, with the population of America turning against all superheroes because they’re weird and scary. But while that happened, another key piece of archetypal evolution emerged from the Image comics mini-revolution in the early ’90s. Artists like Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, and Marc Silvestri reinterpreted old heroes and created new ones who all shared certain key characteristics. They were “misfits,” like Spider-Man, but they all talked in the same language of mid-’80s beefcake badassery. Many of them had cyborg arms. Almost all of them hung out with female characters who wore nothing, or nothing’s equivalent. Imagine watching a porno about a Burt Reynolds lookalike who constantly complains that no one loves him right before engaging in a twenty-minute threesome. The most iconic of these characters was probably Spawn, a hero with limitless power who spent half his time in back alleys moaning about how hard his life was. I don’t want to push the Jesus thing too much, but Spawn was literally resurrected — a guy who was sent back from hell. He was a Hero in Name Only, usually fighting people because they attacked him. I stopped reading Spawn years ago, but according to Wikipedia, he eventually became God or something.

The Superhero Cinema of the 2000s ultimately drew on all of these archytpes. It took a little while, of course. The first two Spider-Man movies were rooted in a world straight out of Marvel’s gee-whiz ’60s. The first two X-Men movies went whole-hock for the Civil Rights allegory: The X-Men weren’t safe anywhere except with each other.

And Christopher Nolan’s first two Batman movies were smart enough to treat Bruce Wayne’s pursuit of justice as an unhealthy, all-consuming obsession. There’s a way to read The Dark Knight where Batman doesn’t even look like a hero; or anyhow, there’s a sense that The Dark Knight wants you to understand that the only thing separating a hero from a villain is PR. (Harvey Dent becomes, in death, the inspiration for a better tomorrow; another Christ figure, over and over again.)

The change came slowly, but if you wanted to pick a specific point when everything went wrong, you’d want to look at Iron Man 2. The character arc of the first movie was a relatively simple redemption tale: A selfish, arrogant man becomes a hero. That’s also, weirdly, the character arc of Iron Man 2, except that the movie doesn’t seem to realize that the character is still selfish and arrogant. Tony Stark is a brilliant, popular, successful rock-star billionaire. At the start of the movie, he has to sit down and be chastised by the U.S. government, with Garry Shandling as the crusty old dean. In what amounts to one of the single most ideologically confusing things ever said in a fluffy popcorn movie, he tells the government, “I have successfully privatized world peace” — essentially telling the audience that he is the equivalent of a nuclear bomb pointed at the whole world, beholden to no one except himself — and everyone applauds.

The movie then settles in for an interminable second act where we learn that Tony Stark had an Emotionally Distant Father, awwww, who actually really loved him, yaayyyy! Also, he might be dying, until Nick Fury shows up and gives him some new technology, and then he’s not dying. In the end, Iron Man decides to be Iron Man and save the day in a very Iron Man-esque way.

This is, more or less, the same story arc followed by last year’s three major superhero movies. It’s also the same story arc followed by Van Wilder and pretty much every Adam Sandler movie. I’m being cruel to be kind, but also because the whole moral character of the superhero genre is evolving in a weird, unsanitary direction. Don’t underestimate the difference between the end of The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. The former ends on an ambiguous note, suggesting that the hero is a kind of necessary evil, and that heroism will cost you everything: Your love, your happiness, your life. The latter ends on an unambiguous note, suggesting that the hero has become a symbol of everything that is good and true in our society, and also that being a hero earns you a long retirement café-hopping with Anne Hathaway.

Maybe this is all okay. Every generation gets its own Defining Cinematic Hero: The cowboy, the lone-wolf cop, the beefcake gun-toting superman, Will Smith. Like the superhero, all of those heroes represent a very specific brand of American fantasy. If you wanted to psychoanalyze, I suspect that the modern brand of superhero represents a simultaneous self-realization and self-delusion. We admit that America did some bad things for awhile there, but we also want everyone to know that our heart was in the right place.

Then again, by exalting the Sad Perfect Messiah superhero archetype, we may be deluding ourselves even more than we realize. The best movie made last year about people with superpowers resembles other superhero movies, on the surface. The main character is a camera-loving narcissist, like Tony Stark. He’s a social misfit, like Peter Parker. He has an emotionally-distant father, like everybody. There’s a scene where he uses his powers to impress people, and receives thundering applause.

The difference is that in Chronicle, the main character turns out to be the movie’s villain. I would argue that Chronicle is a deconstruction of the Superhero Movie. It’s like a revisionist western, or a neo-noir: A movie that interrogates the tropes of its own genre. It seems to suggest that we all want to be a Sad Perfect Badass Messiah — that we all have the same victim complex, that we all want so badly to be loved by everyone all the time, that our vision has turned inward until all we can see is the self we create. (The hero/villain of Chronicle films himself all the time, which might have seemed weird in a era where we didn’t all regularly update our Facebook profiles.)

It’s always dicey to talk about morality in art, partially because art doesn’t really need to be moral, partially because “morality” and “art” are two of the vaguest concepts in any language, such that even mentioning them is enough to inspire a go-nowhere debate. But Chronicle does feel like a harsh moral and artistic corrective to the current decadent phase of the Superhero Movie genre. The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man, and The Dark Knight Rises — and Skyfall and Twilight and kind of The Hunger Games and even The Hobbit and Zero Dark Thirty and Argo — are all movies about heroic heroes who do heroism and are hailed for it, many of them while being insanely attractive and romantically tortured and after crying briefly about dead friends whose legend lives on to inspire the heroes to be heroic.

Chronicle is about absolute power corrupting absolutely. There is no hero; there’s just a guy who stops the villain, and his reward is to lose everything. In its own weird way, it feels like a portrait of an America where everyone thinks they are a superhero — the characters in the film would have just started grade school when Spider-Man hit theaters. It makes other Superhero Movies look simple — and silly — by comparison. It’s a reminder that supervillains have the Superhero Delusion, too. Hollywood has already hired the director to make Fantastic Four 3, or Fantastic Four 1, or whatever.

Meanwhile, the star of Chronicle will be acting in Amazing Spider-Man 2 or The Spectacular Spider-Man or whatever. He’s going to be playing Harry Osborn, a character who we all know turns into a villain. The genius of Chronicle is that it argues that Peter Parker could turn into a villain, too. The scary thing about Chronicle is that it suggests we all would. Is that because we didn’t learn any lessons from Superhero Movies? Or is it because we learned those lessons all too well?

Follow Darren on Twitter: @DarrenFranich

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