IT’S the juiciest of aesthetic debates: are superhero movies really (clears throat, adjusts monocle) “cinema”?

This was the charge – “they’re not cinema” – laid down a few weeks ago by director Martin Scorsese, in a magazine interview, against the Marvel movie franchise (Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor/Iron Man etc).

“Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks,” said Scorsese. “It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”

READ MORE: Mark Millar defends Scorsese over criticism of Marvel movies

As they might say in superhero land, it’s all gone a bit Ka-Boom! since then. Scorsese’s brother-in-arms Francis Ford Coppola supported him: “Martin’s right, because we expect to learn something from cinema, we expect to gain something, some enlightenment, some knowledge, some inspiration ... He didn’t say it’s despicable, which I just say it is.”

Ken Loach chimed in: “They’re made as commodities like hamburgers and it’s not about communicating and it’s not about sharing our imagination.”

Benedict Cumberbatch, who’s starred in three Marvel Universe movies as Doctor Strange, was moved a few days ago to urge “support for auteur film-makers at every level”.

Even Ridley Scott, a sci-fi colossus with Blade Runner and Alien, has said that he “can’t believe in the thin, gossamer tightrope of the non-reality of the situation of the superhero” – and so will never make a superhero movie.

Of course, their defenders have come back robustly and acutely. Avengers director James Gunn notes that gangster movies (now, who makes them?) were in their time regarded as “despicable” – as were Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, now taken as classics.

Superhero movies are today’s equivalent, says Gunn: “Some are awful, some are beautiful”. The assumption being that, in order to sort out the latter from the former, time (and critical appraisal) will tell.

Like many “cinema” fans – and let’s accept the high-art implication of Scorsese’s term – I am wildly torn in two by this debate. Film studies would indeed suggest it’s too early to tell if they’re “cinema” or not.

An anecdote to illustrate. I vividly remember in 1981 – my first year of film and TV studies at Glasgow University – being grumpily sat down to watch a series of John Ford westerns, week after week. Why, I asked? These were the kind of movies I would contemptuously half-watch as a bored child on rainy Saturday afternoons.

The course lecturer John Caughie then brilliantly unfolded what Ford’s westerns were saying about American identity, its tensions between social order and disorder. He made every frame seem significant.

Thus educated, I now watch (for example) the closing sequence of Ford’s The Searchers with a sense of awe. John Wayne’s psychopathic Injun hunter has brought a white girl captured by the tribes back to her homestead.

The final sequence is from within the house, the domestic door closing into blackness on Wayne, barring his re-entry to civilised society. It’s a mythic, primal scene.

(By the way, our method of film studies was “structuralist” – that is, as much interested in how the movies were forged by history as directed by an artist).

And I must confess, I had exactly one of those “Searchers” moments – maybe only personal to me, but I can’t deny it – at the end of a recent Marvel Universe movie.

It’s 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War, directed by the Russo brothers. To put this in context, I should say that I also view superhero movies “structurally”. That is, beyond the intentions of any director, they are serving a collective function for us as a society.

To me, that function is obvious. Our human technologies and ingenuity have brought us to the brink of both endless abundance and possible extinction.

These superhero movies are vast ethical parables about the knife-edge of creation and destruction that we balance on, every day of our lives – whether we’re awake to this possibility or not.

So it’s no wonder these movies are so popular. Through them, we are working out what to do with our elemental powers over our own existence.

This is a perennial question, indeed for movie history itself. Remember Kubrick’s jump-cut between the caveman’s tossed bone and the orbiting space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But it’s just as perennial if you study the cast list of the Avengers series. Religious and mystical figures (Thor, Loki, Dr Strange) mingle their powers easily with cyborgs and irradiated mutants (Iron Man, Captain America, The Hulk).

All of them, gods and freaks alike, are representatives of our human urge to master and control nature and the material world. As the Scottish superhero-writer Grant Morrison once opined: “A culture starved of optimistic images of its own future has turned to the primary source, in search of utopian role models.”

“Could the superhero in his cape and skin-tight suit be the best current representation of something we all might become?” wrote Morrison. “A form of being who shows our best qualities are strong enough to overcome the destructive impulses that seek to undo the human project?”

This is what made the end of Avengers: Infinity War so devastating – as a desperate image of what happens when we cannot overcome those impulses. Thanos (of course, a shortening of Thanatos, the name that Sigmund Freud gave to the emotional drive towards death) gains everything he needs for complete physical control over all matter in the universe.

BUT terrifyingly, Thanos – somewhat like John Wayne in The Searchers – holds a theory of how to defend civilisation in his universe. For the crazed Marvel superhero, his plan is to cut any population numbers he finds by half, summarily and murderously. After this Malthusian culling, the remainder can live on their planet without fear of running out of resources.

And relaxing in what looks like his hillside dacha, holding the ultimate power over matter, that’s what Thanos decides to do. At the end of hours of kinetic excess, the movie’s final, becalmed scenes are truly traumatic.

On Thanos’s whim, beloved superheroes (as well as hapless civilians) flake into a crematorial, Hiroshima-like dust, exactly where they are standing.

I remember watching this, my mind that day already full of environmental warnings and stories about genetic and atomic engineering. I felt my heart gripped with a genuine, transforming, lurching dread. Isn’t this – our unravelling, our extinction – exactly what we’re currently capable of?

I never felt as moved by the sequel, Avengers: Endgame (just as you don’t have to like every John Ford western after The Searchers). But on this, I’d argue with Scorsese, Coppola and Loach to the very end: Infinity War is grand “cinema”, exactly according to their definition.

In fact, I think these are a little more than “human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to other human beings”. Superhero films are often trying to warn us about our planet-defining power, applied through ideology, technology or a potent mix of both.

It’s ironic for Scorsese. As he expresses contempt for superhero movies as digital “spectacles”, the director deploys digitality to overt effect in his new gangster movie (yes, again) The Irishman. Digital manipulation allows the 76-year-old Robert De Niro to convincingly play a soldier in his mid-20s and a truck driver in his mid-40s.

Are we implying – indeed, making manifest – some notion of eternal youth here, Martin? Is it only when draped in a cape and tights that such a yearning is “despicable”, Francis?

As the Marvel director Jon Favreau commented, when speaking of his two heroes, “Scorsese and Coppola have earned the right to say whatever they like”. Indeed. I bow low, and agree.

But as the old hippies used to say, nowadays “we are as gods, and we’ll have to get good at it”. If “cinema” helps with this kind of education – whether the underpants are worn on the outside or not – it should be worthy of praise.