If the ad campaign for "Logan," the 10th film in the "X-Men" franchise, could be summed up in five words, it would likely be "not your daddy's superhero movie." Much has been made of the film's R-rating, and of star Hugh Jackman's choice to take a pay cut to ensure all of the blood and guts and four-letter words could make it to the screen. In truth, director James Mangold's film is only somewhat removed from the modern superhero movie, slightly less beholden to convention and with fewer strained callbacks but with a similar lack of invention and penchant for weightless action. Still, the hard-R rating brings seems to have brought back Jackman's conviction, which counts for a lot.
Introduced waking from a drunken stupor in a limo, Logan/Wolverine (Jackman) lives on the Texas/Mexico border in 2029. Mutants are on the brink of extinction, and the X-Men, with the exception of Logan and an ailing Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), are dead. When the two encounter a young girl, Laura (a remarkably expressive Dafne Keen), with similar adamantium claws to Logan's, they're forced to take her to a North Dakota haven that may or may not exist while on the run from a mutant hunter (Boyd Holbrook) and a sinister scientist (Richard E. Grant).
The emphasis of guilt over sins of the past and the deaths of loved ones was present in Jackman's last solo outing, 2013's "The Wolverine" (also directed by Mangold). "Logan's" strength is in making that feeling more concrete, with the landscape and especially Logan's body taking on the scars of decades of pain and waste. Jackman, whose career was built on the Wolverine character, has stayed with the franchise since 2000, and the new film rewards his loyalty by allowing him to manifest Logan's bitterness in his glances, his cursed existence in his more halting body movements (part world-weariness, part the effect of his decreased healing abilities). Stewart, too, plays Xavier with more regret and anger, part influenced by dementia, part bitterness that he's dependent on his most disappointing pupil, part his own guilt over his role in his loved ones' deaths.
Though the curse words stumble out of the characters like preteens learning how to swear for the first time, "Logan's" grim tone feels more sincere than the posturing darkness of "Batman v. Superman," with the film at least attempting to grapple with the violence the characters leave in their wake. The film isn't entirely successful on this front — after a certain point, all of the gruesome stabbings and dismemberments of faceless bad guys start to run together (only one action sequence, set in slow-motion, truly stands out). But Mangold and Jackman take the collateral damage (a family that makes the unwise decision to give haven to the X-Men on the run) more seriously, recognizing for the first time in the series that the existence of superheroes often imperils those they seek to help.
Mangold and co-screenwriters Scott Frank and Michael Green take cues from "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," "Children of Men" and, most notably, "Shane" (which the film references extensively, sometimes ham-handedly), with a figure with a violent nature or checkered past finding some form of redemption and human connection in protecting a vulnerable person. Though "Logan's" attempts to emulate these features lends it some flavor, the comparisons do it no favors: though well-cast, "Logan's" villains and their plans are blander, its ambitions less bold, and its killer/child relationship is never as deeply-felt as it should be. There's a somewhat clunky emulation of classics that it can't hope to match. And yet, it ends on a final note so lovely in its understatement that one can briefly see the great movie it aspires to be rather than the modestly successful film that it is.