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Brahmāstra: Part One does the Marvel superhero epic without Marvel

Disney’s Indian superhero blockbuster arrives to the US in hopes of an international crossover

Ranbir Kapoor looks determined and fierce in a night shot in front of a roaring fire as Shiva in Brahmāstra: Part One – Shiva Photo: Star India

In its broad outlines, the new worldwide theatrical release Brahmāstra: Part One – Shiva has a number of attributes American viewers may associate with Indian blockbuster cinema: It has a vibrant color scheme, includes several splashy musical numbers, and runs fairly long, with a built-in space for an intermission. American theaters may skip that part, since 160-minute run times have become near-standard length for big-ticket American blockbusters. And a big-ticket American blockbuster is what Brahmāstra also resembles. Specifically, it recalls 2021’s Marvel epic Eternals, though it lacks the contemplative tone director Chloé Zhao attempted to bring to that film. Brahmāstra is sillier, chintzier, and unavoidably more fun.

It’s also an actual corporate cousin to the Marvel movies, because it was produced by Star Studios, once co-owned by the companies Star India and 20th Century Fox, and now yet another Disney subsidiary. Brahmāstra is the most expensive Hindi production ever, though the exchange rate places its budget around $51 million. This is also the exact price range that gets American studios nervous, where movies fall between cheaper, lower-risk offerings and mega-budget tentpoles. Like so many other would-be blockbusters, Brahmāstra has its eye on a cinematic universe, with “Part One” featured in its title and “Part Two” inevitably teased by the story’s end.

Perhaps the most Hollywood aspect of Brahmāstra is the sense that this confidence may be misplaced. Writer-director Ayan Mukerji opens his movie with a torrent of exposition about the Astras, Eternals-like beings imbued with the power of elements or animals. They’re also members of the Brahmānsh, a group sworn to protect humankind from the dangers of the Brahmāstra, a magic stone that can be wielded as a world-ending weapon.

The weapon has been split into pieces, and a relatively mild-mannered DJ named Shiva (Ranbir Kapoor) becomes ensnared in the race to find them. Initially armed only with his ability to “find the light” in a cruel world, Shiva will need to unlock his own heretofore untested fire-harnessing power in order to face off against the evil Junoon (Mouni Roy).

It takes a while for Shiva to be sent off on his quest, and that’s one of the best things about Brahmāstra. Though there isn’t much grown-up depth to Shiva’s blossoming relationship with his rich-girl crush Isha (Alia Bhatt), their introductory flirtation gets more space than most superhero romances do in their entirety. This includes a couple of musical numbers ranging from music-video huge to single-room intimate, allowing both Kapoor and Bhatt to play sweetly besotted, even downright moony, where even the more relationship-minded Eternals felt more businesslike. There’s no faux-bickering between de facto colleagues here; Isha throws herself into Shiva’s derring-do because they are in love, even if sexuality remains a seemingly remote idea.

A crowd of people moves toward an ominous, mysterious light breaking through the clouds above them in Brahmāstra: Part One — Shiva Image: Star India

The deeper Brahmāstra gets into its mythology (and running time), the murkier it gets. This is true of both the story, which reloads its exposition dispenser for another round in the second half, and the visual effects, which are largely of the colorful-light-beam variety. The visual design is yet another Eternals parallel, though at the same time, this $50 million production has a fairly stunning quantity of effects — and sometimes the quality is surprisingly good, too.

Technically, they aren’t as impressive as what’s on offer in many Hollywood blockbusters, but given their vivid color and the movie’s cartoony sensibility, the cheaper flourishes don’t stick out as sorely as they would in this movie’s more expensive counterparts.

Brahmāstra was shot on and off over the course of four years, in part due to COVID-19 pandemic delays. While it would be a stretch to say those delays are visible on screen, exhaustion does set in during the movie’s final hour. Revelations about Shiva’s absent family and the large-scale battles over the big McGuffin just can’t compete with the charm of those earlier sequences, where two earnest young people are whisked away on an adventure in full faith that they can actually help each other.

Ayan Mukherji and Ranbir Kapoor, the romantic leads of Brahmāstra: Part One – Shiva, flirt from either side of an elaborate iron fence Photo: Star India

When Mukerji isn’t throwing dance-number parties or energetically running through standbys like the powers-training montage, he’s subject to the same zip-zap fatigue that mars plenty of Marvel and DC movies. Though the movie attempts to circle back to its love story, it nearly drowns out its characters with noisy promises about what might go down in the potential sequel.

Big-canvas, effects-heavy Indian film had a moment in the U.S. earlier this year when the Telugu-language hit RRR became a big-screen attraction and object of film-geek admiration. Brahmāstra: Part One – Shiva seems unlikely to inspire similar devotion. In North America, at least, it feels like it’s been plugged into the release schedule as a stopgap, at a time when moviegoers are about to enter a month or more without spectacle-fueled big-screen productions. Anyone suffering from severe summer-movie withdrawal might want to seek this one out, so long as they prepare themselves for a familiar summer sensation. The film pops, then fizzes and fades: It’s a firecracker of a movie, for better and worse.

Brahmāstra: Part One – Shiva debuts in theaters on Sept. 9.