T.’s Top Virtual Ventures

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Video games are a medium I have serious apprehensions about. As evidenced in my archive, there was a time where I spent a lot of money to critique acclaimed games and ended up so disappointed by a so many of them, especially The Last of Us, that I eventually decided that game criticism isn’t for me. Too often it glorifies brutality, sexualizes women, villainizes religion, normalizes theft… And yet, I can’t shake my fascination with this medium, and that’s partly because it was essential to my childhood in more than one way.

Growing up, my siblings and I played a computer game called 3D Movie Maker through which I made what was technically my first movie, so video games are actually essential to my interest in film. The main appeal of video games is escapism, and although I’ve played grittier action games in the past, I now gravitate towards cartoony and stylized titles, mostly ones where the common enemies aren’t humans. I especially enjoy the puzzle-like nature of video games, from figuring out the level design to overcoming actual brain-teasing puzzles (though I do resort to walkthroughs when I’m desperate).

3D Movie Maker, however, is but an honorable mention preceding a list of the top five games that make me happy that this medium exists, whether due to their stories, their escapist value, and/or their artistic merit (heck, I think referring to the medium as “games” can sometimes be reductive, but I don’t know a better word for it other than “virtual ventures”), with my thoughts on each summed up in order of release.


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THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: OCARINA OF TIME (1998) – Ocarina of Time is one of the most influential video games ever made, both to the industry and to my taste in games. It took me a decade to beat, and replaying it now is like the experience of Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and The Wizard of Oz combined into one action-adventure that I can actually go on, resulting in the epitome of nostalgia for me. It’s not free from problems I normally have with the game industry; it allows consequence-free theft and vandalization, which undermines the fact that we’re supposed to be the good guy (though I may be taking the game-y logic surrounding it too seriously), and features a few in-your-face risque, if minor, characters as well as pagan mythopia. Not to mention, one of its creepier levels becomes horrifying to think about with its implications. Nonetheless, bracetting the more questionable elements, it sports the perfect balance between freedom and linearity, wondrous world-building, lovable characters, a grandiose atmosphere, and a storybook simplicity to its storytelling that still gives me chills. It’s still a blast to this day.

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PORTAL (2007) – Portal and its lone sequel are what gave me a taste for puzzle games, and I have yet to find another puzzle game as memorable as this; if it can be considered a first-person shooter, it’s one of the least violent. This first one is a head-scratcher but still pretty short on first playthrough, is good for speedruns, and features a dark sense of humor (including one particularly morbid incident where we’re forced to “euthanize” an inanimate object in a furnace, which very subtle evidence may suggest is more problematic than it seems), an eerily isolating atmosphere, and an unforgettable antagonistic A.I. who acts as a metaphor for the idolization of technology; every time an automated checkout counter with a synthetic female voice thanks me, I still retort, “Thank you, GLaDOS.” Portal 2 expands upon Portal in bigger and funnier ways, but it’s also both not as critical about GLaDOS’s godlike role and a bit more mean spirited. Because of that, I prefer the first Portal.

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ORI AND THE BLIND FOREST (2015) – On an artistic level, Ori and the Blind Forest is the most beautiful game I’ve ever played, sporting both side-scrolling environments so gorgeous that some of them made me tear up the first time I saw them and a sublime musical score. Unfortunately, it’s also rooted in a yin-yang worldview where there’s no pure force of good or evil, even spiritual, and the dark and light in nature must balance each other out for the titular forest’s harmony, so I have apprehensions about it on that level. Nonetheless, its story manages to move me playthrough after playthrough; although we as the titular forest spirit Ori battle many enemies on our mission to restore light to the forest, what has the final say is not a violent confrontation but familial love and empathy. It may tie into the yin-yang philosophy, but it is powerful in its own right.

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KING’S QUEST (2015) – King’s Quest is one emotional rollercoaster, at once hilariously silly and tear-jerkingly touching. I admit that I had to look at walkthroughs throughout, and that’s because I was enjoying the story so much that I didn’t want to spend a lot of time stuck on puzzles. Made up of five separate purchasable chapters (the first one is free on Steam), the story has deliberate parallels to The Princess Bride, from the gameplay sections being framed as a story being told by a grandfather (of his younger days in this case) to a duel of wits with Wallace Shawn, and the middle chapters each have their own flairs: Chapter 2 is a survival game (whose survival elements turn out to be inconsequential), Chapter 3 is a dating simulator (which is consequential), and Chapter 4 is a puzzle chamber game. None of the chapters are as diverse or funny as Chapter 1, but the characters stay engaging throughout the story, which celebrates largely nonviolent adventure but not at the expense of familial relationships. It’s one of the most poignant gaming experiences I’ve ever had.

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EPISTORY – TYPING CHRONICLES (2016) – I haven’t played another RPG that takes this much advantage of PC controls. Sure, I played typing games when I was a kid, but those were educational; this turns typing into a combat mechanic as we destroy creepy crawlies by typing words that appear above their heads, unlocking powers that make such battles easier, depending on how quick our fingers are, along the way. The world it’s set in is made to look like it’s made of colored paper, and it looks gorgeous even on the low graphics setting my PC needs. A narration permeates the journey, which includes occasional snippets from the past of the protagonist who doesn’t remember who she is; this adds an intriguing mystery to the proceedings, and the twist reveal not only adds unexpected depth but also genuinely uplifts. Although it’s not a long game, able to be beaten in seven hours, it’s an absolute gem.

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THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) – T.’s Take

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The Wizard of Oz is the grandfather of movies that virtually everyone knows, more known than Star Wars or even most Disney movies (speaking of which, it was made initially in response to Disney’s Snow White), whether it delighted or traumatized young impressionable viewers. Since one of my parents hates to even be reminded of it to this day (apologies to them in case they come across this post), a lot of my childhood experience with The Wizard of Oz was in private, and it wasn’t until a couple years ago where I rediscovered it for the first time in a decade. I’ve now made a tradition of it being the first movie I watch every year.

Although its dated production design gives off the vibe of a stage production, it’s still pure movie magic. It’s unfortunate how a film that has brought so much joy to generations of viewers was anything but a joy for its stars to work on, whether it was due to the insufferable makeup or the manners of the crew. Not to mention, studio demands caused all of the songs in the third act to be cut and preserved on soundtracks.

Still, this is one classic case of a troubled production resulting in a timeless icon. It’s the type of movie that means so much to me that I don’t know how to do it justice. What I can say is that it’s one of the pinnacle films that remind me of why I love movies: the whimsy, the hilarity, the frights, and the nostalgia. While I wouldn’t call it my favorite movie of all time, it’s certainly close; no movie, not even Star Wars or Lord of the Rings (my other top contenders), can make me feel like a kid again quite like this, and that’s partly because its famous philosophy, “There’s no place like home,” is a celebration of the place where one grows up.

T.’s 2017 Year-End Special

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This is a list of every movie release I saw this year, in ascending order of admiration.


16. SPLIT – I’ve certainly heard about but not seen any of Shyamalan’s infamous work after Lady in the Water (and I still haven’t seen The Village), but hearing that Split was supposed to be a return to form for him piqued my interest. Alas, while it may be a return to form on an objective level, it’s plain nasty on a thematic level. The one thing I liked about it was how its twist ending recontextualizes everything without screaming, “Gotcha!”

15. MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS – Again, not an objectively bad movie, especially regarding Kenneth Branagh’s performance, but opposite Split, the ending was my least favorite part, and it ruined the whole thing.

14. PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES – This is the film this year I tend to forget about the most. It’s safe to say that this franchise will never recapture the magic of the original.

13. TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT – Oh, how the mighty movie series that got me both into and out of the Transformers franchise has…never been good to begin with; some still argue that the first one is at least okay, but I’d disagree with that nowadays. The Last Jed— uh, Knight manages to be the most incompetent one yet: horrifically overstuffed, chaotically edited… Yet, I have to be honest when I say I’ve come to admire its commitment to jaw-dropping ludicrousy, and I got genuine enjoyment out of its finale of coolness. That doesn’t mean I’m compelled to ever see it again, but I was never bored during it unlike Age of Extinction.

12. LOGAN – This is surely one of the most ambitious and innovative superhero movies ever, featuring a gritty character-driven story and outstanding performances by Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, and Dafne Keen. Alas, its potential power is drowned out by the film’s graphic reveling in its own savagery that it’s trying to cross-examine (this is also the one entry on this list that I didn’t see in theaters).

11. WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES – I love Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but I just didn’t care for this one with its argument that this planet would be better off ruled by animals, and the biblical symbolism applied to the apes insults how humans are the ones made in the image and likeness of God.

10. THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE – Despite carrying over the zaniness and self-awareness of the ingenious The LEGO Movie, LEGO Batman‘s combination of mockery and earnestness towards the lore of its superhero, which doesn’t feel like a story told by a child like The LEGO Movie deliberately does, is what makes it surprisingly forgettable.

09. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 – What’s with all the disappointing followups this year to 2014 movies I love? …Anyways, the first Guardians is one of my favorite Marvel movies, and one of the few I consider to be great; this one, however, was a step backwards, forgetting about the Guardians’ journey toward true heroism and instead ramping up the crassness and mean-spiritedness.

08. JUSTICE LEAGUE – It’s fun to watch, if with a “meh” aftertaste.

07. GIFTED – Chris Evans and young Mckenna Grace in her possible breakout performance share fantastic guardian-daughter chemistry in this thoughtful and sentimental, albeit unremarkable and not quite family friendly, exploration of how to raise child geniuses.

06. SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING – It’s a fresh slice of the Marvel Universe we haven’t seen before, and Tom Holland is so good as Peter Parker, blowing away Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield combined, that the fundamental complaint I have about this movie is that I wish it were more accessible to those who are more familiar with Spider-Man alone than with the whole Marvel Universe the film keeps reminding us of.

05. THOR: RAGNAROK – It’s disposable and inconsequential, but I had a ton of fun with its creative and colorful mixture of Guardians-style space opera and Thor-style fantasy.

04. WONDER WOMAN – I appreciate this one more for what works about it than for how well it all works. The story is thoughtful, if rarely innovative, and the characterizations of the titular heroine and her companion Steve Trevor are pulled off powerfully. If the film’s biggest problem were the cartooniness of the Germans, it would have been fine, but the action scenes look sloppier than those of The Last Knight, filled with gratuitous slow motion and mediocre CGI (Knight also has lots of slow-mo, but at least the rest of the movie is so stupid that it doesn’t feel out-of-step). It had so much potential to be a keeper, but I think it had the wrong choice of director.

03. STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI – I’m ranking this based on how much I liked it on first viewing. Star Wars means too much for me to judge how much I can embrace this movie, or this whole trilogy for that matter, until the trilogy is complete. Plus, the reason I criticize what this film does to Luke’s character is purely because it contradicts his character from the Original Trilogy…that, and that this trilogy’s plot relies on this contradiction; otherwise, Mark Hamill’s performance makes every scene with Luke the most interesting scene in the movie.

02. KONG: SKULL ISLAND – Although its A-list cast is mostly wasted, I grew up with the Toho Godzilla movies, so it’s hard for me not to eat up a giant monster slugfest with weak characterizations. It favors style over substance, but the stylish visuals are at times striking, if also at times surprisingly gruesome, and its post-credits setup for the next Hollywood Godzilla had my inner five-year-old jumping for joy.

01. DUNKIRK – This is the one true masterpiece I saw this year. It’s less of a traditional narrative than it is an extended sequence. There’s no break in the tension, which is why I have yet to revisit it on video, if it could even hold up without the theater surround sound. On the other hand, while the sound design sells the relentless suspense, much of it could be watched on mute and be understood like a silent film. While characterization is minimal for the sake of emphasizing the experience of the soldiers’ fight for survival, the film’s ultimate power lies in its climactic celebration of the united courage of military and ordinary citizens whose rooting in true events, however exaggerated on film, rounds out its impact.

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017) – T.’s Take

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Well, this is a first; I’ve archived my previous T.’s Take on this movie after I said I didn’t want to write my second impressions. Now that I have seen it again, I feel like I need to rewrite my opinion.

I was thrilled by my first impression; I couldn’t figure out why people were calling it bad. For my second viewing, there were moments that still gave me the childlike glee of watching Star Wars again, but eventually, it became exhausting. Something felt off. It was the way Kylo’s and Rey’s arcs culminate; it makes sense for their characters, yet it doesn’t. It wasn’t until I came across this spoilerific analysis where I realized why none of this makes sense: because Luke Skywalker’s characterization makes no sense, which is carried over from The Force Awakens, making it the fundamental problem with this new trilogy. He’s despaired and become a recluse. I was willing to accept this the first time around, partly because Mark Hamill does a fantastic job with this, yet I now realize it’s as if Luke forgot everything he learned from the Original Trilogy. The reason why the galaxy hasn’t progressed is because Luke’s personality changed and he gave up on training more Jedi.

I suppose it does make sense that Luke training another generation to use the Force as a weapon leads to his downfall. Yet, he disproved the Jedi’s original antihuman way by defeating the Sith by throwing away all of his weapons, including his lightsaber. Why didn’t he change the Jedi way to something more pacifistic and charitable? Even if none of his students fell to the Dark Side, the Dark Side would return to face the Jedi if the Jedi went back to war. They’ll always be responsible for creating their own enemies.

On another note, that video also mentions a sort of relativism in this trilogy that I was worried was going to pop up but still haven’t noticed. Maybe I’m just not seeing it because I don’t want Star Wars to go down that route. Or maybe he’s the one misinterpreting what the movie is saying (although the way The Last Jedi treats the religious aspect of the Jedi doesn’t sit well with me). Alas, Star Wars has already gone down a route that betrays its legacy. I’d only see Episode IX out of curiosity.

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015) – T.’s Take

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As surprising as it is to realize what a narrative mess the most iconic film franchise is, Star Wars would be half as interesting to discuss if it were all great. As much as I wish George Lucas let this saga chronologically begin with the Original Trilogy, Return of the Jedi ends on such a satisfying note that perhaps the best way to revisit the Star Wars galaxy in a way that called for a trilogy was to go to the past. Alas, the best part about the Prequels turned out to be their meme material. Had the Prequels never been promised but a sequel trilogy were still being released at this time, The Force Awakens may have ended up a more satisfying endeavor.

It’s clear that this movie is directed by someone who grew up loving the Originals, hates the Prequels, and wants to build goodwill with his generation. The problem is that this at times gives a big-budget fan film vibe; John Williams’s musical score even has a synthetic quality to it that sounds like it was produced in a computer program rather than an orchestra. There’s little-to-no creative ambition. Thirty years after Jedi, I’d rather see something more original than stormtroopers, and certainly not these slicker ones, and that’s not even getting to Starkiller Base; the recycling of the Death Star in Return of the Jedi was already pushing on laziness. Plus, the Jedi have once again been endangered into myths. These narrative rehashings disappointed me so much the first time around that I’ve rarely allowed myself to get hyped about movies since.

At the same time, the film wonderfully captures the emotional spirit of the Originals. The way protagonist Rey is established before she even says a word is some of the most brilliant storytelling in the whole saga. The banter between she and First Order defector Finn has a lot of heart and wit, and unlike Luke and Anakin, Rey’s never whiney; she is arguably too self-reliant though, especially when she uses a Force power there’s only a stretch of an explanation as to how she knew about it. Star Wars has influenced so much that I tend to forget that it launched Harrison Ford’s career, and he gives his best performance as Han Solo here. Not only does the practical production design give a sense of authenticity, but the use of CGI allows for familiar sites to be shown in new ways, such as the Millennium Falcon being flown both around and into a crashed ship.

Despite what makes it compelling, its lack of imagination grates on me; if it were me in charge, Luke’s Jedi order would be thriving, and the bad guys wouldn’t be the Empire 2.0. With that, the other problem is that Force is a cliffhanging first act that I won’t be able to judge fully until the rest of the trilogy is released. While The Last Jedi likely won’t make up for what started this trilogy on the wrong foot, I hope for it to at least be as charming.

STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT (1996) – T.’s Take

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When I started being able to appreciate Star Trek during my tween-to-teen years after I’d been growing up seeing the franchise as my older brother’s thing, I would have called First Contact my favorite movie of the series. These days, I question how good a Star Trek movie it actually is.

While First Contact has several similarities to Wrath of Khan, with it being the second and most highly praised film in its respective series with both a plot that ties back to its TV series and blatant Moby Dick parallels, it’s far more inconsequential than Khan. Khan launched a story arc that ran throughout the Original Series movies, yet outside of the inaugural Generations and the concluding Nemesis, the middle Next Generation movies have little-to-no impact carried over from movie to movie. Not only that, but they’re introduced in Generations as if the audience already knows them, which is a consequence of both their movies starting fresh off their TV run and their TV run having too many characters to properly flesh out in a movie, and First Contact continues this trend by throwing the audience straight into restrained but still icky body horror via a flashback to Captain Picard’s assimilation into the Borg Collective from the famous “Best of Both Worlds” two-parter.

Although First Contact was made to be a wide appeal popcorn movie starring the Next Generation crew, this opening doesn’t give newcomers an ideal first impression of Star Trek, nor does the PTSD-driven quest for revenge against the Borg that defines Picard throughout the movie give newcomers a well-rounded impression of Captain Picard. Perhaps had there been a prologue that introduces not only the audience to the crew but also the crew to the new Enterprise model they’re helming (again, Wrath of Khan gives everything a proper introduction before its own story gets started), I feel it would be a more rounded movie.

While there’s more I can criticize First Contact for, from the ethics of murdering someone who’s beginning to turn into a Borg drone to James Cromwell’s at times over-the-top performance in a reluctant savior role that needed more restraint, there’s still stuff I can enjoy it for. Jonathan Frakes’s direction effectively brings both eerie thrills—especially in a tense set piece on the Enterprise’s outer hull—and a sense of Trek-like wonder—especially in moments that turn said wonder to the site of Earth—, and the performances from the iconic crew are at their best. Jerry Goldsmith’s musical score here is one of my all-time favorites, and the script features plenty of lines I can quote along with. Wrath of Khan may have taken its place as my favorite Star Trek movie, but First Contact is still the Star Trek movie I have the fondest memories of.

JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017) – T.’s Take

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When Man of Steel was released in 2013, I saw it four times in theaters because it was such a dang cool spectacle with christological symbolism and pro-life themes. Later the following year, I realized that none of that stuff is enough if the characters aren’t interesting, with my last rewatch of Man of Steel revealing itself to be the bland destruction fest it is. I didn’t have expectations for Batman v. Superman or Suicide Squad, so I can’t say I was let down by those; however, as I’ve covered earlier on this blog, I was let down by the DC Extended Universe again when Wonder Woman fell apart on repeated viewings. So, all my expectations were set to expect nothing but disposable entertainment from Justice League.

Actually, my expectations for superhero movies period have been set at have-fun-watching-with-your-friends disposability since Age of Ultron turned out to be just alright after all the hype. Heck, Justice League is less of a DC movie than it is an Avengers movie with DC characters, though one closer to Age of Ultron than The Avengers in its occasionally forced humor. Gone is the admirable if failed ambition of the overly gloomy, too-much-too-soon Batman v. Superman; Justice League is generic, fluffy prevent-the-apocalypse stuff we’ve all seen before, complete with a CG cardboard cutout villain who looks like he stepped out of a PS3 game.

Nonetheless, I’ve known about the team members who haven’t gotten their cinematic due until now since I was a kid, so seeing The Flash—especially with the comic relief he brings here—, Cyborg, and Aquaman team up with Batman—who’s cooler here than he was in Batman v. Superman—and Wonder Woman team up is often a joy to watch; heck, I was having the most fun when their dynamics had me forgetting that this series’s mopey and cynical Superman was a thing. Unlike The Avengers, there’s no SHIELD-type organization bringing the League together; they’re on their own, and there’s only one instance of in-fighting, which has my favorite moment in the movie in the form of The Flash’s reaction to unexpectedly meeting his match.

So yeah, Justice League was beaten by The Avengers to what it’s trying to do, and it’s also trying to apologize for its predecessors’ mistakes while having to remind us of the wrong foot this DC universe started on. While I’m not entirely persuaded by the ending narration which means to promise this universe’s more hopeful future (a narration that ironically starts with the word “Darkness…” to which my friend and I both whispered “NO PARENTS“), I can call Justice League satisfyingly fun, if as forgettable as most superhero movies these days.

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017) – T.’s Take

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I can enjoy a good murder mystery, so I was cautiously hopeful that I wouldn’t end up agreeing with the so-so critical consensus of this latest Murder on the Orient Express. I was prepared to be disappointed, but, considering this was my first experience with the story, I wasn’t expecting to be left angry on top of that.

What Kenneth Branagh’s direction here delivers best is his own onscreen performance as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. The way he introduces Poirot’s intelligence, perfectionism, love of pastries, and epic mustache won me over, especially with how Poirot stops the escaping perpetrator of an opening sequence theft; even an animal dung gag on the way over ends up being clever. Alas, whence Poirot gets on the titular Orient Express, he ends up being the only character of substance in a cast that includes practically half of Hollywood; a couple of these performances are engaging, but most don’t rise above what little they have.

Even with the weak characterizations and rocky pacing, I can’t say that the plot wasn’t interesting enough to keep me guessing, especially regarding whether or not a Youtube comment I read that spoiled the mystery of the titular murder was going to turn out to be telling the truth. What ultimately left me cold was (vague spoilers) how the mystery’s confounding answer is dealt with, with an injustice being excused as compensation for an injustice. This was not an agreeable first ride on the Orient Express.

THOR: RAGNAROK (2017) – T.’s Take

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There isn’t much I can say about Thor: Ragnarok that I can’t say about most Marvel movies; it’s made for those who are still eating Marvel’s production line brand of action and humor, and Ragnarok delivers both in the expectedly digestible ways, even if a title as apocalyptic as “Ragnarok” doesn’t call for its own constant laughs, the biggest of which surrounds Stan Lee’s obligatory cameo, though one song choice during a climactic battle particularly undermines the drama.

What I can say is that my biggest problem with Spider-Man: Homecoming, the constant reminders that the story is part of a larger universe, is my biggest praise here. Tom Holland’s Spider-Man and his slice of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is really refreshing, but the tie-ins to Civil War and shades of Iron Man 4 prevent Homecoming from being the new definitive Spider-Man movie; Thor, however, is so boring on his own that he needs more colorful characters to play off of, even characters from other franchises, and there are a couple of fantastic newcomers mixed in with the returners, all of whom thankfully replace Thor’s previous sidekicks.

That doesn’t make Ragnarok much more substantial than the average MCU movie, but that does make it a lot more entertaining than the previous Thor movies (the first of which was oddly my favorite MCU movie for a while), as does its creative mixture of typical Thor-style fantasy and zany Guardians of the Galaxy-style space opera. It’s tempting to say that “Thor Trek” would have been just as fitting a title, especially considering how Chris Hemsworth was Captain Kirk’s (cameo of a) dad before he was Thor.