When it comes to cool jobs, few things have captured the public consciousness like the spy. The intrigue and danger of a spy’s life makes for great fiction so it’s no surprise that spies have infiltrated every area of popular culture. Even series that don’t take place in the modern era have spy themes to them – take Varys in Game of Thrones. That being said, Varys isn’t strictly a spy, but rather a spymaster so until we get a spin-off focusing on Varys little birds, we won’t be seeing any entries from Westeros on this list.
There’s a lot of overlap in fictional espionage work, but for the purposes of this list, we’ll be focusing strictly on spies. Assassins and commandos are awesome, but they aren’t the focus for this one. Instead, we’re focusing our attention solely on spies. So sit back and enjoy Screen Rant’s top 15 coolest spies in popular culture.
15. Maxwell Smart
You know how spies are usually suave, cool, and kind of badass? Well, imagine if you took all the awesome things about spies and just let them with James Bond’s sense of fashion? If you did, you’d end up with Maxwell Smart, the protagonist of 1965’s Get Smart.
As you can likely surmise from the description of the show’s main character, Get Smart was actually a parody of the spy genre that was popular at the time. It takes all the well-known cliches and turns them on their heads. So yeah, there’s a reason Smart is ranked 15 on this list. He’s not, by any definition, cool, but we have to admire the show as a product of its time. He’s to Jason Bourne what Adam West’s Batman is to Ben Affleck’s or Christian Bale’s.
14. Susan Cooper
This is definitely one of the more humorous entries on this list and we probably shouldn’t describe Susan Cooper as “cool” but the premise of a deskbound CIA operative finally getting her shot at fieldwork is unique enough that we think she warrants a mention on this list.
Beyond that, the movie itself is really entertaining flick. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s one of the better entries in the spy genre to come along in some years. Part of this is due to the excellent casting choice of Melissa McCarthy as Cooper. She brings the perfect blend of humor and seriousness to the role.
Plus it makes us wonder how many other real-life CIA employees went into the field thinking they’d be stopping terrorists and just end up listening to phone calls or managing other agents. There are probably more than a few who relate more to Cooper than to Bond.
13. The Jennings
For an era defined by political uncertainty and the looming threat of nuclear war, the Cold War is a rather popular setting for period pieces. Perhaps that’s because it’s recent enough to be relatable, but distant enough feel less frightening.
When it comes to Cold War period pieces, The Americans is one of the best around. It perfectly captures the odd mix of paranoia and optimism that was part of American culture in the 1980s. Beyond that, it’s simply a great spy show and the Jennings are fascinating protagonists. Plenty of spies do undercover work and pose as couples, but how many have to go undercover in an arranged marriage in their enemy’s capital?
In fact, it’s the domestic aspects of the show that intrigue us simply because a lot of undercover work probably is boring stuff like going to work or taking care of kids. It’s the small everyday acts that help you blend in and build credibility. It’s a fascinating series and watching these two KGB agents navigate 1980s America is always enjoyable.
Despite the ongoing nature v nurture debate, there is no doubt that your parents can have a lasting impact on your life and Lana is living proof of that. Pressured by her parents to become a successful scientist, Lana, though a rather complex series of events, ended up as a field agent for the International Secret Intelligence Service.
In addition to being a skilled combatant with nerves of steel, Lana is also Archer’s closest friend and confidant. The two often go on missions together with Lana frequently saving Archer’s life. In a lot of ways, she’s forced to play the “straight woman” to Archer. Not that he’s necessarily incompetent, but Lana tends to the more level-headed of the two. Despite their bickering, the two do get along and even have a child together. See, and people see workplace romances never work out. Okay, fine, this one probably won’t last beyond the end credits, but it’s still a nice thought.
Have you ever wondered what it takes to make someone decided to become a spy? We’re sure plenty of people do it out of a sense of patriotism or a desire to make the world a better place, but still the willingness to risk your life and live an anonymous life probably comes from a rather dark place and Nikita is no exception.
Orphaned at young age, Nikita turned to a life of crime and got involved in drugs. In and out of prison several times, she eventually was sentenced to death before attracting the attention of the Division. A clandestine government operation that recruits criminals to work as spies and assassins. So kind of like the Suicide Squad with less crazy clowns.
The show was originally based on a movie of the same name, but it is the rare remake that, in our opinion, surpasses its predecessor. This is thanks, in part, to the fact that TV shows allow for longer more complex stories than most movies do.
10. Peggy Carter
Nick Fury might be SHIELD’s most well-known director, but it’s possible that the organization as we know it wouldn’t have existed without the work of one women: Peggy Carter. Far more than simply Captain America’s love interest, Carter led a shadowy war against the Axis powers during WWII as part of Strategic Scientific Reserve. In addition to creating Captain America, the SSR was responsible for numerous victories against the Axis powers especially in terms of scientific and occult research.
After the end of WWII, the SSR moved on to the important work of collecting and cataloging dangerous artifacts. Their work led them into contact with the remnants of Hydra and other terrorist organizations. Eventually, the SSR was discontinued and replaced with SHIELD.
9. Dick Grayson, Agent of Spyral
Dick Grayson is best known as the first person to don the mantle of Robin and fight alongside the Caped Crusader before moving on to become Nightwing, but he also had a tenure as a spy as well.
After the events of Forever Evil, Grayson’s secret identity is exposed and he is forced to fake his own death. From there, Grayson is recruited by the clandestine spy organization known as Spyral. What makes this run so great is that it puts Grayson in brand new situations. Rather than facing costumed maniacs armed with acid-shooting flowers, he’s facing professional mercenaries and dealing with globe-spanning threats. That being said, the series doesn’t completely abandon Grayson’s superhero routes as there’s a recurring rivalry between him and the Midnighter. Their fights are some of the best in the series and it is great to see Grayson hold his own against an opponent who is, arguably, simply a better version of Batman.
8. Ethan Hunt
Impossible Mission Force might very well the worst name in the history of clandestine organizations, real or fictional, but that doesn’t make Ethan Hunt any less awesome. Before Tom Cruise got more famous for jumping on couches than acting, one of his breakout roles was Mission Impossible, which saw him take on the role of Ethan Hunt.
The Mission Impossible series, especially the first few entries, are rather silly movies. They capture the somewhat campy spirit of the 90s in which movies seem to have two settings: camp or grim dark. That being said, Hunt manages to be cool in spite of this camp. Maybe it’s Crusie’s natural talents as an actor, but no matter how absurd the gadgets or tech, Hunt always manages to come across as kind of awesome.
7. Jason Bourne
James Bond might be the most famous spy to ever grace the silver screen, but Jason Bourne certainly gives Bond a run for his money. As someone who grew up watching old Bond films, but lost interest in the 2000s, the Bourne movies were what really rekindled my interest in the spy genre.
The Bond movies that I had grown up watching were always kind of campy and silly, but Bourne was a different beast altogether. Bond always managed to make being a spy seem fun and exciting, but Bourne really honed in on how violent and dangerous such a life could. Beyond that, the films are simply really well-done action movies with strong characters, good cinematography, and really exciting fight scenes. To be honest, it was the action that got us hooked on these movies because it’s just so well-done.
6. Micheal Westen
Michael Westen is one of our favorite characters on this list. After being blacklisted from the CIA, Westen ends up stranded in Miami where he is forced to take work as a private investigator while trying to solve the mystery of who burned him. We won’t spoil anything beyond that point, because this really is a good show.
Westen himself is a complex character who goes through many changes throughout the course of the show. When we first meet him, he’s a jaded cynic who ran away to join the army to escape an abusive father, but from the very beginning, we see flashes of the good man he wants to be despite his past.
Beyond all that, he’s just a really fun character to watch. He’s funny and rather inventive in how he solves problems. In a lot of ways, Burn Notice feels like a modern Macgyver because Westen is often forced to create inventive solutions to his problems as he can no longer has access to the CIA’s wonderful toys. Plus, his narration where he explains what he’s doing is really kind of interesting. We’re not sure if any of his tips actually work, but they sound neat.
5. Sidney Bristow
One of the hardest parts of being a spy is undoubtedly undercover work. Not only do you have to be tough enough to survive some insanely dangerous situations, but you also have to be smart enough to convince your enemies that you’re actually on their side. In a lot of spy franchise, undercover work is treated as a big deal that will take up an entire film or seasonal arc. Alias, on the other hand, makes undercover work the premise of the entire show.
For Sidney Bristow espionage work was in her blood as her mother was a former agent of the KGB and she certainly lived up to her heritage throughout her long and, somewhat, convoluted career. We don’t want to spoil anything in case you haven’t seen the show, but suffice to say that Bristow is one of the most badass and clever spies to grace our television screens.
4. Black Widow
Natasha Romanova, better known as Black Widow, has, like most comic book characters, several different origin stories, but general theme is that she was orphaned at a young age and taken in by the Russian government where she was trained as a spy and assassin. She eventually goes on to join SHIELD and the Avengers.
In a team that includes super soldiers, men with power armor, mutants, and literal gods, the fact that Black Widow is able to hold her own should be proof enough that she deserves her place on this list. Her espionage training has made her a deadly assassin whose proficiency in hand-to-hand combat and the use of firearms is unmatched.
In the MCU, we see her perform little in the way of actual spy work since she spends most of her time shooting aliens and robot in the face, but in the comics she’s actually done quite a bit. Her recent solo series, Black Widow, placed a heavy emphasis on her work as a spy and assassin.
3. Nick Fury
James Bond might be the world’s most famous superspy, but, thanks in large part to the popularity of the MCU, Nick Fury isn’t far behind. In his role as director of SHIELD, Fury is tasked with protected the United States, and the world, from super villains, terrorist organizations, and even invading aliens. SHIELD is the ultimate global response force and Fury is in charge of it all. It’s quite the tall order, but he manages to make it look easy.
Fury’s role at SHIELD tends to keep him stuck behind a desk a lot, but that doesn’t mean he’s averse to getting his hands dirty on occasion. He willingly stood up to Loki in the first Avenger’s movie and has frequently faced down even worse threats in the comics.
We’d be lying if we didn’t admit that at least 25 percent of Fury’s awesomeness comes from the fact that he’s played by Samuel L. Jackson. He could be playing a Starbucks baristas and he’d be the coolest person to ever grace the counters of your local coffee shop.
2. The Kingsmen
Based on the comic by Mark Millar, Kingsman: The Secret Service was a surprise hit when it released in 2014 and honestly it was one of the main inspirations for this list. Kingsman takes a lot of the tropes of old bond movies such as over-the-top villains, absurd schemes for world domination, and awesome gadgets and reworks them into something that feels fun and fresh. Speaking of awesome gadgets, where can we buy one of those bulletproof umbrellas? Admittedly, we have no need for it, but they’re so awesome.
If we had to describe Kingsman in a single word, it would be: fun.It’s one of the most fun movies we’ve seen in years. The action is more than a bit over the top, but it fits perfectly with the somewhat silly theme of the movie. It’s like one of the older James Bond films with a bigger budget and less restraint.
1. James Bond
When someone says the word “spy,” the first image that pops into most people’s heads is that of James Bond. The smooth-talking MI6 agent has defined the popular image of a secret agent. First debuting in Ian Fleming’s novels of the same name, Bond’s popularity skyrocketed with the release of 1962’s Dr. No starring Sean Connery. Despite multiple new actors taking on the role and competition from several newer franchises, James Bond remains a cultural icon.
Part of what makes the James Bond series so popular is the balance between camp and seriousness. The earlier movies in the franchises are a treat for fans of scene-chewing villains and overly elaborate death traps. The more recent entries provide high-octane action with a dash of camp, most often in the form of the villains or Q’s improbable gadgets.
007 might be, as M once said “a relic of the cold war,” but the spy genre simply would not be the same without him.