Our favorite onscreen spies, from Austin Powers to ‘Totally Spies!’

Because we love espionage, playing dress up, and employing cunning tactics as long as it’s for the good

charlie’s angels totally spies!

A spy, according to Merriam-Webster, is “a person employed by one nation to secretly convey classified information of strategic importance to another nation”—pretty much the allegations leveled against Bamban, Tarlac Mayor Alice Guo. If you’re not caught up with this whole “Chinese spy,” “POGO backer” saga, a Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) official told senators on Wednesday that her supposed Filipino birth mother may not exist at all.

Espionage has a long history going back to the 4th century BC with Chinese military strategist and general Sun Tzu’s treatise on military strategy “The Art of War.” But history has cemented the status of spies from World War II and the Cold War era. In the US, there’s even an exhibit sponsored by the National Counterintelligence and Security Center called “The Wall of Spies Experience,” which features detailed accounts of more than 135 spies who “betrayed America, from the Revolutionary War to the 21st century.”

While these spies are often seen as enemies of the state (the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence explicitly denounces them for having “caused lasting damage to the national security of the United States”), they make a hell of a good plotline, which also explains why spies carve out their space in the pop culture.

And because we love onscreen spies, who employ cunning tactics, clever disguises, and bold action moves to complete an assignment toward the greater good, here are some of our favorites.

Austin Powers

Photo from New Line Cinema

The “International Man of Mystery” is a caricature of the 1960s spy archetype with an outre sense of style, British humor, and sometimes questionable ways of dealing with women. Nonetheless, we love Mike Myers for bringing this character to life, as well as Powers’ arch nemesis Dr. Evil, and, of course, for bringing Beyoncé to the silver screen.

Perry the Platypus from “Phineas and Ferb”

Photo from Bing/Pinterest

Who says only humans can be spies? Phineas and Ferb’s pet platypus Perry, all silent except for the weird sounds it makes, is mysterious, lovable, and can fit any entrance that will lead him to stop Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz’s evil contraptions. Oh and the fedora!

Natasha Romanoff aka “Black Widow”

Photo from Disney Movies

She’s definitely in our top female Avengers list, just don’t make us rank them. The Black Widow is one of the most popular fictional spies from the Cold War era, having been trained as a child to be a member of the KGB. She’s trained in hand-to-hand combat, and proficient in all manners of weapons, which she combines with her background in—get this—gymnastics, acrobatics, and ballet. Range!

Evelyn Salt in “Salt”

Photo by Andrew Schwartz/Columbia Pictures

The movie “Salt” was originally written with a male protagonist (Tom Cruise) but was rewritten for Angelina Jolie. She plays the titular character Evelyn Salt, a Central Intelligence Agency operative accused of being a KGB agent. Disguises! Action scenes! Improbable plot! That’s all we can say for the girlies who haven’t seen this 2010 movie.

Loid and Yor Forger from “Spy x Family”

Photo from Crunchyroll

“Spy x Family” follows an agent code-named “Twilight,” whose mission is to spy on a National Unity Party leader. To do this, he creates an alias (Loid Forger) and a family by marrying a woman named Yor Briar to parent an orphan named Anya, who goes to the same school as the leader’s children. Spoiler: the kid is a telepath and the wife is a trained assassin. But the chemistry! Undeniable!

Gabby Teller “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”

Photo from Warner Bros.

This mod icon is also a professional driver, qualified mechanic, insomniac, trained ballerina, and surprise, surprise, a spy. Alicia Vikander plays the daughter of a nuclear scientist, who tags along with CIA agent Napoleon Solo and KGB agent Illya Kuryakin on a mission to stop a duo of Nazi sympathizers from deploying a nuclear weapon.

“Spy Kids”

Photo from Miramax

A cross between a James Bond film and a Willy Wonka film, the spy action comedy franchise “Spy Kids” stars various children who discover that their parents are spies. The series has since spawned five films, two spin-offs, and an animated series. But more importantly, note the guest starring roles by Alan Cumming(!), Taylor Momsen(!), Steve Buscemi(!), and Sylvester Stallone(!) to name a few actors. The movie franchise is also lauded for featuring a Hispanic theme.

Charlie’s Angels (2000 and 2003)

Photo by Darren Michaels/Columbia Pictures

Cameron Diaz! Drew Barrymore! Lucy Liu! Need we say more? This kickass, comedic, trio faces several death-defying missions, facing formidable enemies, who they fight in style. A third “Charlie’s Angels” movie came out in 2019 directed by Elizabeth Banks, starring Kristen Stewart, Ella Balinska, and Naomi Scott, and while we love these women, nothing has really come close to the badassery that the 2000s Angels delivered.

Harry Hart in “Kingsman: The Secret Service”

Photo from 20th Century Fox

Colin Firth in a sharp suit is always a treat (see: “A Single Man”). What’s even hotter is when he’s a scheming Kingsman agent fending off bad guys. He may be a supporting character (a deuteragonist if you must) but the highly-trained hand-to-hand combatant and weapons expert has won us over with his umbrella-wielding abilities—call him the male Mary Poppins.

“Totally Spies!”

Photo from Prime Video

An all-female crime-fighting trio is not unheard of (hello, Angels; hello, Power Puff Girls). But three high school girls from Beverly Hills, California whose arsenal includes various vanity products that transform into deadly weapons? Sign us up. The French animated series stars Sam, Clover, and Alex, teenagers moonlighting as secret agents for the World Organization of Human Protection (WOOHP).

Header art by Nimu Muallam

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