Top 20 Secret Agents in Movie and TV History

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Top 20 Secret Agents in Movie and TV History

VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Cassondra Feltus
These secret agents have been thrilling us in both movies and TV for years now! For this list, we'll be looking at the most skilled, effective, and all-around coolest fictional operatives to appear on-screen. However, we won't include animated spies or secret agents as they deserve a list of their own. Our countdown includes Ethan Hunt from the “Mission: Impossible” franchise (1996-), Elizabeth & Philip Jennings from “The Americans” (2013-18), Sydney Bristow from “Alias” (2001-06), Phil Coulson from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (2008-), and more!
Transcript
These secret agents have been thrilling us in both movies and TV for years now! For this list, we’ll be looking at the most skilled, effective, and all-around coolest fictional operatives to appear on-screen. However, we won’t include animated spies or secret agents as they deserve a list of their own. Our countdown includes Ethan Hunt from the “Mission: Impossible” franchise (1996-), Elizabeth & Philip Jennings from “The Americans” (2013-18), Sydney Bristow from “Alias” (2001-06), Phil Coulson from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (2008-), and more! Who do you think is the best secret agent? Let us know in the comments below.

#20: Harry Hart [aka Galahad]

“Kingsman” franchise (2014-)

If anyone had any doubt that Colin Firth could be a seriously incredible secret agent, they were proven wrong as soon as they saw the infamous pub fight from “Kingsman: The Secret Service.” Harry Hart (codename: Galahad) is a British soldier turned secret agent who’s both refined and ruthless. In the first installment of the franchise, Harry recruits Gary ‘Eggsy’ Unwin to the top-secret independent, international intelligence agency known as the Kingsman. Eggsy transforms from a rebellious teen to an impeccably dressed gentleman. Both are master marksmen with unbelievable reflexes and high intelligence, making them two of the greatest spies in cinema.

#19: Alicia Huberman

“Notorious” (1946)

Female spies frequently grace our screens these days, but back in 1946, those characters were uncommon. In Alfred Hitchcock’s spy thriller, socialite Alicia Huberman finds herself thrown into a world of espionage. Alicia is the daughter of a convicted Nazi conspirator, known for enjoying a drink or several, and easily attracting men. She’s approached by U.S. government agent T. R. Devlin, who enlists her to seduce an old friend of her father’s to infiltrate and gather information on his organization. Devlin puts her in a dangerous position, only made more complicated when the two fall in love with each other. The men in “Notorious” try to cast her as the femme fatale, but Alicia establishes she’s more than what meets the eye.

#18: Harry Tasker

“True Lies” (1994)

For U.S. government agent Harry Tasker, work-life balance just isn’t in the cards. He pretends to be a computer salesman to keep his wife and daughter in the dark on his covert operations. Little do they know that while he’s on those “business trips,” he’s actually on missions for Omega Sector, a counterterrorism and intelligence agency. And he puts his agency’s resources to good use when he suspects his wife might be having an affair. Of course, things don’t go as planned. In the action comedy, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Harry as a funny family man who just happens to also be a highly skilled international spy.

#17: Sydney Bristow

“Alias” (2001-06)

When Sydney Bristow was just 19 years old, she was offered a job with the Central Intelligence Agency…or so she thought. Years later, she learned the truth: SD-6 wasn’t affiliated with the CIA, but was actually an international organized crime group. After this discovery, she becomes a double agent, working with the real CIA to take them down. With her father also being a double agent, and her mother a former KGB spy, Sydney is a natural when it comes to this line of work. She’s in top physical shape, with a strong moral compass and the ability to be vulnerable. Sydney can rock any look from techno goth to Vegas cocktail waitress and has one of the best wardrobes in the spy genre.

#16: Harry Palmer

“The Ipcress File” (1965)

British secret agent Harry Palmer isn’t a super suave ladies’ man living in luxury. In fact, Harry Saltzman made “The Ipcress File” with the intention of introducing a grittier take on the well- known James Bond. But don’t let his bespeckled appearance and mundane name fool you. The former criminal has a brash presence and penchant for deadpan humor and turns out to be quite the cook. Sir Michael Caine starred as Palmer in several films, and it’s one of his finest performances. In 2022, Joe Cole stepped into the iconic role of the unsuspecting superspy in ITV’s television adaptation.

#15: The Cortez Family

“Spy Kids” franchise (2001-11)

After years traveling the globe as master spies, Gregorio and Ingrid Cortez retired from the exciting espionage life, choosing to shield their children from danger. But when they’re older, Carmen and Juni Cortez find out their parents, who they deem “not cool enough,” are actually two of the best spies in the OSS (Organization of Super Spies). And before they can even process this information, they have to suit up and rescue their parents from a criminal mastermind. Armed with the coolest gadgets and natural aptitude for spy work, the entire Cortez family saves the world together.

#14: Lorraine Broughton

“Atomic Blonde” (2017)

MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton is a sleek, agile force in this Cold War spy thriller. She’s deadly with a firearm, or any nearby object, but Lorraine’s most dangerous weapons are her fists. And she can wield a stiletto with fatal results. In a race to obtain a list of active intelligence agents in Berlin before the KGB can get their hands on it, Lorraine goes from one stylized action-packed scene to another, looking phenomenal in the process. Charlize Theron made the character an instant bisexual icon, setting her apart from the typical superspy.

#13: Phil Coulson

Marvel Cinematic Universe (2008-)

Agent Phillip J. Coulson might be the most likable secret agent in recent history. He’s relatable and easy going, and a Captain America superfan, but he’s also an accomplished S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. After his death at the hands of Loki in 2012’s “The Avengers,” fans still wanted more Phil Coulson. The powers that be resurrected him, because after all, this is the world of comic books. And he lived on in the MCU (sort of). In “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”, the agent is promoted to director of the organization by former director and creator of the Avengers Initiative, Nick Fury.

#12: Agents K & J

“Men in Black” franchise (1997-)

When an energetic NYPD officer James Darrell Edwards III chases down an abnormally fast criminal, he finds himself recruited by the stoic Agent K. He joins the Men in Black, a secret government agency tasked with monitoring extraterrestrial beings living on Earth. It’s quite the career change, but Edwards, now known as Agent J, is a valuable addition - and perfect opposite to K’s super serious demeanor. Together, they deal with all the otherworldly creatures among us, using their neuralyzers to wipe the memory of any civilians who come in contact with alien lifeforms. And they sure look good while doing it.

#11: Jack Ryan

“Jack Ryan” franchise (1990-)

CIA analyst Jack Ryan prefers using his brains over brawn, but if it comes down to it, he can fight with the best of them. The information he uncovers often takes him away from his desk and into the field. And since 1990, five actors have stepped into the role, beginning with Alec Baldwin in “The Hunt for Red October,” to the current iteration of the character in the “Jack Ryan” series starring John Krasinski. Whether he’s on the big screen or in the landscape of television, Jack Ryan will go down in history as one of the most badass agents ever.

#10: Angus MacGyver

“MacGyver” (1985-92; 2016-21)

Angus “Mac” MacGyver is arguably the most resourceful government agent in TV history, and the character is so influential that his name became a verb. Educated in applied sciences and fluent in more than four languages, this legendary trouble-shooter can make anything out of, well, anything. His most-used gadgets are his trusty Swiss Army knife, duct tape, and paper clips. But his most valuable asset is his genius level intellect. MacGyver eventually leaves the Department of External Services (DXS) to be a field operative for the Phoenix Foundation. He prefers non-lethal combat methods, proving that an unpredictable, inventive nature can get the job done (and without a high body count).

#9: Elizabeth & Philip Jennings

“The Americans” (2013-18)

Set in the early 1980s, “The Americans” follows two sleeper agents working for the KGB posing as married couple Elizabeth and Philip Jennings. With their new identities, the agents set up a travel agency as a cover and start a family in Falls Church, Virginia. Both have the masterful ability to blend into a crowd and have a knack for manipulating others. Philip is the more emotional of the two, but both are skilled, ruthless killers. While he sometimes questions some aspects of his work, Elizabeth is devoted to the Soviet cause. She may have an ice-cold demeanor, but she does have feelings for her husband and fellow spy. There’s no doubt the Jennings are one killer couple.

#8: Austin Powers

“Austin Powers” franchise (1997-2002)

In the late ‘90s, Mike Meyers introduced us to Sir Austin Danger Powers, the groovy British spy straight out of the Swinging Sixties. Sure, he isn’t too bright and he’s often way too focused on his next shag. But Powers is a capable spy, narrowly escaping fembots on more than one occasion, and continuously foiling the plans of his nemesis Dr. Evil. In the 1960s, he let the British Ministry of Defence freeze him in preparation for the inevitable return of the criminal mastermind. Now that’s dedication. This International Man of Mystery may be a parody of James Bond, but he became one of the greatest secret agents on the big screen. He also gifted pop-culture with a myriad of hilarious catchphrases and infectious tunes.

#7: Nikita

“La Femme Nikita” (1990)

After she murders a police officer during a robbery gone awry, teenage Nikita is presented the opportunity to become a deadly assassin. Well, it’s more like a terrifying ultimatum — kill or be killed. A mysterious government agency called “the Centre” faked her death, giving her a clean slate to start anew. Nikita very reluctantly agrees, and trains in martial arts and develops other skills, transforming into the ultimate femme fatale. Twenty years after the film, The CW premiered “Nikita,” a series centering on the titular character as a rogue spy working to take down the agency that trained her. Both Anne Parillaud and Maggie Q play the role to perfection, making Nikita one of the best secret agents in cinematic and television history.

#6: The Angels

“Charlie’s Angels” franchise (1976-2019)

Beginning with the original TV series in the 1970s, the crime-fighting trio dubbed Charlie’s Angels has been a mainstay in American pop-culture. The OG Angels — Sabrina, Jill, and Kelly — were recent police academy graduates assigned to disappointing jobs. Feeling underutilized, they joined the Charles Townsend Agency led by their unseen boss Charlie, becoming expert undercover agents and masters of espionage. Through subsequent films and shows, the various iterations of the Angels have always been a team of three tenacious women of different professions. Reformed thieves, race car drivers, MIT students, former MI6 agents — anyone can be Angel.

#5: Maxwell Smart

“Get Smart” (1965-70)

From 1965 to 1970, “Get Smart” had audiences laughing at the inept top-secret government agent Max Smart (aka Agent 86). Despite his clumsiness, he’s a pro with a pistol and unusually resourceful. Working alongside the much more efficient Agent 99, Smart is tasked with keeping the international evil organization KAOS from taking over the world time and time again. “Get Smart” featured all kinds of ridiculous gadgets like shoe phones, the laser blazer, and of course, the Cone of Silence. Maxwell Smart isn’t the smoothest of agents, regularly causing complications, but nevertheless, he still manages to be one of the top agents at CONTROL.

#4: Natasha Romanoff [aka Black Widow]

Marvel Cinematic Universe (2008-)

Since first appearing in 2010’s “Iron Man 2” as an undercover spy, Natasha Romanoff has become a key player in the MCU. At a young age, Natasha (along with many other girls) was trained in the Red Room, a secret “academy” that taught young girls to be KGB assassins called Black Widows. Later, Clinton Barton recruits her to S.H.I.E.L.D. where she eventually becomes an Avenger. She more than holds her own fighting aliens and androids alongside gods and enhanced mortals, and her hand-to-hand combat skills are arguably more impressive than any superpowers. Agent Romanoff brings just as much heart as she brings the brawn, and she leaves a lasting legacy in the MCU (including her signature move).

#3: Jason Bourne

“Bourne” franchise (2002-)

Rogue CIA special agent Jason Bourne isn’t your typical action hero. An injury causes him to suffer from amnesia, leaving him with no idea who he really is. As he goes on his own mission to piece together his memory, other CIA agents try to take him down. But his insane fighting expertise, and impressive ability to make a dangerous weapon out of anything, keep him alive. The Bourne films were a more grounded approach to the spy genre, forgoing womanizing and luxury for ruthless violence and an identity crisis. Jason Bourne remains one of Matt Damon’s most iconic roles to date.

#2: Ethan Hunt

“Mission: Impossible” franchise (1996-)

Since 1996, Tom Cruise has led one of the highest grossing film franchises of all time, as both producer and star, becoming notorious for doing his own stunts. Cruise is just as relentless and dedicated as his character Ethan Hunt, an Impossible Mission Force (IMF) agent. Hunt just gets better at his spy craft with each movie and has solidified his place among the most badass cinematic action heroes. Whether he’s stealing confidential files or preventing the spread of a deadly virus, Ethan Hunt is always ready to jump into death-defying scenarios for any mission…no matter how impossible.

#1: James Bond

“James Bond” franchise (1962-)

Taking the top spot on our list is 007 himself. James Bond first appeared on screen in 1962’s “Dr. No,” but the fictional agent was created by author Ian Fleming in 1953. As of 2022, Mr. Bond has been portrayed in the Eon series of 007 films by six actors: Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, and Daniel Craig. Each actor has their own take on the coveted role, but all exude the character’s confidence and wit. Bond leads a glamorous yet dangerous life as a British Secret Service agent, saving the world and wooing women, notably the infamous “Bond girls,” like the elegant double agent, Vesper Lynd. He’s the quintessential spy who’s made a huge impact on pop-culture, inspiring countless homages, and parodies.
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