Let’s get right into this because there’s no sense in sugar-coating one simple fact. Things have reached a fever pitch, so let’s be honest with ourselves: Secret Invasion wasn’t good. Heck, it wasn’t even passable. Sitting at woefully low 55 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, the MCU’s latest Disney Plus outing is about as bad as it gets.
What’s worse? You won’t find a bigger Marvel fan than the guy writing this article. To trigger such an uproar within me is no easy feat, especially when it comes to the MCU, and to be quite honest — like many of you, I’m just sick of being let down all the time.
Superhero fatigue! That’s the buzzword being thrown around these days. People are simply sick of spandex, right? Wrong. Who are we kidding? The moviegoing world at large doesn’t have “superhero fatigue,” we have bad story fatigue, and these days it’s coming at us from all angles. Whether it’s Secret Invasion, The Flash, Elemental, or Indiana Jones — storytelling has taken a conceited hit recently, and that’s not a good thing.
Oh, and let’s not even start on Star Wars. The only thing I love more than Marvel is that galaxy far, far away… And lately that’s exactly where I’ve been headed. With Secret Invasion’s not-so-secret shortcomings in mind, let’s take a look back at some cinematic stories of espionage worth investing your time in — and preserve our sanity in the process. Note: These movies aren’t ranked in any particular order.
Mission: Impossible III
I’ll forgo the franchise as a whole and call out Mission: Impossible III for the highlight that it is. Still, the Mission: Impossible movies are each incredible in their own way (except the second one), and all deserve a bit of praise. Hats off all around.
What the third installment in this heart-pounding series gives us that the others may not, is an incredibly grounded world. Sure, people are pulling synthetic masks off of their heads and swinging between skyscrapers, but at the end of the day — Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt just wants to save his wife.
It takes an ongoing narrative that usually surrounds the end of the world, and brilliantly makes it about Ethan’s smaller world for a change. Moreover, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of villain Owen Davian is worth the price of admission every time.
Much like Mission: Impossible, Skyfall is part of a larger franchise that has been telling great spy stories since the ’60s. Most of which are pretty darn compelling. Emphasis on most.
Yet, there’s something about Skyfall that hits home in ways only Daniel Craig’s 007 can — and don’t we just love him for it? First, Skyfall is visually stunning. You have cinematographer Roger Deakins to thank for that.
Second, the villain. Any story is only ever as good as its villain, and Javier Bardem delivers in the menacing role of Raoul Silva. This is a story that shows Bond through his mirror opposite, and reveals to audiences just how devious he could be. In short, Skyfall rocks. Go watch it. Drink a martini. Wear a suit, if you insist.
Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams
“Do you think God stays in heaven because he, too, lives in fear of what he’s created here on earth?” This was said in a Spy Kids movie people. Let that sink in for a second. Robert Rodriguez is a mad genius.
Way, way better than it has any right to be — Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams is fantastic. Yes, it’s fun for the whole family, but the story itself actually touches on some great concepts. Right and wrong. Love. Betrayal. Friendship. They’re all here.
Juni and Carmen have grown up a bit, they’re out of the house again, and things only get crazier. Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams is meant for popcorn. We watch, we leave, we forget. While we’re there though? We can’t get enough.
The 39 Steps
This is where I might lose some of you. The 39 Steps is a black and white, pre-America Alfred Hitchcock spy-comedy. It was released in 1935, and yes, it still holds up.
The 39 Steps is so ahead of its time, it makes some modern movies look old school. I actually envy anyone who hasn’t seen this movie, and for that reason alone — I won’t spoil a single thing. Instead, I’ll pose a question. What are the 39 steps? Have fun figuring that out.
Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
Yeah, baby. Austin Powers is unlike so many of the other action parodies of the past three decades, mainly because it’s good. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery not only subverts genre tropes without trampling over them, but also gives us some of the larger tentpoles of any good thriller while doing it.
Mike Myers’ turn as this James Bond knockoff made him one of the world’s biggest stars, and imbued pop culture with dozens of one-liners that continue to make us laugh. Speaking of…
Jamie Lee Curtis. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The fact that James Cameron directed this thing is almost an afterthought. True Lies is the kind of summer blockbuster the world desperately needs right now, and one that would make the most brutish modern action star blush.
What’s so great about True Lies comes by way of its on-screen relationships. Schwarzenegger and Curtis as a disgruntled husband and wife looking for love, rekindling their marriage through Arnold’s secret life as a spy — is an all time premise, and one that never gets old.
Not forgetting that Jamie Lee Curtis doesn’t exist as a simple damsel in distress, no, she kicks some serious butt in this movie and hold her own at every turn.
Burn After Reading
You want to know what the secret ingredient is to this Coen brothers-directed spy thriller? Nothing. Absolutely nothing, and that’s exactly what all the characters involved find out by the end of this thing — which is why Burn After Reading remains thought provoking.
Stupid is as stupid does, and it makes for a great story. Anyone on screen happens to think everyone else is hiding something, even if they aren’t, and therein lies the rub. With an ensemble housing true Hollywood heavyweights like: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, and J. K. Simmons among others, Burn After Reading should be given a chance just to see all these people play idiots. Case closed.
The Bourne Identity
The theme song. The acting. The premise. The Bourne Identity forever changed spy movies. Without the Bourne franchise, certain series on this very list would have been done differently. Full stop.
Daniel Craig’s turn as James Bond wouldn’t have been what it was. Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible would have likely taken a hit. John Wick may have never even existed! By using quick cuts, bare bones fight scenes, and true to life settings — The Bourne Identity is all grit, and nestles itself inside a mystery of memory that doesn’t let up until the credits roll. Plus, it stars young Matt Damon. What’s not to love?
Kingsman: The Secret Service
The Kingsman movies are a ton of fun. Especially Kingsman: The Secret Service. Based on a comic book of the same name, Matthew Vaughn’s adaptation of these stylized spy thrillers are unlike anything done for the genre before or since. Seriously, that Free Bird fight scene in the church? I rest my case.
Utilizing music, choreography, and quirky characters — Kingsman gives action movies a much needed face-lift, and can’t help but keep our attention. Ironically, Samuel L. Jackson plays the story’s villain, and does so with a level of gusto seemingly left out of his performance in Secret Invasion. Which is saying something, because Sam Jackson as Nick Fury is one of the most iconic Marvel characters out there.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is on this list for one simple reason: Gary Oldman tracks down a Soviet double agent amidst the British Secret Service in 1970s London. Along with its ensemble cast including the likes of Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, and Benedict Cumberbatch — Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy does its source material, author John le Carré’s novel of the same name, true justice.
This is because it’s exactly what it promises to be. This movie doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, but instead lives so proudly in its time period that we can’t help but be endeared by it. Retro London is absolutely fascinating, and there’s certainly no shortage of it during this mind-melter.
And there you have it. A nice selection of spy thrillers that definitely live up to the hype. Hopefully at least some of these can wash the taste of what we’ve gotten more recently out of your mouth. Take these titles and slowly chip away at them. Expand your spy-loving brain and have fun.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to go watch these movies. If at any point you pause, stop, or leave — I will disavow any knowledge of your actions. This article will self-destruct in five seconds.