If you believe fiction, spies are everywhere. You cannot turn around without bumping into someone in a wig, armed with a gun masquerading as a tasteful pair of earrings, and carrying secret plans in microdot form. There are so many, we decided to rank them.
We have fifty entries on this list, and we are fully aware that we could have had hundreds more. Feel free to add and argue in the comments. We mostly tried to restrict ourselves to one entry per work — since spies usually have other spy allies and enemies — and mostly tried to stick hard to a line of actual espionage versus law enforcement who happen to go undercover.
Smiley got a boost in public consciousness in 2011, when Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy got another adaptation, but Smiley's been around in John le Carré's novels since the early 60s. He's a counterpart to Bond — not stylish or an action star — but in sheer gets shit done, he is the best of fictional spies.
Probably the most famous fictional spy ever, Bond is effective but also very good at getting caught and causing huge swaths of destruction.
Tom Clancy's most famous spy, Ryan's appeared as an effective spy who is scarily good at getting defections.
She's got a number of skills, her ability to get men to tell her information by pretending vulnerability makes her spy skills top notch.
Garak isn't just a brilliant liar, he's also a master of getting the truth out of others — and in the heat of the Dominion war, he reveals some very ugly truths about the lengths Sisko must go to, in order to prevail
Bob Barnes (George Clooney) could be one of the most observant spy out of this whole bunch. It's hard to compare his work with others but we do get to see him tested under immense pressure. However he's not great at following orders or keeping his opinions to himself.
It's been nearly two decades since he first lowered himself into an impossibly secure chamber, but Ethan keeps getting in and out of ridiculous situations, with an incredible aplomb, a wealth of crazy gadgets, and a small team of misfit spies.
Deighton's mostly nameless protagonist, called "Harry Palmer" in the film starring Michael Caine, Palmer is an elite spy, working in a tiny division in British intelligence and is granted a lot of authority to get things done.
A spy who loves the game and is one of the very best in a whole nation of spies.
The tough-as-nails boss of the Secret Service is the granite core of James Bond's world, whether he's Pierce Brosnan or Daniel Craig. She's willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done, even sacrifice Bond himself.
Will Smith's Robert Clayton Dean would have been dead in the water without Gene Hackman's Edward "Brill" Lyle, who ends up the winner of the whole film
One of the best spy teams of all time, Solo and Kuryakin are the very best of UNCLE. They succeed even though their missions almost always include dealing with untrained civilians. Plus, this was a Russian and an American working together during the height of the Cold War.
In the midst of a bewildering story where everyone's a double agent or a sleeper agent or a traitor, there's one thing you can count on: Evelyn Salt will kick pretty much everyone's ass, friend or foe.
A diverse team of retired spies who prove themselves to be better than the young upstarts still working.
Technically, Steed's the actual spy and Peel's an amateur he recruited. Doesn't stop her from being the heavy hitter and him an insouciant spy who swans in to save Britain from devious masterminds.
A man so skilled that extreme memory loss couldn't stop him from beating his opponents.
Nothing happens in Westeros or Essos without the Spider knowing about it, because his little birds are everywhere. And yet, he somehow manages to be understimated at every turn.
Robert Redford's Turner is a CIA analyst — not a field operative — who nonetheless manages to unravel a giant conspiracy.
Along with his SHIELD compatriots like Phil Coulson, Nick Fury is one of the main keepers of the Marvel Universe's secrets. Of course, they missed that whole "Hydra" business, but nobody's perfect.
An agent who excels at stopping terrorist plots in single days, while also losing a tenuous grasp of his home life. He also administers a healthy dose of torture, once getting what he needs by shooting a suspect in, as Charlie Brooker described it once, "in the wife."
Sydney's super-spy skills are practically genetic — arguably, her mother, Irina, and her father, Jack, are more effective spies — and the product of a childhood training program. Not an episode goes by without Sydney doing at least two missions — for both sides of the fight — and succeeding.
Redford's second entry on this list is as an agent on his last day at the agency who runs an endgame around his superiors in an attempt to save his protege.
Patrick McGoohan plays Drake, a NATO agent called in especially for cases where something's gone horribly wrong. Anyone cleaning up other spies messes is a very effective spy.
Matthew Macfayden's Quinn is a leader of a section in the domestic intelligence division and is consistently serious, focused, intelligent, and with perfect spy instincts. All while being very popular with his team.
Kingsman Harry Hart's (Colin Firth) code is "manners maketh man" and to be sure, his shit is on point. While he would rather resolve most disputes in a civilized manner he has absolutely no problem horribly maiming a group of bad guys or teen bullies. After they've been warned of course.
A spy who was burned — left without access to resources or influence or identity — Michael still manages to put his considerable skills to use.
Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) has not a great bluffer and definitely not super great at protecting his partners and assets. Which is probably why his own people use Ferris number of weaknesses against him to get what they want. And they do
Whether in the movie or TV versions, Nikita's always a troubled teen who becomes a superspy/assassin but develops a conscience. And in the most recent Maggie Q incarnation, she's more than a match for her former employers.
Two people who are Soviet sleeper agents and have to not only keep their cover but also deal with having innocent children caught up in their lives and present viewers with a very complicated view of heroes and villains.
Like the Suicide Squad version of Charlie's Angels the three ex-convicts get pulled out in a deal with the US government to help them solve crimes. Cassie (Natasha Henstridge), Shane (Natashia Williams) and DD (Kristen Miller). These lady spies have the magical power of being able to pause time and show the audience how they size up clients and break the fourth wall. One would think this would make them unstoppable, but instead they just make weird sex jokes.
We'd be remiss if we didn't mention Snape, a spy in one of the biggest franchises of all time. He double-, triple-, and quadruple-crosses with skill that lets him operate under the nose of someone called the "Dark Lord."
Someone who moved from being a thief to being the ultra-secret second in command spy — his identity is hidden for a fair number of books — is a very formidable opponent indeed. We'd love to see him on the big screen.
Moved up to the big leagues without completing training, Annie Walker rapidly proved her worth to the CIA and became a top operative with instincts that meant ignoring orders while also being right.
Just when they think they're out, married couple Steven (Boris Kodjoe) and Samantha Bloom (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) get PULLED back in to spy life. Both are gorgeous, witty, educated, and really really great at banter. Both were big deals back in the day so they're a little rusty (at first) but within moments they're jumping out of planes, kicking people off buildings and punching bad guys over and over and over.
Both very good at making connections no one else will, but also extremely against following orders and very very obsessive and reckless.
Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim) introduces the entire idea of espionage in this thrilling spy movie based on the novel by John Buchan. It's her quick thinking that put Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) on his path and would eventually reveal how the 39 Steps were smuggling information.
Eva Marie Saint as Eve Kendall, how did she know to put blanks in her gun? How did she know? Spy sense, that's how. Also she's got morals.
Robinson, and Alexander Scott, managed that most important of spy skills: traveling the world with the unnaturally bulletproof cover as a tennis player and his trainer.
Modesty Blaise starts out life as an orphan and ended up a leading a multinational criminal syndicate before she was twenty. She then uses her considerable skills to fight crime.
A lot of people give the Charlie's Angels grief over their alluring outfits. But we must remember that Sabrina Duncan (Kate Jackson), Jill Munroe (Farrah Fawcett-Majors), and Kelly Garrett (Jaclyn Smith) usually use their lovely looks and cunning brains together, often distracting the gullible victim away from what they're truly trying to get at. Also let's not forget these ladies bucked the system. No they kicked the system's ass, after getting out of police school they were handed jobs like meter maid and crossing guard and three said fuck right the hell off and went to work for the Townsend Agency. Points for not bowing to the patriarchy.
When we first meet Chuck, he's a hapless tech-support guy who's been implanted with a supercomputer, but even once he gets kung-fu superspy powers, he's still a soft-hearted regular guy deep down.
Both adept enough at espionage to hide their second lives from each other, while also not knowing that their spouse is deadly. Their problems only start when they are hired to kill each other.
The greatest tribute you can pay to these color-coordinated adversaries is that for all their ingenuity, neither one of them can ever outwit the other, once and for all.
Although he started as a police officer, Foyle was so good at his job he ends up recruited by MI5. This, despite that scrupulously honesty is one of his defining features. That's right, he's so good that an spy agency wanted him even though he doesn't like to lie.
On his own, Max would be much further down on this list. He's an idiot saved by the skill of his partner, Agent 99, and some tremendous luck. But he does always win.
A top agent who is also an asshole and is very often not that competent or moral. It's entirely possible his continued employment comes courtesy of his mother, who is in charge
Like most comedy spies, Flint isn't the most suave. But he can stop an evil plot, given enough time.
Look at him. How bad is he?
An effective parody of everything Bond, etc. do poorly. A not so effective actual spy.
It's meant to be a comedy, but the truly atrocious actions by the protagonist push it into unintentional parody. Seriously, Arnold Schwarzenegger is not stealthy or inconspicuous
Additional reporting by Charlie Jane Anders