Black Widow is out, bringing the women-led spy genre to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film follows Natasha Romanov in the time between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War as she works to bring down the Red Room, aka the Soviet-affiliated program that took her as a baby and brainwashed her into becoming an assassin. While the women-centric spy drama may be new for the MCU, it’s has been one of the most prolific and entertaining action sub-genres over the past few decades. If you’ve watched Black Widow and you’re looking for more taut and emotional spy thrillers to check out, we have some TV and film suggestions for you…
Many have seen the 2011 action feature directed by Joe Wright and starring Saoirse Ronan as a girl assassin raised in the wilderness by her spy father Eric Bana, but the TV series based on the film is even better. Currently moving towards its third season, the Amazon Prime series has so much more room to delve into the nuances of the film’s premise, especially in its second season, which moves completely past the events of the movie. While the first season leans into the coming-of-age themes inherent in Hanna venturing out into the world for the very first time, the second season chooses to delve further into the spy drama of it all, expanding the series’ focus to center some of the other teen super soldiers born into the same program Hanna was rescued from as a baby. If you would have liked to learn more about the other Widows Natasha and Yelena are working to save in Black Widow, then Hanna is the show for you.
Stylish and featuring some of the best fight scenes this side of John Wick (the film’s director David Leitch, also worked on John Wick), Atomic Blonde stars the incomparable Charlize Theron as a spy tasked with finding a lost of double agents that is being smuggled into the West on the eve of the Berlin Wall’s collapse. Like Black Widow, Atomic Blonde only has so much narrative time to delve into the complexities of this set up and setting and, maybe sensing it won’t be able to do them justice, instead leans into the aesthetic and action of this world. It works, thanks in no small part to performers like Theron, James McAvoy, and Sofia Boutella, who bring to life the stress, violence, and desperation of this intersection of place and time far better than its script.
American and British spy dramas often have white westerners traveling to other, poorer nations for missions, depicting a real-life colonial power structure while rarely interrogating it. Queen Sono, billed as Netflix‘s first African original series (it is a South African series, specifically), is a spy drama that centers Black characters and community in fun and powerful ways, bringing the familiar tropes of the genre to what will probably be a new setting for most American viewers. Queen Sono follows South African spy Queen (Pearl Thusi) as she works to balance her dangerous and clandestine missions with her personal life. Funny, emotional, and action-packed, Queen Sono is a must-see for any spy drama lover looking for something new—and it’s a damn shame Netflix won’t be moving forward with a second season.
To me, Alias will always be the original. The female-led spy drama was on network television when I was a teenager, and its combination (especially in the first season and a half) of fierce fight sequences, tense spycraft, and character-driven drama made it my favorite show. Like Black Widow, Alias is grounded in family drama, most especially the father-daughter relationship between Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) and spy dad Jack Bristow (Victor Garber), but later bringing in other familial dynamics as well. The series starts as your classic double agent story, as Sydney decides to take down the agency she works for after they have her fiance killed, but, in classic J.J. Abrams style, the plot really spirals out from there—for better and worse. Airing for five season and more than 105 episodes, if you’re looking for more family-driven spy drama, Alias is the show for you.
All three “seasons” of this excellent German-language Cold War spy series that follows an East German boy forced to become a spy in West Germany are worth watching, but the second installment, set in 1986, gives us viewers many more lady spy characters to be impressed by compared to the original Deutschland 83 story. Main character Jonas remains the protagonist of this tale, but his Aunt Lenora, probably the best spy in the entire show, takes an even bigger role in Deutschland 1986 and the subsequent Deutschland 89, as does her lover/partner Rose, a South African operative working for the African National Congress and played by the MCU’s Florence Kasumba. Throw in Jonas’ baby mama Annett, back in East Germany working as a junior intelligence agent, and the mysterious Brigitte, and you have a second season teeming with complex and cutthroat women spies.
This highly underrated spy series ran for four action-packed seasons on The CW before totally sticking its landing in 2013. Technically an adaptation of the 1997 La Femme Nikita TV series, which was in turn an adaptation of Luc Besson’s 1990 action film of the same name, Nikita quickly surpassed both originals to become one of the best female-led spy stories of all time. Starring Maggie Q as the titular Nikita, the series began after the former spy has vowed to take down the secret agency that trained her, known as the Division. Our story begins when Nikita plants her protege, Alex, within Division, with a plan to work together to take the agency down. Of course, going undercover comes with its own emotional and ethical complications, and Alex may not know all that there is to know about her mentor Nikita, and Nikita’s role in Alex’s tragic past. With a stellar supporting cast that includes Melinda Clarke and Xander Berkeley, Nikita was far better than it needed to be and, if your a fan of the action spy genre, is definitely worth watching.
Maybe it was the Russian accent, but Yelena has mad Villanelle vibes in Black Widow, and I mean that in the least psychopathic way possible. Unless you live under a rock, you’re probably aware of this BBC America series starring Sandra Oh as a bored MI-5 agent and Jodie Comer as the spy-assassin she becomes obsessed with catching, but if you haven’t yet checked it out and are looking for another female-driven spy story with plenty of banter, then Killing Eve is the show for you. The second season gets a little rocky, but with a riveting season three and the announcement that season four will be the show’s last, now is the time to jump on the Killing Eve bandwagon.
Little Drummer Girl
In terms of tone or style, Little Drummer Girl shares little with Black Widow—it’s much more geopolitical thriller than superhero action—but I’m including the British spy series on the list because it does share a star with Black Widow. Yelena’s Florence Pugh plays an aspiring actress named Charlie who is recruited by Mossad to infiltrate a Palestinian group planning an attack in Europe. Based on a novel of the same name by acclaimed spy author John le Carré, the six-episode series is directed by Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook and co-stars Michael Shannon and Alexander Skarsgård, and the talent is not wasted. The miniseries delves much more into the ethics of spycraft than Black Widow is able or comfortable doing, asking difficult questions about how violence and manipulation are used and justified across national lines. If you’re looking for a spy drama that isn’t afraid to ask the tough questions, then Little Drummer Girl is for you.
OK, this one is more of an assassin drama than a spy drama, but the cast is too good not to include it on the list. Starring Doctor Who‘s Karen Gillan and Game of Thrones‘ Lena Headey as a pair of daughter/mother assassins, Gunpowder Milkshake is another action thriller that is all in with the familial dynamics. Past the two stars, Gunpowder Milkshake also features the iconic Michelle Yeoh, Angela Bassett, and Carla Gugino, rounding out the cast of action women. The film doesn’t drop on Netflix (in the U.S.) and theaters (elsewhere) until Friday, but you’ll be ready.