The Highest-Grossing Spy Movies of All Time
Secrets, stunts and plenty of gadgets are just a few things you can expect from your typical spy movie. Plus, a ton of box-office success, if the movie's done right.
These are the highest-grossing spy movies made to date, based on worldwide box office numbers provided by BoxOfficeMojo. The numbers clearly show spy films are big business. The budgets are often huge, and the payoffs can be even bigger.
Spy movies themselves tend to fall into multiple genres, like comedy or action or thriller or drama or some mishmash of all of the above. They all usually feature high stakes and unexpected turns to keep audiences entertained. The 20 movies featured below fall into various types of genres, but all are considered spy movies because their protagonist is a spy or the main storyline features a spy.
And don’t worry. It’s not all James Bond movies as the beginning of the list might suggest.
20. ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’
Domestic gross: $125,304,276
Worldwide gross: $333,011,068
Thanks in large part to the success of Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in “GoldenEye,” this sequel came out only two years after the previous movie. The environment on set was supposedly so crazy, we lost out on having Anthony Hopkins in the film. Hopkins was initially cast in the role of Elliot Carver, but left the production after three days because of the chaos on set. Despite its production woes, moviegoers came out in droves to see the movie.
Domestic gross: $106,429,941
Worldwide gross: $352,194,034
This was the first time Brosnan played Bond. It had been six years since a James Bond film had been produced. Many people wondered if Bond films would be popular again based on ever-evolving tastes in movies. But the film’s popularity not only at the box office, but also with its popular spinoff Nintendo games, proved that people liked Brosnan in the role and were hungry for more 007 onscreen.
18. ‘The World is Not Enough’
Budget: $135 million
Domestic gross: $126,943,684
Worldwide gross: $361,832,400
This Bond film featured Brosnan as Bond for the third time. The spy has to protect the daughter of a murdered oil tycoon. In doing so, he uncovers a nuclear plot and must fight a villain who has a bullet in his brain that keeps him from feeling pain.
This was the last film with the original Bond character Q, who was portrayed by Desmond Llewelyn. He was killed in a car accident shortly after the film was released. When the movie went to video, a montage was included featuring Lleewlyn’s contributions to the Bond franchise over 17 films in 36 years.
17. ‘Penguins of Madagascar’
Budget: $132 million
Domestic gross: $83,350,911
Worldwide gross: $373,015,621
This spinoff from the family-friendly and animated “Madagascar” series takes place after “Madagascar 3” as the popular penguin characters set off on their own adventure. The penguins were fan favorites since the first time they graced the screen with their seriousness and — mostly — coordinated sequences. So it’s no surprise that fans were excited and supportive of seeing these characters on their own spy-oriented capers. Though the movie didn’t make a profit domestically, it did well overseas.
16. ‘True Lies’
Budget: $115 million
Domestic gross: $146,282,411
Worldwide gross: $378,882,411
Though he was an action star in his own right when this movie came out, Arnold Schwarzenegger hadn’t yet taken on the role of a spy. But he did so with much success in this mid-’90s film. Schwarzenegger’s character is not only attempting to save the world from the wrath of bad guys. He’s also attempting to save his marriage (to Jaime Lee Curtis) from the seduction of bad guys.
The movie had a sequel apparently written and ready to go. But after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, director James Cameron felt the movie’s tone and jokes would be in bad taste and he shelved the project indefinitely.
15. ‘Mission: Impossible III’
Budget: $150 million
Domestic gross: $134,029,801
Worldwide gross: $397,850,012
The third installment of the “Mission: Impossible” franchise features a surprising beginning to the movie with a well-known actress (Keri Russell) playing Ethan Hunt’s (Tom Cruise) protégeé. When she’s taken hostage by a bad guy, Hunt, with her help, is able to free her only to learn she has an explosive device in her head. In the process of trying to save her, he accidentally sets it off and immediately kills her.
This shocking beginning gave immediate emotional stakes to the rest of the film and reminded moviegoers that you never know what might happen in this franchise. Nobody is safe — except maybe Cruise himself, assuming he’s not doing a crazy stunt.
14. ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’
Budget: $81 million
Domestic gross: $128,261,724
Worldwide gross: $414,351,546
Like many successful spy films, this was based on already existing intellectual property. It’s loosely based on the comic book series written by Dave Gibbons and Mark Millar called “The Secret Service.”
The film features a troubled youth, Taron Egerton, who is visited by a well-dressed man, Colin Firth. Firth’s character recognizes the boy’s strong potential and recruits him for a secret spy organization filled with killer stunts, adorable dog buddies and impeccable suits.
13. ‘Die Another Day’
Budget: $142 million
Domestic gross: $160,942,139
Worldwide gross: $431,971,116
This installment of the Bond movie franchise featured the charming and more playful Brosnan as the secret agent. And, with Halle Berry as Jinx, it was the first time an Academy Award winner played a “Bond Girl.” This would be the last time Brosnan would play Bond.
Interestingly, he didn’t like all the overdone gadgets and over-the-top sequences, suggesting perhaps Bond take on a more serious tone. He would leave the franchise after this film just in time for Daniel Craig to fulfill the more serious, darker Bond that Brosnan wanted to see.
12. ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’
Budget: $110 million
Domestic gross: $227,471,070
Worldwide gross: $442,824,138
This was the third movie in the “Bourne” universe, and the most financially successful. It featured Matt Damon as Jason Bourne and, like previous installments, was adapted from popular books by the same name. This movie picks up in the events that followed from the previous movie, “The Bourne Supremacy.” Unlike many other big-budget action-oriented spy films, these movies don’t have a ton of high-tech gadgets. Instead, they rely on the intelligence, savvy and training of the main character to get the job done (without any cool gear to help out except what he may find or fashion along the way).
11. ‘Mission: Impossible’
Budget: $80 million
Domestic gross: $180,981,856
Worldwide gross: $457,696,359
The first film of what would become a powerhouse franchise, it established Cruise as not only an action star but a believable spy you want to root for (and see do his own incredible stunts). According to some sources, the first “Mission: Impossible” actually began without a full script. The director, Brian De Palma, had all the action sequences he wanted to include in the film figured out. And a team of writers worked together to create a storyline that would logically string together the need for those action sequences.
10. ‘Mission: Impossible II’
Budget: $125 million
Domestic gross: $215,409,889
Worldwide gross: $546,388,105
The sequel to the incredibly successful original “Mission: Impossible” movie, this film solidified the franchise as a box-office powerhouse. This movie was the highest-grossing film of 2000, and included all the same jaw-dropping stunts that the first film had while forwarding elements of the plot.
Like many “Mission: Impossible” films, this one included a stunt that Cruise insisted on doing himself, which caused a lot of tension during filming. The stunt was when Cruise climbed sections of the cliffs in Moab. He was only secured to the sides of the cliffs on a very basic level, and there was no protection on the ground below him. The sequence apparently terrified the film’s director, John Woo.
9. ‘Cars 2’
Budget: $200 million
Domestic gross: $191,452,396
Worldwide gross: $562,110,557
While it’s a far cry from some of the more serious movies on this list, the story behind the animated and family-friendly movie “Cars 2” does, indeed, revolve around spies. The sequel to the popular original movie, “Cars 2” follows the same characters, this time on an international adventure.
While preparing for a big international race, the car friends discover a major villain is plotting to sabotage the race. With the help of some of their new agent friends, they must bring the villain to justice. It has all the trappings of the typical spy film you might expect to see, only it’s told through the lens of talking cars.
8. ‘Quantum of Solace’
Budget: $200 million
Domestic gross: $168,368,427
Worldwide gross: $586,090,727
This movie picked up right where the plot of “Casino Royale” left off. And it featured the same actor, Craig, as Bond. Bond seeks out revenge for the death of his former lover and all the excitement and double-crossing that happens in that process.
The name comes from a collection of short stories from Bond’s original creator, Ian Fleming. Some critics and audience members were disappointed at the more serious approach to James Bond, who is often more light-hearted than this action flick depicted. But, based on the ticket sales, that didn’t stop people from seeing it in theaters.
7. ‘Casino Royale’
Budget: $150 million
Domestic gross: $167,445,960
Worldwide gross: $599,045,960
This Bond film is directly inspired by the Ian Fleming novel of the same name. And it was the third time that novel was adapted for film. This time, however, was significantly more profitable than any previous attempt, grossing over a half-billion dollars worldwide at the box office.
It was the first time Craig took on the iconic spy role after Brosnan vacated it, though there was some controversy around the decision in large part due to Craig’s different-for-Bond look. And, based on the profits of this movie alone, it’s no surprise filmmakers kept him around.
6. ‘Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation’
Budget: $150 million
Domestic gross: $195,042,377
Worldwide gross: $682,714,267
This film once again featured Cruise as the lead and a familiar cast of characters, including some acting heavy-hitters in their own right: Simon Pegg, Alec Baldwin, Rebecca Ferguson and Jeremy Renner. In one of the most notable moments, Cruise is suspended from an airplane (which actually happened), hanging on intensely 5,000-feet above ground.
5. ‘Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol’
Budget: $145 million
Domestic gross: $209,397,903
Worldwide gross: $694,713,380
This movie is the fourth in the “Mission: Impossible” series. And, at least according to critics who gave it favorable ratings, it delivers on everything you’d hope from the franchise. It also featured the debut of Brad Bird as a live-action director. He had been previously known for multiple Pixar films, including “The Incredibles” franchise.
Like many of these movies (and Cruise films in general), the actor did most of his own stunts, including a harrowing tower climb on the Burj Khalifa tower, the world’s largest building.
4. ‘Mission: Impossible — Fallout’
Budget: $178 million
Domestic gross: $220,159,104
Worldwide gross: $791,115,104
This is the sixth movie of the popular “Mission: Impossible” franchise, which again stars Cruise and a familiar cast of characters who either help him or attempt to stand in his way. This film also features Henry Cavill as the shady right-hand of the powerful Angela Bassett, who causes her to question Cruise’s character’s loyalties.
Like the film’s title implies, this installment of the series focuses on what happens after a major villain has been taken into custody. His followers vow to wreak more havoc in the world to support his teachings and, ideally, free him in the process. It also plays with the theme that every good deed never goes unpunished, which resonated with the global box office market.
Budget: $245 million
Domestic gross: $200,074,609
Worldwide gross: $880,674,609
The 24th Bond film and a follow up to the massively successful “Skyfall,” this movie features once again Craig as JBond against a worthy evil adversary, played by Christoph Waltz. Both this film and “Skyfall” were directed by Sam Mendes. It’s a classic spy plot move that makes the stakes feel even higher and completely new, while still tipping its hat to what has happened in the franchise before.
2. ‘Despicable Me 2’
Budget: $76 million
Domestic gross: $368,061,265
Worldwide gross: $970,761,885
The adorable yellow minions and the villain-turned-father Gru returned to the summer box office to blow it to smithereens in this animated family-friendly spy caper. This sequel did even better than the original movie, which grossed over a half-billion dollars at the box office.
Steve Carrell voiced the main character Gru with Kristen Wiig as the voice of his partner-in-defeating-crime, agent Lucy Wilde. The two had to go undercover to help defeat villains he once sided with. This playful caper was an absolute delight to moviegoers, and both its massive domestic and worldwide grosses prove that you can successfully mix a little light-heartedness into a serious spy movie.
Budget: $200 million
Domestic gross: $304,360,277
Worldwide gross: $1,108,561,013
In the only Bond film to gross over a billion dollars worldwide, Craig’s Bond must defend MI6 and his loyalty to M is questioned. The 2012 film had the benefit of working off the characters and storylines of the previous 22 James Bond films, not to mention the 14 Ian Fleming novels. So moviegoers had an idea of what they were getting into, and were happy to support the story of the secret agent.
The writers even toyed around with making it a bit more of a tragic film, but eventually restrained themselves a little to keep it closer to themes of the past. Whatever they did, it worked.