At the dawn of the 21st century, Hollywood delivered the shot of adrenaline the flagging spy movie genre desperately needed. James Bond had lost his stranglehold on the business and the world was in dire need of a new franchise to revitalize a lucrative and beloved corner of blockbuster filmmaking. Thankfully, the universe responded with the perfect innovation… Wait, what? No, I’m not talking about Jason Bourne. I’m talking about Spy Kids, obviously.
The Bourne Identity might have kicked off the age of gritty spy films one year later, but 2001’s Spy Kids began its own epic strain of secret agent entertainment for kids that is, believe it or not, still going strong today. While countless franchises have lived and died — and possibly lived and died a couple more times too — over the past two decades, Robert Rodriguez refuses to let his baby suffer the same fate and has helmed five of these films himself.
With the latest installment, Spy Kids: Armageddon, having dropped down from the ceiling onto Netflix, now is the time to ask The Big Question. Keep your MCU rankings or arguments over the best Harry Potter movie and let’s instead examine the real greatest film series of the century as we thumb (thumb) our way through the definitive ranking of every single Spy Kids film.
5. Spy Kids: All the Time in the World (2011)
When checking out the Armageddon trailers, you might be rocked be a serious case of déjà vu. That’s because Rodriguez appears to be sticking extremely closely to the template he used the last time he tried to reboot Spy Kids. A popular Latina actress cast as the mom? A former TV comedy star as the dad? Check. Check. The villain’s plot in All The Time in the World is even called Project: Armageddon! Unfortunately, Robert Rodriguez is probably the only person who watched ALTITW and went “Yeah! I want another one of those!”
Both Rowan Blanchard and Mason Cook acquit themselves well in the main leads, but there’s just no replacing our overriding affection for the original Cortez siblings, so the best parts of the film are undoubtedly when Alexa PenaVega and Daryl Sabara turn up as an all-grown-up Carmen and Juni. Plus, Danny Trejo is thankfully back as Machete despite murdering his way through his own extremely R-rated action movie* the previous year.
*The Machete films take place in their own universe, in case you were wondering. Oh yeah, there’s a Spy Kids multiverse. Marvel, eat your heart out. Speaking of….
4. Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over (2003)
The nicest thing I can say about Spy Kids 3D is that it appears to be the inspiration behind a major MCU movie. Unfortunately, the worst thing I can say about it is that that movie is Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. From a plot about the heroes getting sucked into another realm of reality to eyeball-bleeding ugly CGI to having a scene where the main villain holds council with variants of himself who have raided Party City (Sylvester Stallone in one, Jonathan Majors in the other), Game Over has a shocking amount in common with Marvel’s own trippy trilogy-closer.
There’s not a whole lot that Game Over has going for it, then, with the winning duo of Carmen and Juni kept apart through much of its runtime and the beloved adult supporting cast mostly sidelined. On the topic of Marvel, though, Kevin Feige clearly watched that epic cameo-fest from every character in the whole trilogy at the film’s climax before he made Avengers: Endgame. Sadly, the Marvel version is missing Khan Noonien Singh and Adrian Monk with four heads.
3. Spy Kids: Armageddon (2023)
Wait, the new movie is ranked this high on this list? Is it really that good? Well, yes and no. Rodriguez and son Racer Max, who co-wrote the script, clearly wanted to go The Force Awakens route with this reboot as the plot is very much a redo of the first film — in many cases, whole scenes and even dialogue exchanges are repeated verbatim. What this means, though, is that it avoids the bloated excess of the other later Spy Kids flicks, even if the absence of any familiar faces from the franchise’s past is sorely felt.
As for the new cast, Gina Rodriguez and Zachary Levi acquit themselves well as Spy Mom and Dad 3.0 — I assume they have actual names, I just don’t remember them — while young leads Everly Carganilla and Connor Esterson are likeable, even if they lack the brilliant sibling chemistry of Vega and Sabara. Shout out to Billy Magnussen, too, for curiously underplaying his part, allowing his cartoon villain a modicum of nuance. The result is the best Spy Kids film in 20 years, even if that’s not as impressive as it sounds.
2. Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams (2002)
Cinephiles often turn their noses up at Robert Rodriguez’s kids movies, but I urge those people to check out the surprisingly film-literate Island of Lost Dreams. It’s highly unlikely that the sequel’s intended audience appreciated the fact that the whole thing is an homage to 1932’s H.G. Wells adaptation Island of Lost Souls, but the unexpected philosophical musing of Steve Buscemi’s Dr. Moreau-alike mad scientist has rightfully gone down as perhaps the most existential line in an early-00s family film: “Do you think God stays in heaven because he, too, lives in fear of what he’s created here on Earth?” I mean, you could tell me that’s from Oppenheimer and I’d believe you.
As an extension of the first Spy Kids, Island of Lost Souls also excels, bringing back old favorites like Floop and Minion from the original film as well as expanding the Cortez clan — Ricardo Montalban and Holland Taylor join as the grandparents — and introducing the Giggles family as Carmen and Juni’s arch-rivals. Oh yeah, forget Vin Diesel and the Fast & Furious franchise ⏤ Spy Kids knew it was all about family before it was cool.
P.S. “Isle of Dreams” remains a banger.
1. Spy Kids (2001)
The first one’s always the best — it’s a cliché for a reason because, in the case of Spy Kids, it’s bang on the money. The 2001 original is the franchise at its purest and most appealing to both children and adults. PenaVega and Sabara are excellent leads despite their young age and we’d honestly have lapped up a Machete-style mature spinoff all about Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino’s Spy Mom and Dad. As his first ever family film, Rodriguez’s passion for the project shines through and, at this point in his career, he had yet to become as obsessed with the OTT CGI that define his later kids movies.
Spy Kids also has oodles of fun with its high-camp, Lynchian-imagery-for-tots twist on the Bond formula. Alan Cumming arguably offers up one of the finest film performances of his career as Fegan Floop, the unholy love child of Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka and Jonathan Pryce from Tomorrow Never Dies — an antagonist so wild, loveable, and strangely sympathetic that the franchise has never topped him since. And hello, can we talk about the insanely star-studded supporting cast? Teri Hatcher, Robert Patrick, AND George Clooney all make memorable appearances. Try as he might, Rodriguez just can’t beat the underrated cinematic gem he snuck into theaters so long ago, which luckily for us means it’s pretty much always available to stream.