When she isn’t busy baking cakes for her CIA colleagues, good naturedly rotund Susan (McCarthy) serves golden-boy agent Fine (Jude Law) as his overeager Girl Friday, maid and caddie. When her beloved Fine is killed abroad on her surveillance watch – in an attempt to prevent a deadly nuke from falling into terrorist hands – Susan feels personally responsible and decides to complete his mission. Even when her humourless female boss reveals that Fine smugly manipulated and “sniped” Susan’s talent for his own purposes, this scorned woman hath no fury: only endless devotion and the cupcake necklace he once bribed her with.
Hammering home inequality in a male-dominated field, Spy plays the gender game without breaking its rules or offering any new alternatives. Despite her humiliating undercover as a middle-aged catlady and being repeatedly denied Freudian access to a gun, Susan giggles like a schoolgirl on a shopping spree in the high-tech gadget room, where she is handed a rape whistle and pepper spray – while a gloating male colleague test-drives a jet-engined hoverboard. When Susan isn’t undermined or bodyshamed by alpha male agent Rick (Jason Statham) she is repeatedly reminded that she is “pathetic” by her nemesis-turned-frenemy, Rayna (Rose Byrne).
Even in Rome, where macho catcalls from passing convertibles are stereotypically gratuitous, Susan is greeted by snubs and dismissive silence. Outclassed but not outsassed, Susan’s problem is nothing a little retail therapy can’t fix, accompanied by the obligatory post-makeover slow-mo stride of her leaving her hotel. This time, she is validated with proof of her transformation; she is successfully sexually harassed. Despite comic relief provided by its all-star cast, by the time Spy wraps up the structural loose ends of its skimpy premise, the deadly terrorist attack becomes a mere afterthought next to the greater importance of female sexual appeal. Even when Susan chooses to celebrate her success with loyal girlfriend Nancy (Miranda Hart) over a dinner proposition, her triumph is undercut by the fact that her self-respect is based on winning Rayna’s and her male colleagues’ begrudging approval. Even when Susan goes straight for the balls in fight scenes, she manages to sidestep her own pent-up rage by fainting, the deathblow delivered deus-ex-machina style, by a superfluous side character. In a clumsy compromise, Susan wins the day due to dumb luck and her confectionery necklace; Spy allows Susan to have her cupcake, and eat it too.