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‘Peacemaker’s’ viral opening-credits dance was a perfect storm of crazy ideas

John Cena and the cast of “Peacemaker” perform a dance number during the show’s opening credits. (HBO Max)

A couple of years before she helped create a superhero dance craze, choreographer Charissa Barton had an idea: “You know what would be really fun and no one has done before is just a … big musical number with all of the superheroes of Marvel or DC,” she recalled to The Washington Post.

This idea came before Disney Plus’s “Hawkeye” incorporated a nod to “Hamilton” with its Captain America musical “Rogers” last year. Up until that point, the most prominent dance moves in a superhero event were whatever Tobey Maguire was doing in 2007′s “Spider-Man 3.” (Though, to his credit, that hip-and-hands combo is now a legendary GIF.)

Eventually the idea was set aside. But then James Gunn called.

After a successful stint at Marvel Studios with his Guardians of the Galaxy films, Gunn was now a part of the DC universe. He had directed 2021’s “The Suicide Squad” and had begun working on its spinoff series “Peacemaker” for HBO Max, centered on John Cena’s character, an antihero who’s good at killing and bad at making friends. As in all of Gunn’s comics-inspired works, music would play a big role. Especially in the opening credits, which he envisioned as a coordinated dance moment with the entire cast, something that had never been seen before in this genre. There would be not only superhero suits, but heavy artillery, ’80s-style pelvic thrusts and a CGI bald eagle.

The result is a rarity for any streaming series: a credits intro most fans refuse to skip. It could even be argued that the scene — which has 5 million views on YouTube — is what fans have been talking about most when it comes to “Peacemaker,” a series that is also quietly being praised as one of the better things DC has produced in some time.

After Gunn reached out, the seed Barton had planted in her mind years ago now had somewhere to grow. She was given Wig Wam’s 2010 song “Do Ya Wanna Taste It” to work with, listened to it dozens of times and read Gunn’s scripts.

Barton cut the three-minute song down to a minute and a half, then choreographed the group dance moves and the ones for each character, such as a janitor flipping with a mop in his hand.

The biggest hurdle was finding time to practice with the actors safely and within their tight schedules. (Filming took place right as coronavirus vaccines were being rolled out, according to Barton.) Barton averaged about two to three hours of dancing with each actor. She would record them performing their moves on her phone and then send them the video so they could practice at home or in their trailers.

“They would show up to the next rehearsal knowing that we had very limited time [but] having put in the work,” Barton said. When they eventually filmed the dance, “there was a lot of laughter in between takes. James would call cut, and immediately a lot of people in the room, the crew, the cast, myself [and] James, laughed a lot that day. Everyone was having a really good time in between the takes, but they’re all such pros that no one cracked in the midst of [filming].”

The actor with the most limited time was the titular star, Cena, so Barton said their sessions were “super-focused.” Barton knew he had an understanding of choreography because of his time as a pro wrestler, but he admitted he was learning something completely new to him. By the end of their first hour together, she said, he had memorized half of his routine.

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Dancing “feels like you’re exercising a new muscle,” Barton said. “But then once you start … it feels really good. And before you know it, you’ve got it. He was wonderful.”

The series debuted on HBO Max on Jan. 13, and Gunn tweeted out the opening-credits video the next day in response to heavy fan demand. That tweet has been liked more than 24,000 times. Barton said fans have even asked for an instructional video, and she’s considering creating one.

Would she dare attempt a remix with a new set of dance moves if “Peacemaker” comes back for another season? Barton said she’s not the person to ask.

“Ultimately, that’s up to James,” Barton said. “The notion for creating a new title sequence for another season is intimidating. How do you top something that has resonated so much?”